An adoptee's tragic fate, and how it could happen again.
1 "Like She's in a Dark Room"
O n the night of May 11, 2011, sometime around midnight, 13-year-old Hana Williams fell face-forward in her parents’ backyard. Adopted from Ethiopia three years before, Hana was naked and severely underweight. Her head had recently been shaved, and her body bore the scars of repeated beatings with a plastic plumbing hose. Inside the house, her adoptive mother, 42-year-old Carri Williams, and a number of Hana’s eight siblings had been peering out the window for the past few hours, watching as Hana staggered and thrashed around, removed her clothing in what is known as hypothermic paradoxical undressing and fell repeatedly, hitting her head. According to Hana’s brother Immanuel, a deaf 10-year-old also adopted from Ethiopia, the family appeared to be laughing at her.
When one of Carri’s biological daughters reported that Hana was lying facedown, Carri came outside. Upset by Hana’s immodest nakedness, Carri fetched a bedsheet and covered her before asking two teenage sons to carry her in. She called her husband, Larry, who was on his way home from a late shift at Boeing, then finally dialed 911, telling the operator, “I think my daughter just killed herself. … She’s really rebellious.”
As the operator walked her through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, an even-voiced Carri explained that Hana’s mouth was full of mud, her eyes dilated, “like she’s in a dark room.” Her voice grew annoyed as she described Hana’s nudity, and how she’d been “passive-aggressive,” causing “so much stress!”
Hana was pronounced dead at the hospital, the cause hypothermia compounded by malnutrition and gastritis. The following day, when Child Protective Services tried to check on the other children, Larry Williams refused to let them in. When police followed up, a deputy noted that the family acted as though Hana’s death was “an everyday occurrence.” Twelve days later, detectives and CPS conducted interviews with the children, but their answers seemed rote and rehearsed, all repeating that Hana was rebellious and refused to mind Carri; one child said he thought Hana was possessed by demons. According to investigators, Immanuel said that “people like [Hana] got spankings for lying and go into the fires of hell,” just before Larry abruptly ended the interview.
Two months later, in mid-July, CPS received an anonymous tip from someone claiming that Carri didn’t like her adopted children and that Immanuel was starting to be treated like Hana had been. CPS launched a formal investigation, and all eight remaining children went into state care. In late September, Larry and Carri were arrested and charged with Hana’s death.
When Hana died, she became one of at least dozens of adoptees alleged to have been killed at their adoptive parents' hands in the past 20 years, and part of a far larger group of children who become estranged from their adoptive families—frequently, as it turns out, large families with fundamentalist beliefs about child rearing. Just within the Seattle area, and just among Ethiopian adoptees who came from the same orphanage and adoption agency as Hana, there has been an unreported crisis of "forever families" that fail. These are adoptions that, in an absence of any real oversight and in environments of harsh discipline, began with good intentions but went profoundly wrong.
Photo by Frank Varga/Skagit Valley Herald
As investigators searched the house—so orderly it didn’t look like eight children lived there, wrote Detective Theresa Luvera in her warrant affidavit—they found a fundamentalist Christian child-rearing book called To Train Up A Child , written by Michael and Debi Pearl, which advises raising children to obey without question by starting to spank them when they're just a few months old. The book has been implicated in the beating deaths of two other adoptees—an American boy in North Carolina and a Liberian girl in California; the prosecuting attorney in the latter case, Michael Ramsey, called it “truly an evil book.”
In court documents, a social worker wrote that the Williamses had “diligently applied [the book’s] concept to all of their children, who told CPS investigators that they didn’t rebel because they were ‘trained’ and because their adopted siblings weren't ‘trained’ at a young age they were rebellious.” But the book was just the beginning.
According to court testimony, court documents, and pretrial motions, Hana’s life was a series of daily and escalating punishments. She had been forced to sleep alone in a barn more than 80 feet from the house; then in a locked, dark shower room; and finally, in a locked 4-by-2-foot closet, where she spent much of the last six months of her life, perhaps confined for as long as 24 hours as her parents piped in Bible sermons and religious music. (Carri would testify that the longest Hana spent in the closet was 10 hours.) After the Williamses accused Hana, who was a carrier of hepatitis B, of smearing menstrual blood on the bathroom door, Hana was also made to use an outdoor port-a-potty behind the barn that the family only serviced once or twice in the entire year she was forced to use it. She showered in the front yard under a garden hose propped up with sticks, in view of the family. Sometimes the family wouldn’t speak to her for as long as two days at a time; if she argued with Carri about the clothes she picked out, she was made to wear nothing but a towel, and sometimes she had to go barefoot. Hana’s braided hair, of which she was proud, was shorn off three times, once for cutting the grass too short. She and Immanuel were both fed different meals than the biological children—cold leftovers topped with frozen vegetables, or sandwiches deliberately soaked with water. Most often, they had to eat outside, away from the family, even
in rain or snow. They weren’t allowed to participate in birthdays or Christmas. And they were spanked with a variety of instruments, including belts, a long, flexible glue stick, and a piece of thin, plastic plumbing tubing that Carri kept in her bra. The misbehavior they were punished for included getting homework wrong, not standing in the right place, and sneaking food. The biological children were sometimes spanked too, but not like the adoptees.
Friends and neighbors noticed that Hana was excluded: trailing behind the family if they went out for a neighborhood walk, or lingering at the edge of the driveway while the other children played. No one liked Hana, her siblings told investigators, but that didn’t matter, because Hana was “always in the closet”; they rarely even heard her because Hana had stopped crying when spanked. At the time Hana died, Detective Luvera wrote in her affidavit, she hadn’t fully participated in family meals or homeschooling for a year.
To a local knitting group she sometimes attended, Carri complained that Hana was rebellious and wouldn’t obey. According to an account in the detective’s affidavit, she seemed upset that Hana had begun menstruating almost immediately after arriving in the United States and she said she “had expected to adopt a little girl, not a half-grown woman.” When members suggested she reach out to the adoption agency, Carri said, “I don’t wish her on anyone.” The family made preliminary efforts to formally change Hana’s age. If they could kick Hana out when she turned 18, Carri told the knitters, she was confident they could train Immanuel to obey. When one knitter asked how Hana would survive, Carri replied, “It won’t be my problem.”
Throughout the trial, heartsick adoptive parents horrified by abuse condemned the Williams home as “the opposite of adoption.”
Things weren’t much better for Immanuel. When Immanuel began wetting the bed after a few months in the house, he says, the Williamses accused him of doing so on purpose and forced him to take immediate cold showers outside under the hose. He testified in court that he too was sent to sleep in the bathroom. Immanuel was also punished if he didn’t feel the vibrations of one of the Williamses stomping their feet on the floor to get his attention. Often, he was switched on the soles of his feet, and sometimes Carri ran the plastic switch up and down his face—something she said was a joke. Once, during a family celebration, Larry hit him hard on the top of his head, causing bleeding that ran down his face. Afterward he was put outside and the rest of the family was told not to sign with him. At church, a deaf parishioner, Brian Kruick, sometimes tried to talk to Immanuel alone, to see how the boy was doing, but every time he came close, Larry or Carri would take the boy away.
In foster care, after Immanuel and the other children were removed from the Williams home, a therapist and deaf-children’s specialist, Julia Petersen, said Immanuel had been afraid to talk about the Williamses, fearing he’d be punished. His language skills were delayed and his emotional state confused. He compulsively apologized for minor mistakes and asked his foster mother why she didn’t hurt him. He had nightmares about returning to the Williams family, and felt certain he would have been the next one to die in the home. He once signed to Petersen, “I can’t escape and I have to stay.” She diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
On July 29, Immanuel came to court to testify in the first of numerous half-day sessions where he would tell his story. It was a slow process, involving three sign language interpreters, that left the courtroom silent for long stretches of time, punctuated by sounds of crying—from Carri at the defense table, but also observers in the gallery moved by the sight of the small boy who looked more like 8 than 12 and his continuing confusion about what he’d seen. At one point Immanuel testified that he wasn’t sure where Hana had gone. “I don’t know,” he signed, his hands pausing in midair. “She disappeared. I think maybe she’s dead.”
Around the same time the Williamses were building their family, in the mid- and late 2000s, homeschooling conservative Christian parents of large families had begun adopting in significant numbers across the country, seeing adoption as a form of rescue that demonstrated their faith. Laurie Ann Hinman, a homeschooling Christian adoptive mother of eight who had attended a women’s Bible study with Carri, believes Carri was inspired to adopt by a fundamentalist women’s ministry, Above Rubies, which ran women’s retreats they’d both attended and which had sparked an earlier surge of evangelical adoptions from Liberia (many of which also failed) .
In 2008 the Williamses decided to adopt. They looked to a nearby agency, Adoption Advocates International, a secular organization that was started by Merrily Ripley, a mother of 20, 17 of whom were adopted. AAI alerted them to a deaf Ethiopian child in need of a family. It seemed like a good match on paper. Before getting married, Carri had studied American Sign Language, with plans of becoming a sign language interpreter. She’d become a mother to seven instead, and wanted more children after pregnancy complications had left her unable to bear more herself. Carri and Larry completed a home study with AAI, apparently omitting information about the family’s disciplinary beliefs on a pre-adoption form admitted as court evidence. (Gay Knutson, director of social services for AAI, wouldn’t comment specifically on the Williams case, but says prospective adoptive families who spank would not be allowed to adopt from AAI—though some families have lied about their parenting practices to the agency.)
Photo courtesy Remberance of Hana Williams/Facebook