Reflections on the Williams Trial
As I reflect with sorrow and horror at the tragedy which was the Williams Trial, I find myself trying to make sense of what happened and why.
What I see as the root problem is pride. The Bible says that God hates pride. We know that “pride goeth before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18). I believe that very few people would argue with me when I say that Carri Williams had a problem with pride. I heard her described as a person who had to be always right. She was said to have perfect children. People described her as intimidating because her children were so perfect. I was told that when someone disagreed with her, they had a hard time confronting her because she had a reputation for a very cutting tongue. So, when people had concerns about how she was raising her children, they just withdrew away from her and left her alone. What else could they do? She would not listen, and she certainly would not accept help.
I’m not sure how and when she found To Train Up A Child by Michael Pearl. All I know is that the book was first published in 1994 when her oldest was a baby. I’m pretty sure that she had been using Pearls’ teachings on her children since the the first was small. As far as she was concerned, it had been working wonderfully. She had been promoting the Pearls’ books as THE correct way to raise children. She was so sure that their methods worked that she could not give them up and try something else. That would mean admitting that she was wrong. On top of that, Michael Pearl teaches that you must be consistent, you can never back down or let the child win or you will undo everything. Therefore, when they did not work for her adopted children, she could not just stop using the parts which were not working, she would have had to throw out her entire Child Rearing Paradigm and admit that she had been wrong the whole time. Because of that, when she found that what she was doing was not working, she refused to back down and instead plowed on into more and more drastic discipline until she found herself deep into torture territory. In other words, she took abusive child training to such extremes that it was classified as torture by experts during the trial. (Now, I realize that in her testimony she denies following the teachings of this book in the way I said. I hate to suggest that she might not have been telling the truth under oath, but I am going by the testimony of some of her acquaintances who told me that she promoted the book and even gave them each a copy, promising that if they would just follow the teachings therein, their unruly children would become perfect as were hers. )
Even knowing this background, it was mind-boggling to watch her continue to maintain her insistence that she did no wrong up until the very end. The closest she came to showing regret was saying that she wished that she could trade places with Hana. I would have thought that she was accepting some blame at that point if she did not also say that she believed that Hana had inadvertently killed herself. She also blamed the prosecutor for tearing apart her family. While it’s true that she wept on and off throughout the trial, it appeared to most observers that her tears were either for show or for herself.
I don’t doubt that she was sure that God would deliver her from her dire situation. But God has no use for a proud person. I don’t know what will become of her. I expect that she will be broken, at least in some way. Will her proud spirit be broken? Will she become a vessel which God can then mold into something useful? Only she can decide that.
Now Larry appears to be different. He may have some pride, I’m not sure, but his main sin that I see was not standing up for what he knew was right. James 4:17 says, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” When he was on the witness stand, he expressed regret at not stopping the abuse. When asked why he did take things into his own hands, he replied, “Carri was a wonderful mother. What she had done had always worked really well with the kids. I wish I had, looking back.” So, it seems apparent to me that Carri’s pride and her certainty that the Pearls’ method worked was what stopped him. According to the testimony of their eldest son, he did express his disagreements with her. Yet, she testified that he never ordered her to stop and that if he had, she would have because he was the Biblical Head of the Household. I don’t know what he actually told her, but it would appear that he was not willing to go so far as to order her to change her methods. Maybe he had also been sold on Pearl’s teachings or maybe he just trusted in her assurance that she was doing the right thing. It appears to me that he is contrite. I believe that he still blames her more than himself but he does accept some responsibility for the tragedy. I don’t know what will become of him but I have hopes that God will be able to use him in jail. I know people find God while in prison and I know that God can use him if he is ready to be used. He will need a truly contrite and humble spirit.
I should probably mention that I have read that both Larry and Carri’s attorneys have said that they plan to appeal. I don’t even know how to respond to that.
Below I share a few news stories which link Michael Pearl’s book, To Train Up A Child, to this death. As this article in The Seattle Times points out, it was not Pearl’s advice which killed Hana, it was the parents. Carri took his teachings way, way further than he ever intended and twisted them into something unrecognizable to him. Pearl’s teachings are abusive but if used as he intended (and not taken to their logical extremes) they will not kill a child. If Carri had been able to accept that what she was doing was not working, Hana would be alive today and the family would still be together.
I want to emphasize my last thought. The Pearl’s teachings, when taken to their logical extreme can and will kill a child. This has happened 3 times, all to adopted children who refused to yield. They did not respond as Pearl promises in his teachings that they will. Pearl does not give guidelines for when to give up. In fact, he says not to give up. Yet, he also says not to take it to abusive levels without ever defining where the line is. It is up to the parent to figure that out for themselves. If you or someone you know is using the Pearl’s teachings and they do not seem to be working, do not be deceived. These teachings are dangerous and it is up to you to stop trying to make them work. You can argue with me all you want about if they are really abusive when they appear to you to be working. When they are not working, they must. not. be. used.
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Cindy Kunsman also has some thoughts about the trial:
Was Hana a Casualty of the Quiverfull Culture War?
Quiverfull Fueled Child Trafficking? Thoughts in the Wake of the Williams Verdict
And the story of To Train Up A Child being involved in another conviction is getting more attention, some from overseas.
Justice is served for Hana Williams’ adoptive parents in the Seattle Times.
Carri and Larry Williams Killed Adopted Daughter after Reading Religious Parenting Handbook in the International Business Times.
Couple Who Followed Controversial Christian Child-Rearing Book Convicted of Manslaughter
[…] Please see my follow up post on the Williams Trial here. […]
What a great question, and I look forward to hearing from actual social workers who do home studies. I’m a prospective adoptive parent whose homestudy for domestic adoption is in process right now.
1) What are your thoughts on discipline? How do you plan to discipline your adopted children?
This question was on our adoption agency application and our home study application. The applicants would have to show familiarity with non-violent methods of discipline. The other thing that struck me about Pearl’s book is how much he emphasizes obedience. Obedience is not the end goal of raising a child! The goal is to raise a confident, responsible, empathetic adult who is safe and secure and can make a contribution to society commensurate with her abilities! If the parents start talking about obedience like it’s the aim of parenting, a red flag would go up for me.
For those who are already parenting: what’s the worst thing one of your children has ever done? How did you respond? Carri seemed to think that the worst thing was “being rebellious” even though she couldn’t provide any specific examples of this behavior. Again, red flag.
2) How do you plan on keeping this child in touch with her ethnic/national heritage?
Also asked multiple times as a part of the home study process. This is a must for all international adoptions. I would look for couples who have a specific plan. e.g. “While we are waiting, we plan to attend events of our local Ethiopian community organizations.” Or “We plan to go to services at an Orthodox church with many Ethiopians once a month.” I’m betting the Williams wouldn’t even have had a clue about why this was important or how they would go about doing this.
3) What are your thoughts on education for children?
Beware of any parents who want their children to be little Einsteins. Also beware of parents who emphasize education as a way to learn the Bible (not that this is problematic by itself, but it is if there is no other goal of education.) As you pointed out, social workers should look askance at any prospective adoptive parent who plans to home school. If they do plan to home school, they should be asked how they plan to provide their children social and education opportunities with non-family members.
4) What is your faith or religious tradition? How do you plan to teach your children about your faith/religious tradition? If you are adopting an older child, how will you respond if your child professes different beliefs than you? What you do think of your child’s religious background?
Many fundamentalist Christians are not aware that Ethiopians are largely Orthodox Christians. They do not need saving from their “heathen ways.” If a couple expresses disgust at Orthodox traditions or an unwillingness to learn about them, then a red-flag should go up.
[…] Mom had an interesting comment which I would like to […]
I’m hoping the readers here will have some ideas about improving adoption home study practice, based on what we have learned from the deaths of Hana Williams and Lydia Schatz and injuries to their siblings.
So you know where I’m coming from. I’m an adoptive parent of now adult daughters, one adopted as an infant from a local nonprofit agency, the other as a toddler through state foster care. I’ve been active in pre-adoptive education and post-adoption support and have had plenty of occasion to reflect on issues that arise in transracial, special needs, and international and open adoptions. I have long been concerned about adoption agencies that place especially needy and difficult children with naïve, unprepared (and maybe overconfident) families and then fail to follow up with oversight and support.
I followed the Williams trial especially closely because the family lives in my area and because I know people who have worked for, and adopted from, the agency that placed Hana and her brother Immanuel. Reading about the trial has brought me into several thoughtful blogs and websites run by people who, unlike me, are current or former conservative Christians and who are, like me, appalled at the parenting attitudes and discipline techniques that led to these deaths.
As a secular person and a retired public school teacher, it could be easy for me to simply vilify conservative Christian homeschoolers with large families, but I do know better. I know skilled, successful, gentle adoptive parents who fit all those categories. I also homeschooled for a time myself when that was what my daughter needed.
Here are my assumptions:
Carri and Larry Williams did not set out to be abusive and finally lethal parents; they walked down this road a step at a time.
There had to be red flags in the Williams adoption that a better home study would have revealed.
The flaw was not simply in the particular caseworker but in the whole home study process.
Parenting, and especially adoptive parenting, and even more especially adoptive parenting of children with special needs, demands flexibility. What works with one child may not work with another; what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. We have to be able to adapt and we have to be willing to seek help from people with different perspectives.
Children placed in homeschooling families belonging to small, tightly knit communities are particularly vulnerable if the situation becomes abusive, because they live outside the purview of outsiders who can get to know them away from their parents and sound the alarm. When I taught high school, students often confided in me about difficult home situations. Very occasionally, as a mandated reporter, I had to contact CPS. Much more often I could simply be a listening ear as they sorted out their feelings and their options. Hana and her brother, and the Williams’s biological children, had no one in that role—no teacher, no youth pastor, no 4-H leader, no parents of peers. This was not an accident of geography; it’s the way their parents chose to raise them.
So here, finally, is my question:
If you were the caseworker charged with saying yes or no to an adoption application, what would you ask?
What kind of questions or discussions in a home study could identify families who are too inflexible, too wedded to their own perspective, and too isolated from meaningful feedback to be trusted with a child, particularly a child who is likely to be traumatized and challenging? This isn’t about weeding out religious people; it’s about dangerous perspectives on parenting.
I would so appreciate ideas on this topic. Following this trial has been harrowing. Reading comments that stop at calling the Williamses monsters and the agencies venal and the caseworkers idiots doesn’t give me much hope that we can reform adoption practice to prevent future tragedies. I would love to see some constructive suggestions.
Feel free to cross post this to other forums that might yield insights.
I have heard that the adoption agencies do not allow corporal punishment. That should be the case and it should be enforced. Carri insisted under oath that she did tell them that they spank although it was not on the application. I assume that they did not sign a pledge not to spank the adopted children. However, I have heard of Christian adoptive parents doing so and then spanking anyway. The adoption agencies certainly need to follow up and check on adopted children at the very least, once per year.
They should probably also ask what books have influenced their parenting. I just remembered that the Pearls have one article on Rodless Training for those who cannot use corporal punishment. And now that I think of it, the principals within (taken to their logical extreme) are what killed the 3 adopted children.
So, I strongly believe that no family who follows the Pearls’ teachings can safely adopt a child. There are many other teachers out there with dangerous teachings, too many to name them all. However, asking them about books and their homeschool curriculum will weed out many. If they are involved with ATI, IBLP or Vision Forum or cite the Pearls’ or Ezzo’s books as being influential, that would be a huge red flag. They can also look for such books during home study before the adoption. As far as discussions, they could ask the family how they discipline and look for harsh rigidity.
Speaking of home study, they should also look at the biological children. If they are always calm, speak only when spoken to, always stop everything and reply “yes Mama,” any time the mother speaks to them, they are likely to be Pearl followers. They will appear to be content, probably always smiling, but never shouting and laughing uproariously. Happy is the only acceptable emotion.
I realize that not all Pearl families will take the teachings to the extreme of killing the adopted child, but most people agree that the teachings are inherently abusive and there is great risk at letting them adopt.