The Legacy of Ethiopian Adoptee Hana Williams

(Huffington Post) When 13-year-old Hana Williams died in 2011, my husband and I and our three adopted children were living in Northern California. The story out of tiny Sedro-Woolley, Washington initially attracted limited national attention, but among adoptive families like ours, word spread. Carri and Larry Williams had brought Hana and a younger boy, Immanuel, who is deaf, to the United States from Ethiopia in 2008. Three years later, Carri called 911 on a cold spring night to report that “rebellious” Hana had “unintentionally killed herself” in the family’s backyard.

Investigators would discover that Carri William had forced the girl forced out into the rain as punishment for perceived disobedience. Hypothermia-induced confusion drove Hana to shed her clothes in the cold. She lost consciousness soon after, and died alone, naked and face down in mud. By the time first responders reached the scene, her body had been wrapped in a sheet and dragged inside by her adoptive teenage brothers. Witnesses said no one in the Williams family shed any tears that night.

The Williams already had seven biological children when they adopted, children accustomed from birth to the kind of strict discipline advocated in controversial books like To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl, a manual of zealous corporal punishment and complete parental control. Hana and Immanuel were thrown into a foreign family culture where daily beatings with plastic pipes were the norm. The adopted children survived on small amounts of frozen food or wet sandwiches — a diet that left Hana so emaciated, authorities believe malnutrition hastened her death. When hunger compelled Hana to “steal” food from the family kitchen, Carri Williams punished her further. Homeschooling kept the children isolated from outsiders who might have noticed their decline.

The list of horrors continued: the Williams forced Hana to sleep locked in a dark closet or outside in a barn. She was made to use an outdoor toilet and shower with a garden hose. When Hana “refused” to wash the shampoo out of her hair, Carri Williams shaved the girl’s head. Photos of an emaciated and bald Hana — who’d arrived in the U.S. healthy and so full of hope — echoed the desolate images of inmates in a concentration camp. Skagit County prosecutors would eventually charge Carri and Larry Williams with homicide by abuse of Hana, and with first-degree assault of Immanuel, who was removed from the family home, along with the Williams’ biological children.

Like Hana, my 11-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter are Ethiopian; my eldest daughter, 12, was born in India. By the time Carri and Larry Williams went on trial this summer, our family had relocated to Seattle, where the case served as shocking local fare. We settled into one of Seattle’s oldest neighborhoods, attracted not only its well-kept, 100-year-old homes, but also by its racial and ethnic diversity. Our new locale gave us access to Black barbershops, good Ethiopian food, Asian grocers and other amenities important to our multiracial family. This area is a hub for East African immigrants, and I knew we’d be encountering Ethiopians daily, which I saw as a wonderful opportunity, but in light of the Williams’ case, also felt potentially fraught.

Strangers and acquaintances question visibly adoptive families like ours all the time — most with friendly curiosity, a few with hostility. Ethiopians have always tended to greet our family warmly, including my Indian daughter, whom they often take to be one of their own. Elders ask the kids if they like America (yes), if they are studying hard in school (yes), if they speak Amharic (no). However, the death of the girl Ethiopians call Hana Alemu had naturally saddened and outraged habeshas, particularly in Seattle, where the community felt the pain of being so close to a tragedy they couldn’t prevent. I couldn’t help but worry: Would some Ethiopians, understandably concerned about adoptions from their country, confront us? And what about our other new neighbors, who might hear about the case in the media? What questions might come from them?

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