On Monday, a jury convicted Larry Williams of first-degree manslaughter and his wife Carri of both manslaughter and homicide by abuse. Both now face possible life in prison.

Larry and Carri Williams were typical suburban parents who approached every parenting decision by asking, “WWJD?”

Except Larry and Carri were convinced that what Jesus would do is mercilessly beat and ultimately kill a defenseless girl.

While, obviously, the actual scripture is open to interpretation, what I take away from it is that Jesus would actually not do any of these things.

Unfortunately, Larry and Carri are not alone in their screwball religious interpretation, and while the media (to the extent it has covered the case at all) is focused on the verdict and looming sentence, the unasked legal question this case raises is how people like this are allowed to adopt children in the first place…

The details of the death of Hana Williams paint a disturbing picture of cruelty and neglect:

Hana Williams died in May 2011 in the backyard of the couple’s home, where she was forced to stay as part of a strict system of child-rearing outlined in a Christian parenting book.

An autopsy showed that Hana died of hypothermia that was aggravated by chronic gastritis and malnutrition.

Her bone-thin body was covered in bruises, including a lump on her shaved head, and red bloody markings on her hips, elbows and face.

Defense lawyers argued that questionable parenting practices don’t necessarily amount to a crime.

They were represented by the firm of Uphill & Battle.

The Christian parenting book in question is To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl (this is NOT an affiliate link because I have no interest in encouraging the sale of this book).

The book has a small but committed following among some fundamentalist Christians. The general thrust of the book is that children should be seen and not heard… and then beaten. And lest you think I’m exaggerating:

In the book, the couple advises “switching” a seven-month old baby for crying and clenching his fists for not getting his own way.

They suggest using tools instead of hands for hitting children, suggesting willow-branch for babies and a quarter-inch plumbing supply line for older children, which Michael Pearl says is “too light to cause damage to the muscle or the bone”.

According to kirotv.com, one witness in the Williams trial told how the book instructed parents to give unruly children cold baths, withhold food and force children outside in cold weather as punishment.

Seven months. Here’s the Google image search for seven month old to refresh your recollection.

The Pearls point out that the book also contains passages warning against “abuse” — obviously they never advocate murder — but at the point you’re talking about whipping babies with sticks, it’s hard to figure out what over-the-line “abuse” means.

Sadly, this is not the first death attributed to the lessons of this book:

Seven-year-old Liberian-born Lydia Schatz was also killed by her adoptive parents in 2010 after they used To Train Up a Child.

She was hit with a plastic tube for hours at their home in California for allegedly mispronouncing a word and died in hospital a day later from her injuries. Parents Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz were both found guilty of causing her death.

And here’s the element of this case that the coverage is largely glossing over. Like Lydia, Hana, Ethiopian by birth, was adopted. There’s a troubling dual mandate at work, to both have large families — often including adopted children — and to raise them in ways that most would characterize as cruel and unusual.

The system turned a blind eye to protecting these kids until it was too late. Hana was adopted through a Washington State licensed agency called Adoption Advocates International. AAI is accredited by all the customary international adoption sanctioning bodies. There is nothing to suggest AAI acted in bad faith, nor is there any evidence to suggest that other adoptions brokered by AAI have gone awry. Most adoptive parents, after all, are good people.

But as a matter of domestic and international mandate, there are far too few protections for children like Hana and Lydia (as well as Hana’s younger, also adopted brother, who suffered from starvation and physical abuse before Hana’s death prompted the state to intervene). As one expert on the international adoption process, both as a parent and as a former employee in the international adoption business, put it:

The home study process is a critical element of the adoption journey. Here is a link to the detailed requirements of the home study. I have no idea what the home study looked like for Larry and Carri Williams. The US State Department provides a handy tip sheet with lots of examples of what a good home study should look like, so maybe it followed this formula. By the way, to say that the home study process needs overhaul is an epic understatement.

It’s absurd and shameful that the international treaty governing adoption, the Hague Convention, mandates an abysmally small number of hours for adoption preparation: ten. And parents can take the classes on-line.

As a quick aside, when JonBenét Ramsey was killed the media focused on the story ad nauseam. Meanwhile, to the extent the media addresses Hana’s case, it’s focused on the verdict. The resolution of the trauma, putting the sad story behind us, and the imposition of justice all provide the “hook” in these stories. The problem is, unlike the Ramsey case, where the tragedy was limited to one horrible death, there is actually an ongoing pattern at work here and definable steps that could be taken to help protect future victims. Instead of highlighting what’s going to happen to Larry and Carri, everyone should focus on what can now be done to prevent the next tragedy.

One good home study check might include asking, “Other than The Hunger Games, do you own any books that describe what weapons to use on children?”

Adoptive parents of Ethiopian girl who died of hypothermia and starvation in their backyard found GUILTY of manslaughter [Daily Mail]
Carri and Larry Williams Killed Adopted Daughter after Reading Religious Parenting Handbook [International Business Times]
Reflections on Hana: Acknowledging the Failure of the Adoption Community [Light of Day Stories]


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