Disability, Homeschool, Intercountry Adoption and Homicide: The Case of Hana and Immanuel Williams
In October 2016’s blog post I wrote about homicide victim Erica Parsons, and how adopted, disabled, and homeschooled children can be abused and denied a proper education when parents exploit loopholes in the law for their own gain. These parents do not provide disability accommodations to the child in need, even when they have received government funds to do so.
We also saw with that case how a lack of disability accommodations in a homeschool can be a tool of abuse and homicide, and also how abusive parents take out frustrations on and exploit disabled, adopted children. Erica’s story is not the only one like it. Sadly, there are many cases involving the murder of children like Erica.
Adopting disabled children from countries outside of the U.S. and bringing them to American homes gained popularity in the last decade, reaching heights in 2005-2007. Many children from the global South have been adopted into christian homeschools, as intercountry adoption was particularly emphasized within that group. Intercountry adoptions to the U.S. resulted in so many cases of abuse and homicide that certain countries have imposed moratoriums children being adopted to the U.S.
Disabled children are positioned by the adoption movement as being particularly in need of being adopted. And in many cases, they likely are. However, what happens when these children come to the U.S. and are expected to blend into a large, homeschooling, Christian Fundamentalist family? And is intercountry adoption the best way to address global disability?
The intersection of adoption, disability, homeschool and religion has resulted in many cases of abuse, neglect and homicide of children.
Christian Fundamentalist Patriarchy
Christian Patriarchy is a name given to an ideology found in evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. The main tenets are large families, traditional gender roles, modest dress and debt-free living. I have written about it before, here. I firmly believe in religious freedom and it is not my intent to disparage this movement, nor do I think all such families are abusive. This post is about those who do not follow the law.
Part of the Christian Patriarchy movement in the United States has been a call from community leaders and ministers to adopt children from the global South; developing-world countries which are often perceived by the West as troubled. Above Rubies, a magazine and now website with a Facebook and Twitter presence, has long been a popular and respected publication among primarily women readers seeking to observe principles of Biblical Womanhood. Above Rubies was one of the first to sound the alarm regarding the perceived need for Christian families to adopt African orphans, using the daughter of editor Nancy Campbell as an example. Nancy’s daughter and her husband adopted six children from Liberia. Nancy Campbell was instrumental in pushing the adoption movement, telling readers that it was akin to welcoming “Jesus himself” into their homes, and a form of ministry.
Countries in Africa were presented by ministers, Christian leaders like Nancy, and Christian adoption agencies as having millions of orphaned children in need of homes immediately. As a result of this and other factors, Ethiopia became one of the world’s top ‘sending’ countries of children to the West, second only to China for numbers of children adopted out. There are complex factors surrounding adoption from Ethiopia and other African countries, one of which is the trafficking of children to orphanages where they are declared “abandoned”, in order for human traffickers to make money when people from the West adopt them. Journalist Kathryn Joyce has written about this issue extensively in articles and her book, The Child Catchers. According to the National Institutes of Health, orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa numbered in the millions in 2007. There is a definite need to address this population, but it must be done correctly.
In a community which already stressed the importance of a large family, adherents to the Christian Patriarchy ideology were now being encouraged to adopt more children. Adopting older, disabled children was exalted as being particularly Godly, due to the perception that such children are unwanted and more in need of homes, and also, harder to raise. Christian Adoption websites often feature older, disabled kids in a special area titled “Waiting Children”.
In the United States, there is no central authority which oversees adoptions. However, state and federal funding can be received by families who have adopted disabled children.
Hana and Immanuel Williams
Hana and Immanuel Williams were adopted from Ethiopia in 2008 by Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro-Woolley,Washington state; a rural area close to the Canadian border. The Williams were a homeschool, Christian Fundamentalist family with seven biological children. A friend of Carri’s testified in court that Carri was inspired to adopt children from Africa by an Above Rubies women’s retreat the two went on. Carri wanted more children, but could no longer conceive naturally.
Initially, the Williams planned only to adopt Immanuel, a deaf little boy who was matched to them by an adoption agency called Adoption Advocates International (AAI). Carri had studied American Sign Language prior to getting married at age 19, and the agency thought it was a good match. After viewing a 60-second video of ten year old Hana, who resided at the same orphanage- Kidane Mehret Children’s Home in Addis Ababa, which is affiliated with AAI, the Williams decided to adopt her, too. Hana had family in Ethiopia, but they were too poor to care for her. Her father had died, her mother disappeared, so she had for a time lived with extended family until they gave her up for adoption due to poverty. At some point during her time in Ethiopia, Hana developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is not unusual for orphaned or abandoned children to develop PTSD and other psychological and emotional disabilities. Also, once children are orphaned, which is traumatic enough, a following traumatic event can often occur since they are no longer protected by their parents.
Hana Alemu with her extended family in Ethiopia. [image of a family gathered around a table with a pink and white striped cloth on it, with a large baked bread and candles. To the far left is a grandmotherly woman dressed in white, wearing a white head scarf. Next to her is Hana, indicated by a box over her image. She is about 5 and looks wide-eyed and shy. She has a light blue sweater on and a bun. She is surrounded to her left by family members, on is a young boy, the others look teenaged, and there is an older person at the end of the table.]
From left: Hana Alemu (renamed Hana Grace Rose), and Larry and Carri Williams. [image is made of up three individual photographs. The first is of Hana when she is living in America, she is smiling, her hair is braided, and she is wearing a black T-Shirt with some hot pink lettering on it. Next to her is an image of brown-haired Larry, looking long-faced and pensive in the courtroom, wearing a red plaid button up shirt and a brown courdorouy blazer. Next to him is an image also from the courtroom, of a blond haired woman also looking pensive, this is Carri.]
Larry and Carri never went to Ethiopia, but had Hana and Immanuel flown to Washington state with an escort, a practice that the Ethiopian government has since outlawed as part of its ongoing attempts to curtail abuse of adopted children. One of the problems with this is that parents and children do not spend any time getting to know each other prior to adoption, and American parents do not visit the culture the children are from, which could be key to understanding and connecting with them. However, the idea here is not to understand another culture with these types of adoptions. It is to “minister in your own home”, as Above Rubies put it, and to save and rescue children from what is perceived as a negative place.
Once part of the Williams household, isolated in a gated community, Hana and Immanuel were both subject to abuse. Like Erica Parsons, they were singled out from the other children and harshly punished. Hana had a hepatitis B along with the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and was older than Carri thought she would be, starting her period soon after arriving in Washington, which disgusted Carri. Carri abused Hana severally, locking her in a four-by-two-foot closet, making her sleep in the barn and use a port-a-potty outside, and shower in the front yard with a garden hose. Reasons behind some of this abuse was due to Hana having hepatitis, which Carri thought would contaminate the rest of the family, so she therefore decided to quarantine and humiliate her.
Hana did not play with her adopted siblings, and was mostly kept in the closet, away from the rest of the family. Her hair was shaved as a punishment, and she and Emmanuel did not share meals with everyone else, and were made to eat outside, even in harsh weather. Hana was also excluded from being homeschooled, according to law enforcement.
Immanuel was also abused, being hit by Larry Williams hard enough to draw blood. He was punished if he did not hear people, kept away from a Deaf church member who attempted to communicate with him, and often made to stay outside the house and in the yard, like Hana. The other children were forbidden by their parents to sign with him when he was being punished, and both Hana and Immanuel were punished frequently. It is a common misconception that sign language is easy to learn and that it is universal. Immanuel would not immediately pick up American Sign Language, but would have to learn it. It is unclear what type of language he used in Ethiopia. Even if Carri knew ASL before she was married, it is no guarantee that she understood d/Deaf culture, or was still fluent in ASL after not using it for a long time. Simply having some experience with ASL does not necessarily mean someone is a good match for a d/Deaf child. There are many things that factor into being a good match for raising a d/Deaf child, particularly one from a country which speaks a different language.
Larry and Carri Williams prescribed to the now infamous book that I have written about in previous posts, To Train Up a Child by Michael Pearl of No Greater Joy Ministries. Law enforcement found a copy of the book in the Williams’ household, and evidence that the children were switched with the type of plastic plumbing tube recommended by Michael Pearl. To Train Up a Child is a book well known in Christian Fundamentalist circles, and advocates corporal punishment of children and infants based on seventeenth-century Puritan childrearing. This was the method taken in order to blend Hana and Immanuel into the family and to deal with the challenges and disabilities they came with.
The abuse Hana suffered eventually resulted in her death on the evening of May 11th, 2011. She died from malnutrition, hypothermia and gastritis. She was 13. Her body was covered in scars from being beaten with the plastic plumbing pipe, and her head was shaved. Hana was once again forced to remain outside in the yard in the cold weather on this night. Carri called an ambulance when she found Hana laying face down in the mud. During the EMT’s attempts to revive Hana, Carri repeatedly told them that Hana was “passive aggressive” and “rebellious”. Kathryn Joyce wrote a detailed report of the homicide and trial for Slate.
Larry and Carri Williams were both arrested in connection with Hana’s death, and their surviving eight children were taken into state custody. Once he was able to see a social worker and doctors, twelve-year-old Immanuel was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and his language development was noted as delayed, which is not surprising considering he was not properly accommodated for his hearing loss in the Williams home and likely not in the orphanage, either.He testified in court during the trial that he was unsure where Hana had gone, or what had happened to her, but he thought she was maybe dead. It is possible he was confused about what happened due to not being communicated with and not being able to tell what was going on due to his hearing loss.
Deaf children need specific one-on-one instruction and education around learning to sign, speak, read and write. They need speech pathologists, ASL interpreters, and instruction in sign language, and to be seen by an audiologist. It is impossible for one person to provide all of these services in a homeschool. The isolated nature of this type of homeschool also prevents a child like Immanuel from meeting and communicating with other Deaf children and adults. It is highly cruel and abusive to prevent a Deaf child from being able to communicate, and to use communication as a form of punishment, as the Williams did with Immanuel.
On September 9th, 2013, Larry and Carri Williams, who had tried to escape harsh sentencing by lying that Hana was older than 13, leading to her body being exhumed during the trial, were sentenced to prison. Each were convicted of manslaughter in Hana’s death, and Carri received an additional conviction of homicide by abuse. They were both found guilty of first-degree assault on Immanuel. Carri was sentenced to just under 37 years in prison, and Larry 28 years. The trial was attended by many from the local Ethiopian community, who sadly were all too familiar with this type of case. Immanuel and the other children were placed with family or in foster care.
As a result of this story, Washington State put emphasis on addressing issues with adopted children being abused, neglected, and murdered. From Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article:
Although the research was started before Hana’s death, her story became the focal point, and illuminated common forms of abuse that other children suffered: being locked in rooms or forced to stay outside, having food or access to toilets withheld, and social isolation, often including being withdrawn from school, that obscured the abuse. At least nine of the 26 school-age children were reportedly homeschooled, several because their mother “did not want the teachers feeling sorry for them because they are ‘all sad’ and looked like they are starved at home.” Abuse tended to spiral, as parents exaggerated children’s misbehavior, punishments increased in frequency and severity, and isolated children lost the possibility of reaching outside help.
The Role of Disability
Disability is an area that specifically needs to be studied with regards to cases of homeschooling in general, but also adopted homeschool children. Disabled children, and in particular d/Deaf children, are particularly prone to abuse. Disabled and d/Deaf children suffer from abuse at higher rates than able bodied children. There are many reasons for it. When a child is adopted, that can also add another layer of complexity in abuse cases. Parents can feel differently about adopted children than their biological children, and single them out for mistreatment. The presence of disability can serve to exacerbate an abusive situation due to the frustration it can cause parents.
Religion is another area where ableist biases can come to the forefront and facilitate movements where able-bodied adults seek to save and rescue children, thinking that any situation is preferable to the one the children were initially in. This is not accurate, and cases like Hana and Immanuel’s illustrate that disabled children need accommodations and services, and to be treated with respect and love. Disabled children do not exist to make adults more seem more “godly” to their religious communities. Disabled children are not commodities to exploit for government money. And they are not going to be “saved” simply by being adopted.
According to the World Bank, one billion people experience some form of disability, and levels of disability are higher in developing nations. Disability is not a bad thing, but a natural part of human biodiversity. However, much of the world is not built in order to universally accommodate all people. Disabled children like Hana and Immanuel are often put into orphanages and institutions globally, because there are limited services, infrastructure and education in their countries to support disability. Some disabled children grow up in institutions and never leave them. If there were services in their countries to support their integration into the community, that would be much better, as every person deserves to live in their community and in a home.
Just as institutionalization and keeping children in orphanages is a serious issue in disability rights, mass adoptions of disabled children from developing nations to the West is another side of the coin; and neither are optimal. The U.S. adopts more foreign born children than any other nation, so ensuring that disabled, adopted children receive their rights once on US soil is important, particularly if there are large movements, like the one written about above, to specifically adopt disabled children. In many cases, disabled children are adopted into families that are equipped to accommodate their disabilities and provide them with a safe and loving home, and this can be a wonderful option for a child in need. However, there are enough cases where the opposite occurs instead, and it is a cause for alarm. The fact that so many are in homeschools is also a cause for concern because as we saw with Erica Parsons, many states do not have disability rights law that cover homeschool, and homeschool can be used as a cover for abuse.
“Disability Overview.” Disability Overview. The World Bank, 21 Sept. 2016.
Hodson, Jeff. “Did Hana’s Parents ‘train’ Her to Death?” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times, 28 Nov. 2011.
Jordan, Miriam. “Inside Ethiopia’s Adoption Boom.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 28 Apr. 2012.
Joyce, Kathryn. The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption. New York: PublicAffairs, 2013. N. pag. Print.
Kathryn, Whetten et al. “More than the Loss of a Parent: Potentially Traumatic Events among Orphaned and Abandoned Children.” Journal of traumatic stress 24.2 (2011): 174–182. PMC.
Marczynski, Evan . “Court Affirms Convictions of Williamses in Adopted Daughter’s Death.” Goskagit.com. Skagit Valley Herald, 23 Dec. 2015.
“Washington Couple Gets Nearly 30 Years in Prison for Death of Hana Williams.” NY Daily News. New York Daily News, 30 Oct. 2013.
Wtffundiefamilies. “Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession.”Religious Fundamentalism in Pop Culture & Politics. Tumblr, 16 Apr. 2013.