Half a world away from her birthplace in Ethiopia, teenager Hana Williams died on a rainy night in the backyard of what a prosecutor called a “house of horrors” – the rural home of her adoptive family in Washington state.
The official causes of her death, after being forced outside as punishment, were malnutrition and hypothermia. Authorities said Hana, during three years of adoption, had been beaten repeatedly with switches, starved and made to sleep in a locked closet.
The parents, Larry and Carri Williams, have been convicted of manslaughter and face sentencing Oct. 29.
Yet more than two years after Hana’s death in May 2011, few meaningful steps have been taken by state policymakers to reduce the chances of other adopted children suffering such abuse. A task force offered detailed recommendations, and one limited bill was introduced in Washington’s legislature but died in committee this year after raising some concerns that it might infringe on parental rights.
“We really are struggling to find something that will be both effective and constitutional,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, who plans to continue her efforts.
While most adoptions are successful, the Williams case is among several recent grim adoption developments around the U.S., prompting urgent calls for better safeguards and more post-adoption support. Yet many of those making the appeals admit to frustration, having sounded alarm bells before, and they hold out little hope for prompt, sweeping responses that would strengthen international and domestic adoptions nationwide.
A key reason is the nature of adoption in America – marked by inconsistent laws, incomplete data and the lack of any central authority. There are no authoritative statistics on the number of adoptions that fail, no reliable source of federal funding for post-adoption services. And there is a multitude of passionate organizations with often diverging views on how to maximize success stories and minimize tragedies.
“There are so many different perspectives – the rights of the child, the rights of the family, the rights of the states,” said Sharon Osborne, president of the Children’s Home Society of Washington, who would like to see some form of post-adoption assessments in her state.
“What we are advocating for is the best possible situation for a child and his or her newly formed family,” she said. “We can’t seem to get through the political challenges to make it a reality.”
Hana Williams’ death, while notable in its sad details, was far from an isolated tragedy. A report compiled after her death documented 14 other cases of severe abuse or neglect of adopted children in Washington from 2009 to 2011.
Other cases of adoptions gone wrong have been highlighted by Russia, which last year banned adoptions of Russian children by Americans. Though the move was part of a broader political skirmish, it afforded Moscow the opportunity to complain about mistreatment and lack of post-adoption oversight. About 20 Russian adoptees have died at the hands of their American parents, and in 2010, a Tennessee woman sent her 7-year-old adopted Russian son back to Moscow on a plane alone after losing patience with his behavior.
More recently, articles by the Reuters news agency in September detailed a phenomenon known as “re-homing” in which adoptive parents who’ve grown frustrated with a child – often one adopted from abroad – arranged through Internet sites for another family to take the child.
The websites were not regulated by any government authority and the families taking the adopted children were not subject to any screening, in some cases leading to incidents of mistreatment. Advocacy groups are now calling for such child-swapping to be outlawed or subject to oversight by state child-protection workers.
“It makes you wonder: Is anyone going to want to do adoptions with us?” said Susan Jacobs, the U.S. State Department’s special adviser on children’s issues and the Obama administration’s point person on international adoptions.
“The reality is that adoption is a vastly successful solution for nearly all of the children who find families,” said Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption. “For someone to conclude falsely that adoption is not the worthwhile endeavor it is, then tens of thousands of children will suffer similar or worse fates than these.”
Some improvements are expected starting next July, when higher standards take effect for all U.S. adoption agencies that handle international adoptions. Among the many provisions of the Universal Accreditation Act is one requiring parents to receive training before the adoption to prepare them for future challenges.
The law does not specifically address post-adoption problems. Children adopted from abroad generally become U.S. citizens without delay, and thus it would be problematic to conduct any special tracking of them unless it was on a voluntary basis.
Though the State Department doesn’t have direct responsibility for international adoptions once they’re completed, Susan Jacobs expressed interest in working with others in the adoption field to improve support services.
“We need to help parents to find resources when they are having trouble ... so they don’t turn to the Internet to get rid of their kids,” she said. “This is a horrible practice that can only lead to abuse and neglect.”
During the pre-adoption process, Jacobs said, parents should be given accurate information about a child’s medical and psychological condition to minimize the chances of frustration later on.
“A lot of people say they have a heart for adoption. But you also have to have a head for it,” Jacobs said. “You think love will solve everything. It doesn’t.”
Under State Department policies, U.S. agencies that arrange international adoptions are subject to accreditation by the independent Council on Accreditation. Its president, Richard Klarberg, wants to tighten the standards for how the agencies screen and educate parents, notably in cases involving children with special needs.
“Our goal is to force or cajole the providers to demonstrate they are providing very intense training and preparation,” Klarberg said.
He acknowledged that screening is challenging.
“It’s sometimes very difficult for agencies to pick up on the signals that would lead them to believe, ‘Uh oh, this family is going to be abusive,’” he said.
While the State Department helps process international adoptions, domestic adoptions are under the states’ jurisdiction. There are financial incentives for states to increase the number of adoptions out of their foster care systems, but often there’s little or no funding to support families who encounter difficulties afterward.
A leading think-tank, the Donaldson Adoption Institute, has issued reports in recent years making the case for expanding post-adoption support and tightening oversight of now-unregulated adoption transactions conducted via the Internet.
Yet the institute’s executive director, Adam Pertman, and some of his counterparts with other organizations are frustrated as many states, rather than increasing post-adoption support funding, are cutting it.
“Policymakers and politicians are great at paying lip service – always saying children are our most important resource,” Pertman said. “Where are the actions to support the words?”
In Washington state, there was an effort to respond substantively to Hana Williams’ death – namely the task force comprised of top child-welfare experts and advocates.
In May 2012, the task force issued recommendations, including a proposal for more rigorous screening and training of parents before they could complete any adoption, domestic or international.
The bill that emerged contained little of the recommendations’ substance. It proposed new procedures for tracking failed adoptions and said prospective adoptive parents should be questioned about their approach to child discipline – but not disqualified unless their planned practices were illegal. Despite its modest scope, the bill died.
Among those expressing dismay was novelist David Guterson, a resident of Puget Sound’s Bainbridge island, the author of “Snow Falling on Cedars” and the adoptive father of an Ethiopian child.
“Current laws are patently insufficient and in dire need of overhaul,” Guterson wrote last month in a Seattle Times op-ed.
Guterson and Roberts, the sponsor of the failed bill, said future efforts should focus on better pre-adoption screening. Both cited the legal hurdles in the way of any mandatory post-adoption scrutiny.
“Once the adoption is declared final, we have no rights to go fishing around and asking how are things going,” Roberts said. “If it were possible legally, we should give it a try. But there’s a point of finality, when the court says this child is now yours, and the state – unless there’s a complaint or evidence of abuse or neglect – has no role.”
Joe Kroll, executive director of the Minnesota-based North American Council on Adoptable Children, worries that horror stories of failed adoptions might trigger overreactions that would intrude on the autonomy and rights of the many successful adoptive families. An adoptive father himself, Kroll said he wouldn’t want his Korea-born daughter raised under any system that differentiated her from biological children.
Melanie Chung-Sherman, an adoption therapist in Dallas who also was adopted from South Korea, said post-adoption monitoring would be unfeasible unless parents volunteered for it.
“The families are ready to move on and become independent of all these third parties that have been involved in their lives,” she said.
However, Chung-Sherman said families considering adoption should be made aware of the potential challenges.
“It’s hard to tell somebody, ‘I want you to expect the worst,’” she said. “The reality is, not everyone should adopt.”
Blunt pre-adoption conversations can be crucial because many of the children being adopted out of foster care and from abroad are psychologically troubled. Mental health services for adoptive families are widely viewed as inadequate – too little funding and too few professionals trained in adoption-related trauma.
Among the organizations trying to fill the void is the Center for Adoption Support and Education in Burtonsville, Md.
“I see many well-meaning, loving, educated parents who come in at their wit’s end,” said the center’s CEO, therapist Debbie Riley. “They’re left on their own to fend for themselves.”
Riley said many families need long-term mental health care for an adoptive child – care that might be unavailable in their community or result in costly bills not covered by insurance.
Adoption advocates say it’s shortsighted to skimp on post-adoption support.
“You have children who have already faced so many adversities,” said Nicole Dobbins of Voice for Adoption. “When their needs are not being met, those unaddressed issues are costing our society so much more on the back end. It’s frustrating when we don’t want to put the money up front.”
Dobbins’ organization was part of a coalition issuing an appeal to Congress and state officials in September. Its statement said in part:
“Parents who adopt must understand they are making a lifelong commitment to a child. But forcing families to struggle without support, trying to raise children they feel unable to parent, is also unacceptable and harmful to children.”
Among the coalition’s recommendations:
– Establish a reliable, comprehensive federal funding source for post-adoption services.
– Ensure that these services offer support from professionals trained to work with traumatized children.
– Reconsider policies that sometimes require parents to give up custody before a child can receive state-funded services.
– Provide access to post-adoption services regardless of the type of adoption, in contrast to some existing state programs that don’t support international adoptions.
By and large, these long-standing recommendations haven’t translated into policy. There are some new proposals in Congress aimed at providing more funding for post-adoption services, though prospects for passage are uncertain.
“We’ve done a good job in providing the information needed to make a response,” Riley said. “If the response doesn’t happen, we’ll continue seeing the problems that we’re seeing. We shouldn’t be surprised.”