A front-page headline in The Seattle Times a few weeks after our arrival in the Emerald City pushed the issue. “Adoptive Parents on Trial in Death” ran splashed above the fold, illustrated with a large photo of a pale, grim-faced Carri Williams, and a smaller, inset image of Hana offering the camera a shy smile. I didn’t want my children to read about Hana’s death in the paper, or hear about the crime from a concerned or angry stranger in the grocery store. They needed to hear it from me first.
And so, on a bright summer afternoon, the same day that headline ran, I sat my three kids down at the kitchen table to talk. I watched their faces contort with pain and shock as I told them an edited version of Hana and Immanuel’s story. I saw the racial complexity of the case, the ugly black and white of it, wash over them, and I felt my own chest tighten with sadness.
This wasn’t the first time my kids had heard about an adoption gone wrong. In California, they’d watched an Ethiopian friend pass through three different households before coming to rest in a safe and permanent home. At one point, my husband and I had considered taking in two Ethiopian tween sisters when we heard that an adoptive mother in our community intended to re-home them, but my Indian daughter vetoed that plan; she didn’t want to surrender her spot as eldest child to a new girl. In both of those instances, I was eventually able to reassure my kids that the girls involved had found good families to help them overcome past disappointments and betrayals. However, the Williams case was quite another, even more terrible story, and my voice shook with the telling.
“Why don’t we adopt that boy?” my 12-year-old daughter asked as soon as I’d finished.
Those words, coming from the same girl who didn’t want to bring the Ethiopian sisters into our home two years ago, made my eyes well up. This daughter hates all boys on principle, including the brother she already has, but to help Immanuel, who had suffered so much, she was willing to love. The other two kids quickly endorsed the plan, and I was able to comfort them with the news that Immanuel was already safe, living with a caring foster mother who’d supported him through the difficult process of testifying against his adoptive parents in court.
The instinctive empathy and impulse to act I witnessed in my daughter and her siblings mirrors the thoughtful and caring response to Hana’s case that I’ve seen throughout the Seattle community. Ethiopians, adoptive parents and other concerned citizens held vigil in the courtroom throughout the seven-week trial, and they were present for Hana’s sake on September 9, when the jury found Carri Williams guilty of homicide by abuse, convicted Larry Williams of manslaughter, and found both parents guilty of first-degree assault against Immanuel. They were there again for the children on October 29, when Judge Susan Cook delivered maximum prison sentences to both parents. Locals have maintained Hana’s grave site, and there are plans in the community to replace the simple marker installed by the Williams with a nicer headstone, though according to a tweet from Skagit Valley Herald reporter Gina Cole, the adoptive family is opposed. Seattle’s Ethiopian Community Center created Hana’s Fund, to help prevent future cases of abuse and assault in adoptive families through a program of outreach, crisis intervention and cultural education. Others have suggested funding a scholarship for Immanuel.
As I expected, Ethiopians have indeed stopped us on the street now and then to talk about the case, but there has been no anger directed our way, only a purposeful gentleness. The Elders ask me if I’ve heard about Hana’s death, and I let them know I share their sadness. When the Elders turn to my children, they still lob the old queries about school and culture, but now a few also add, Do you like your adoptive parents? Are they taking good care of you? I understand why they ask, and I am thankful, for we are united in our desire to travel back in time to ask Hana and Immanuel those very same questions before it is too late.
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