Exploitation of Marginalized Identities, Abuse and Torture: The Hart Children

It is a scenario readers of this blog are familiar with: intersections of homeschool, adoption, ideology, and homicide. 

Case Background

On March 27th, married couple Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both age 38, allegedly accelerated their SUV, with their six adopted children inside, off of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. Three of the children have been confirmed dead along with Sarah and Jennifer, and the other three children are missing and presumed dead. In the three days leading up to the crash, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services attempted to make contact with the Hart family to investigate claims of abuse and neglect. It appears possible that the family knew authorities were trying to investigate, and fled the area with the children, driving from Washington to California.

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The upside-down SUV crashed on the rocky banks of the Pacific

Authorities are treating the case as a homicide/suicide investigation. It appears that the SUV accelerated to 90 mph and drove off the cliff, and there are no skid marks or any evidence that the vehicle was trying to avoid crashing.  Heavy.com reports:

“19-year-old Markis Hart, 14-year-old Jeremiah Hart and 14-year-old Abigail Hart were recovered along with Jen and Sarah Hart. But 12-year-old Sierra Hart, 16-year-old Hannah Hart and 15-year-old Devonte Hart remain missing, police said.”

The family lived in Woodland, Washington, which is not far from Portland, Oregon. A neighbor had called authorities recently because the children appeared to be dangerously thin, and had come to their door claiming to be starving and abused. One of the children, Devonte, age 15, had come to the neighbors asking for food, and told them that he and his siblings were often not fed as a form of punishment. Neighbors reported that the children were small for their age and appeared malnourished. Neighbors also said that the children were homeschooled, and did not go outside much.

In 2011, Sarah Hart was charged with a misdemeanor domestic assault after teachers at a Minnesota public school, where the family then lived, noticed bruises on the back of one of the girls, Abigail, age 6 at the time. From Heavy.com:

“Later reports revealed more about what happened in 2010. During an interview with police, Abigail told a detective that Jennifer was the one who hit her (although Sarah was the one who ultimately pled guilty), Oregon Live reported. Abigail said that Jennifer was angry because a penny fell out of her pocket. She said Jennifer dragged her to the bathroom and submerged her head under cold water in the tub, then spanking her repeatedly with a closed fist. Abigail said she was grounded, and sometimes her punishment would include missing lunch.”

Submerging a child’s head under cold water, beating them hard enough to get a domestic assault charge, along with starving the child, all indicate to me that this was a severally abusive family, and these behaviors are often found among the worst child abuse cases. I would also not be surprised if the children were pulled from public school to hide the abuse and continue the isolation.

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The Hart Family, everyone smiling broadly. But is it genuine?

Themes

As readers may know from my previous blogs, child victims of torture are often not biological children. In the paper Child Torture as a Form of Child Abuse, which is based on a study of 28 child abuse and torture cases:

“We observed that 79 % of the primary abusers were not the child’s first degree relative; they included such caregivers as boyfriends, girlfriends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, adoptive parents, and stepparents.”

Readers may recall that homeschool homicide victims Erica Parsons and Hana Alemu were also adopted. Erica, Hana, and her adopted brother Immanuel were all starved and malnourished, as were the 13 Turpin children, another recent homeschool torture case that has been all over the news. The above cited paper also states that the tortured children in the study experienced having food withheld from them:

“Eighty-nine percent experienced food deprivation and 79 % were fluid restricted.”

Withholding food is common in severe abuse cases.

Isolation and deprivation are crucial to maintaining an environment where children are subjected to this specific type of torture. Keeping children in a public school could potentially expose the abuse and subject the parents to scrutiny and possible arrest by law enforcement. This is likely why the Hart family pulled the children out of school, and they most likely did so after Sarah Hart was arrested for domestic assault. This is also a reason that neighbors did not see the children very much. From the Knox child torture journal article cited above:

‘This social isolation typically involved preventing the child from attending school or daycare. Twenty-nine percent of school-age children were not allowed to attend school; two children, though previous enrolled, were dis-enrolled by their caregiver and received no further schooling. An additional 47 % who had been enrolled in school were removed under the auspice of “homeschooling.” This “homeschooling” appears to have been designed to further isolate the child and typically occurred after closure of a previously opened CPS case.’

Intersections

I am not sure about the other children, but sources indicate that Devonte was disabled.  Marginalized identities all have things in common, and one of those things is being objectified and pitied by the hegemony. Hana Alemu’s case highlighted the propensity for people to adopt children that they feel sorry for in order to appear like saviors and martyrs to their communities, in particular, white families adopting black children. It is hard not to look at the Hart case and perceive that this is a part of it. While the Hart family were not a part of the Christian Patriarchy, as Hana’s adoptive family was, they were a part of a community in the North West and went to festivals and attended rallies for Bernie Sanders. So they were part of a larger community of people with a certain ideology. An ideology can be liberal or conservative and still play a role in the reasons people abuse children. The Harts were using the children to gain respect and traction in the largely white liberal scene of the Pacific Northwest. Devonte, in particular, was known for his “Free Hugs” sign.

OR: Bernie Sanders Rally in Portland

Devonte Hart holds a sign during a Bernie Sanders campaign rally at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore., on March 25, 2016, the day before the Washington caucuses. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy)

 

The Harts very likely gained accolades and attention from this community due to having adopted six children of color and “saving” them.

As a Deaf person who works in a disability rights field, I am constantly being approached by able-bodied and hearing people who are looking for “a disabled person” to include in a project they are doing to make them look more “inclusive”. Every marginalized identity has experienced being used in this way; to make a person from the dominant class seem more “down”, or like a better person for “including” marginalized people in their lives somehow.

It is not a stretch for me to see how someone with this mindset would could be objectifying and abusive behind closed doors, because false, biased notions of marginalized identity are based in a historical materialism of abuse and pain. These notions are predicated on a fantasy of what role marginalization plays within the enclave of white, able-bodied life, and how that role will benefit the dominant person. Objectifying an oppressed person and using them for your benefit aligns closely with reasons why victimizers abuse and torture other people, so it is not difficult to see how the two could overlap and even fuel each other.

In the public environment, the abuser is using the victim(s) to further their reputation and gain respect amongst a community of people; in the private environment of the home, the abuser is using the victim to satisfy their own sadistic or emotional urges. In the case of the Harts, Sarah and Jen were using the children, Devonte in particular, to gain traction and attention in a community with shared ideology and politics. In the context of the home, they were sadistically abusing and starving the children, which is another form of using them to feel whatever emotions the abuse would foster within the offenders. Overall, using the marginalized identities and backgrounds of the children to exploit and objectify them on a few different levels, all for their own gain, up until the final act of control was deployed: the murder of the entire family at the hands of the parents.

It is important to understand that abuse, torture and homicide of marginalized identities can happen for a different set of reasons than is always understood or discussed. Understanding the reasons behind identity-specific abuse, objectification, and homicide can help us to identify such cases in the future and have better insight into the minds of abusive people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Erica Parsons: The Hallmarks of a Homeschool Child Torture Case

The story of Erica Parsons, the little North Carolina girl who was homeschooled, tortured and then missing for years, may seem like it has come to a close today as charges were finally brought against her adoptive parents for her 2011 murder. However, there is much to learn from the case, and Erica’s memory must continue to live on, especially as we near Disability Day of Mourning on March 1st, a day to remember disabled people who were killed by parents and caretakers.

Erica Parsons’ body has now been laid to rest in China Grove, North Carolina. Her remains were found by law enforcement in 2016. They were led to the site of her shallow grave by her adoptive father, Sandy Parsons, who, along with his wife Casey, disposed of the child’s body on his mother’s farm after the two of them murdered her when she was around 11 or 12 years old.

erica parsons funeral_07

Sandy and Casey, prior to these latest charges, had already been serving prison time for fraud, which they were both charged with for stealing disability and state money meant for Erica, even after she was deceased. Law enforcement and the judge in their fraud case have long suspected that they were responsible for Erica’s murder, although both Sandy and Casey Parsons went on TV many times to claim their innocence, even appearing on Dr. Phil.

More details about Erica’s story can be read here.

Autopsy reports indicate that after years of abuse, the little girl died from homicidal violence, and her body was dismembered and then buried in a shallow grave on Sandy’s mother’s rural property. Erica Parson’s life shows all the signs of child torture, and a medical examiner stated that was indeed what she had gone through.

Torture is prolonged, severe abuse, and often includes starvation, isolation, and deprivation, among other abusive behaviors. Erica was starved and malnourished, had stunted growth, and her body showed many signs of severe abuse which had occurred over the years. The abuse was so bad that it was difficult for the coroner to say what finally killed her. It could have been strangulation, suffocation, or blunt force trauma. The final report indicated that homicidal violence of some kind is what ended her life. With a case like this, the abuse is so severe and ongoing that it is not difficult to understand how any number of abusive acts could have been the one that led to her death. The fact that Erica’s body was undiscovered for almost six years after her passing also made the autopsy difficult.

Patterns

Many aspects of Erica’s case are common among child torture cases. Torture and severe abuse often is carried out by the mother . From Time Magazine:

Elizabeth Skowron, a professor of counseling psychology and a research scientist at the University of Oregon’s Prevention Science Institute, says that in her group’s work, mothers are very often both the perpetrators and initiators of abuse. The NCANDS [National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System] data backs that up, with 70% of victims mistreated by the mother, the large majority of those times without the participation of the father.

In Erica’s case, both parents participated in the abuse, but it was masterminded and especially cruel at the hands of her adoptive mother. Mothers, stepmothers and adoptive mothers make up large numbers of those found to have been torturing children. According to the journal article Child Torture as a Form of Child Abuse :

-Typically both adult caregivers are involved in the torture to some
extent
-Women figure much more prominently as perpetrators of torture than in other forms of physical abuse
-Siblings are aware of and may be coerced to participate in the abuse, and also may be abused to a lesser degree

In Erica’s case, both adults tortured her, with the mother figure being dominant. Casey Parsons also encouraged the other children in the home to gang up on and abuse Erica, even making her adoptive brother Jamie break her arm, as he testified to during the fraud trial.

Another characteristic of child torture cases is that the victim has been placed in the home of extended family members in an “informal arrangement”. According to a study of child torture cases performed by the researchers in the above mentioned article Child Torture As a Form of Child Abuse:

Several children came into the torturing households through informal family arrangements. We observed that 79 % of the primary abusers were not the child’s first degree relative; they included such caregivers as boyfriends, girlfriends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, adoptive parents, and stepparents.

Erica was placed in the Parsons home through an adoption which occurred between her biological mother, Carolyn, with Sandy and Casey, as Carolyn was unable to care for Erica, and Erica’s father was a severe addict who was always in trouble with the law. Sandy Parsons was Carolyn’s former brother in law. Casey Parsons reportedly was not enthused about adopting Erica and took out her anger at Carolyn on the little girl.

Another aspect of Erica’s situation which needs further research in these specific types of cases is the fact that she was disabled. Readers of this blog know that disabled children are at greater risk of being abused. More research needs to be done on numbers of disabled children who are tortured, because there are differences in the psychology and manifestations behind torture than there are with other child abuse cases.

Erica had intellectual disability, and people with intellectual disability are at high risk of being victimized. Erica also had hearing loss, and deaf and hard of hearing people are also at a much higher risk of being victimized. Whether that victimization specifically turns into these types of torture cases needs to be better understood. However, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE)’s database of homeschool child torture cases, Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, many victims were disabled.

Homeschool plays a vital part in child torture, since it allows the abuse to be covered and continue to escalate to extreme levels when the child is not around other adults who may figure out what is happening in their home, such as a teacher, principal or counselor. In one of California’s worst child abuse cases, outlined in the book A Child Called It, the autobiography of David Pelzer, David’s abuse at the hands of his mother was discovered only because he was in public school. That was in the early 1970s. Since that time, teachers and the public in general has become more intuned to child abuse and there has been better education about it. Although David was not disabled, he became so after the abuse.

Rising numbers of disabled children are being homeschooled, according to preliminary data, and numbers of homeschooled children in the U.S. continue to grow.

Erica’s story is extremely tragic, especially since no educational authorities ever checked up on her due to lax homeschool regulations. If they had, her story may have turned out more like David Pelzer’s, who was placed in a caring foster home and protected by authorities after his teachers, school nurse, and princepal figured out that something was seriously wrong. Like Erica, young David was starved, beaten and subjected to cruel torture at the hands of his mother for several years. He knew it would only be a matter of time before she killed him. The end results of torture cases is often homicide.

A perpetrator in a case like David’s or Erica’s will do whatever they can to continue the abuse, since they are gratified in some way by it. They do not have an intention of stopping, and will go to extremes to cover the abuse. In a torture case, that often means keeping the child out of school, and that is where homeschool comes in. Homeschool can provide a long-term cover for pepetrators involved in the most serious of child abuse crimes. Abusers know this, and are not above defrauding the state and everyone else to continue the torture.

This Disability Day of Mourning, let’s take time to remember Erica and every other disabled abuse victim who was murdered by a parent or caretaker and take concrete, evidence-based steps to end it, including more research in some much needed areas that sit in the intersections of disability and homicide.

Isolation, Deprivation, Torture, and Disability in Homeschools

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The Turpin parents, shown in the courtroom.

Homeschool can play a vital role in one of the key elements of child torture: isolation. Isolation is necessary to sustain the type of environment where child abuse can escalate to the level of torture.

A uniform definition of child abuse torture has not been officially established, and torture previously has been defined largely in a political or state context, such as by the United Nations. Torture is consistently stated by researchers to be prolonged suffering inflicted on a victim or victims in order to for the perpetrator(s) to meet some kind of need. This need can be political; it can also be emotional. Torture in any context is long-term, severe abuse that can include several elements, such as deprivation, starvation, psychological manipulation, and neglect of medical problems. A major component necessary to continue torturing someone is the total isolation and confinement of that victim. Only in isolation can a perpetrator continue to get away with this level of mistreatment.

Without total isolation, a child or children undergoing severe abuse and maltreatment would certainly arouse suspicion from people outside the home who could potentially put an end to it, such as teachers and doctors. Homeschool is a way for a perpetrator to remove themselves and their victims from environments where the suspicion of authorities might be incurred. Homeschool also allows a victimizer to keep a child confined in a home all of the time. In many of these cases, very little education is really happening, and homeschool is being used as a cover for abuse. The abuse has primacy; everything else is situational, and an unregulated area of the law is being used to provide a cover. It can be quite easy to start a homeschool in many U.S. states, and there is no oversight or regulation involved, something which has been consistently pushed for by organizations like the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, a well-funded arm of the Republican Christian Right.

In every homeschool story I have written about in this blog, isolation is an important detail. The Naugler children were isolated in the woods. Erica Parsons was kept away from society in her rural home, Hana and Immanuel Williams lived in a rural, gated, insular religious community, and before that, they were kept segregated from society in an orphanage, and now, the thirteen Turpin children, who were chained in their house and “homeschooled” shows how it is possible to isolate, torture and deprive 13 humans even in a suburban neighborhood with neighbors close by. Many people have responded to the Turpin story by asking incredulously how it is that neighbors did not notice anything was wrong, and never called police. Neighbors should not be the ones relied upon to make these kinds of reports, and child abuse cases regularly indicate that neighbors do not really know what is happening inside another home in their neighborhood, even if they have suspicions that something is off. It is important to remember that victimizers of children will go to great lengths to not be found out, and it can be difficult to tell just by looking at a child from across the street or driveway that a severe level of abuse is occurring within their home. The optimal type of person to identify and report child maltreatment is found in a professional environment, such as a doctor, teacher, or disability support professional.

Disability and Torture

There is a further element of isolation and deprivation which occurs in a torture case when the child has a disability. Erica Parsons had hearing loss and intellectual disability, Hana Williams had PTSD, Immanuel was Deaf. When a person is Deaf, it can be tremendously isolating in and of itself if there is no sign language, closed-captioning, or capable people around to facilitate communication, let alone in an abuse situation, which compounds the isolation and deprivation that can come with deafness. Not providing access to deaf and disabled children is a form of neglect already.

Deaf children may not be able to speak clearly enough for hearing adults to understand, sometimes because they are too young, sometimes because those children were purposely prevented from receiving speech therapy or any instruction or support around communicating with the outside world. Adults who victimize deaf children are aware of this fact, and it actually benefits the abusers, as this story about a school for the Deaf in England, where many children were abused for decades, demonstrates. Not providing disability accommodations or language to a child keeps them isolated, deprived and unable to ask for help. This is consciously done on the part of an abuser, and needs to be understood within the criminal justice system as being particularly reprehensible, and a further level of victimization.

Another element of torture is neglect. Parents who commit child torture do not take their children to the doctor regularly, if ever; they do not get them disability related services or ongoing accommodations, they do not keep them in public school consistently or at all. The Turpin children rarely saw doctors, with some of the children reportedly not knowing what medications or doctors even were. Some may say this was a religious preference, others may say keeping the children from medical professionals, teachers, and other services was vital to maintaining an environment where torture could continue. Total deprivation, isolation, neglect and confinement are of substantial benefit to someone who is committing child torture. It is important to recognize how isolating children in a homeschool can allow all of these elements to occur, and to occur for a prolonged time until the victim dies or is close to death.

In many homeschool cases, the only time anyone found out what had been going on was after a homicide had happened, sometimes years after the homicide occurred. Erica Parsons was missing for three years before law enforcement had been contacted, and no one in the community was aware that she was missing. Keeping Erica isolated in a rural home, registered as a homeschool in name only, allowed Casey and Sandy Parsons to torture the child for many years.

The Role of Disability Law and Criminal Justice

If disability law is extended to cover homeschools in every state, homeschool abuse cases can be potentially found out and prevented. It is not acceptable to allow a disabled child to go without accommodations and access, no matter what your religious beliefs may be. It is neglect, plain and simple, and can cause physical pain and suffering to the child, and allow them to be vulnerable to victimization not just by their parents, but by many people, and keep them from gaining independence.

In the case of abuse, the presence of disability elevates and heightens the terror and pain felt by the victim.

The rights of disabled children to have disability access trumps the desire by parents to isolate, neglect, deprive, and abuse them. This means that the rights of children are more important than a religious philosophy, more important than any “off the grid living” mentality, and more important than upholding lax homeschool regulations. Disability rights are a fundamental human right. And ensuring that human rights are adequately enforced provides a way to potentially crack down on an area where many homicides of children, both able bodied and disabled occur: homeschools.

If a disabled child has the appropriate therapies, access, and medical treatment, this can alleviate stress on the parent or parents of the child. Parents of disabled children need support, and a disabled child needs to learn independence. Mobility aids, hearing aids, sign language, and a disability-rights based education can allow this to happen.

Of course, in the case of severe abuse, control, and deprivation, it is not part of the plan to provide a child or children with any support or assistance. The abused child is being used in a way that benefits the parents. It is not about the child’s rights or access at all. Requiring and enforcing disability access in all schools, not just public schools, is a potential way to catch perpetrators, and it is also a way to catch the absolute worst perpetrators, the ones who torture children.

Disabled children are often selected on purpose to enter into situations of abuse due to a variety of ableist and complex factors, and once in any number of situations, like a home or a school, they are more likely than able-bodied children to be abused. Hana and Immanuel were selected by the Williamses for adoption because they were disabled and it was considered more “Godly” and self-sacrificing on the part of the parents to adopt such children. Once in the home, the reality of having disabled children paired with parents who were already volatile and problematic contributed to the situation escalating to homicide. In the case of Erica Parsons, she was born with disability, and this most likely was a deciding factor in her being placed for adoption with her relatives, Sandy and Casey Parsons.

In the case of the Turpins, it is also likely that the deprivation, starvation and neglect the children endured caused psychiatric, emotional and physical disabilities, even if there were no disabilities present before the onset of the severe abuse. The timeline so far of the case is not entirely clear.

Disability needs to be understood as an element of child torture; something that is used by a perpetrator to further victimize, isolate, and deprive a child, and also as a characteristic that makes a child vulnerable to becoming ensnared in a case of severe abuse in the first place.

Both of these factors necessitate further regulation and law around homeschools, and better understanding of the role that disability plays in child torture and mistreatment.

 

turpin-family-children-california-907439

The Turpin family’s California home, and [inset] a photo of the parents and their children. [image description: photo of taupe colored suburban home with van parked out front, in dry desert climate. Inset shows 13 children in matching t-shirts from Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat”, each designating a child as “Thing 1”, “Thing 2”, going up to higher numbers. They are smiling and posing together in a group. Faces of the children are blurred for anonymity.]

Far Away Across the Field, the Tolling of the Iron Bell; On Mental Illness and Grief

“Very hard to explain why you’re mad. Even if you’re not mad.” -Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon 
I had been packing my things, ready to move into a new house, and I came across a diary from 2014, my first year of graduate school, and the year I had a psychiatric breakdown and was committed to Upstate, which I have written about here in past blogs. This is from that diary. My cousin Matthew Doran died in 2012, at age 31, and the entry is about him.

The week before cousin Seamus’ wedding to his fiancee Mara, I woke up on Thursday morning; I had to go to campus. I felt like listening to Breathe on Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd. I haven’t heard it in so long. So I put my record on, and cranked the volume. Later on, I went with Diane to Sangha. Our meditation leader put on a DVD of Thich Nat Hanh, who spoke (Diane always interprets the videos in sign language) about the importance of breathing. Breathe. Diane kept signing. Breathe.

The next day, I called the hotel in Canfield, Ohio, where we were staying for Seamus’ wedding, to make reservations. I was put on hold and while waiting, I was texting with Seamus’ mother, Margi, and was on Facebook messenger with his brother Ryan, in Ireland. Seamus and Ryan are Matthew’s brothers, and Margi his mother. The muzak version of Breathe started playing over the phone. “That’s odd,” I typed to Ryan, since I had just listened to it. I remembered then, that the last time I had really played that record, blasted it over the speakers and really enjoyed it, was when I was 18, the day I moved into my first apartment in Utica, with Matthew. My father was there, too, helping me move in. I put on Breathe after we had hooked up the record player. “This is a great album,” Dad said.

Breathe, breathe in the air, don’t be afraid to care
Leave, but don’t leave me
Look around and choose your own ground
For long you’ll live, and high you’ll fly
And smiles you’ll give
and tears you’ll cry
and all you touch and all you see
is all your life will ever be

When I got home from Sangha that night, I played Dark Side of the Moon again, and I cried. I cried and cried. I felt the pain, the pain of Matt dying. I allowed myself to feel it. I never let myself do that; I am too afraid. I am too afraid to feel.

The next day, I was messaging on my phone outside on the porch with cousin Anne about financial troubles. I heard, coming from the house next door, Money, from Dark Side of the Moon, being played. I had to laugh. I haven’t heard these songs in ages. Seemed like Matt’s sense of humor coming through. I texted Margi and told her. The wedding of Matt’s brother Seamus was coming so soon. We were all sad that Matt would not be there.

I had been thinking so much about capitalism around this time. The system, and how as a mentally ill and disabled person I cannot do it, I cannot fit in. Matt was on disability, and money was always tight. Capitalism does not favor the disabled, it teaches that we have value only if we are productive within the system of money. Capitalism and disability have long been at odds. Money is really a joke, and Irish humor always finds a way to laugh at the grim aspects of life.

Margi told me that Matt had been communicating with her through music around this time as well. “His ringtone was Stairway to Heaven,” she said. Margi had been hearing the song play at points throughout the weeks leading up to Seamus’ wedding.

I never said I was afraid to die. I’m not afraid to die. Anytime is fine with me. We all gotta go sometime.

The wedding was wonderful, it came and went, and was a memorable time. Then last night was Sangha again. I met Diane, as I do every Thursday, at 6pm at Hoople, her office. As we left to walk to the parking garage, she pointed out the full moon in the dark night sky. The upstate night sky, the dark black clouds outlined in gray alternately obscuring and revealing the white moon. The sky was so black. Bells began ringing from the nearby Setnor School of Music. I thought of A Christmas Carol, the bells that ring at night to signal to Scrooge that another ghost is coming. Life. Death. Past, present and future. “I think those bells are playing a Chanukah song,” Diane said. I looked up at the moon. “Ah, that is why I have been feeling this way,” I said, because I have been having very vivid dreams. The full moon always affects me. It had been almost a year since I last spoke to Matt.

If your head explodes with dark forebodings too, I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon. 

Diane and I walked to the parking garage. Earlier in the day, my room mate Jennifer mentioned that the crows had returned to Syracuse. Diane and I were on the fourth floor of the garage, and she was putting things in the back of the car. The sky had turned purple. I could see it through the long, open area where there is a window in the concrete. Suddenly, a murder of crows flew by. There were so many of them. “The crows!”I exclaimed, and ran to the edge of the window to watch them fill the sky. I could see that Diane smiled. I wondered to myself where the crows went and thought about how I must try to find them, to perhaps befriend them. Of course, they are my ancestral bird. Corbett comes from the Latin, corvo, for crow or raven. There is a raven on our family crest and the motto is God feeds the ravens. Black hair runs in the Corbett family. Raven-haired. Diane and I got in the car, and as we drove to Sangha, I saw that some of the crows had settled in a small grassy area, in trees, between two buildings. The buildings of the nearby psychiatric center.

We got to Sangha and Goethe’s poem To the Moon came to me. I asked our meditation leader if I could read it aloud. We started Sangha with the poem: Bush and vale thou fill’st again/With thy misty ray, And my spirit’s heavy chain/Castest far away. Thou dost o’er my fields extend/Thy sweet soothing eye, Watching like a gentle friend, O’er my destiny. Vanish’d days of bliss and woe/ Haunt me with their tone, Joy and grief in turns I know, As I stray alone.

Then the talk by Thich Nat Han. It was about learning to feel your suffering. To embrace it and care for it. Not to run away from it. Not to distract yourself from feeling it. Feel your suffering, do not be afraid of it. You can lessen the suffering of others, but you can only heal it in yourself.

During Dharma sharing, I spoke of how I had fallen into the pain and suffering I have felt over the loss of Matthew, and how I have been trying to feel it more. And as I have, my dreams are changing. I am no longer a victim, as Thich said. I am no longer running. I am fighting back and taking control. I was often trapped in my dreams, and now I am breaking free and escaping. I have been so wary of the full moon because it brings everything to light. And it is hard. The moon illuminates all things. Now I am embracing the full moon. I am welcoming it.

For nothing hidden will not become manifest, and nothing covered will remain without being uncovered. All things are plain in the sight of heaven.- Jesus, from the Gospel of Thomas

That was the end of the diary entry.

Dark Side of the Moon is about life and death and madness, particularly the madness of former band member Syd Barrett, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, as was my cousin Matt. Matthew taught me so much about mental health, as I too, have mental illness. I told him once, “I have been wanting to tell you for many years that I hallucinate, too. I know what it’s like.” I had been too shy to bring it up before. Matt was never one to mince words. “Yeah,” he replied genuinely. “It’s hard.” That was the last time I saw him before he died. It was Christmas Eve, 2011. Matt died the following Spring.

Consider the work of God, For who is able to straighten what He has bent? What has been is remote and exceedingly mysterious. Who can discover it? -Ecclesiastes 7:13

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Yes, Sign Language is a “Real Language”; On American Sign Language (ASL) and Academic Language Credits

Author’s note: In Deaf culture, the capital letter D is used to indicate cultural deafness. The little d indicates deafness on its own, as more of a medical term. Sometimes, d/Deaf is written. I find it awkward to write d/Deaf every single time. I tend to use the capital D when I feel it is appropriate. 

September 29th was Erev Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and follows Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a time of celebration, reflection, atonement and fasting.

I have been able to get more and more in touch with my Jewish roots because of increased access in my life now that I am at the University. It is amazing that it has taken this long, but I am able to request sign language interpreters for Jewish services on campus, and for any other related events. It is not perfect, and it is an ongoing process for people to learn how to set up Deaf access, but it is more access than I have ever had in the past. This is partly because I never knew it was my right to even ask for it. This Yom Kippur, I reflected on the barriers to language I have experienced in my life, and how much this has affected me, and others like me.

Having access to language can really open your life to possibilities. For many years, I did not have real access to language at all. Growing up, like many Deaf people, I was raised to be purely oral. This means that I was given hearing aids, not taught sign language, not involved in Deaf culture, mainstreamed into a hearing school, and had to take years of speech pathology in order to be able to passably speak out loud. It’s a common experience among Deaf and hard of hearing people, and it is sometimes referred to as oralism. So yes, I was taught a language, which was English. However, English as a spoken language does not work as well for me as Sign Language does. I always had to strain to speak and hear, and it never felt easy or natural. This caused anxiety, depression, exhaustion, stress, shame, and isolation. It is fine to teach deaf children how to speak and read lips. There is nothing wrong with that. I am grateful for the wonderful speech pathologist I had growing up. However, the problem lays in keeping sign language completely out of this education, and not giving someone the option to just be Deaf and to develop their identity as a Deaf person.

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Image of a toddler holding a doll, learning to sign with an adult teaching them.

Deafness is considered to be a shameful defect that we are taught to hide. Many Deaf people who are raised to only be oral grow up feeling shame and embarrassment at how our voices are different, how we stumble over certain words and letters, how we cannot hear the TV or radio, and many other things. The reason we feel this shame is because hearing and speech are emphasized as superior, and we are never going to be perfect at hearing or talking aloud. This makes people feel defective. Also, we are not given access to understand what is happening when sound is involved, so we are often isolated and embarrassed for that reason.

It is a travesty that so many Deaf people grow up not knowing that Deaf culture is a beautiful thing, or that it even exists. It pains me that many Deaf and disabled people in the world are not aware that they have a culture because able-bodied people have kept it from them. Able-bodied and hearing people are the ones who are largely writing policy and deciding the fate of everyone else, so things either don’t change or are very slow to change.

The problem is, since hearing people do not know anything about Deaf Culture, they assume. One of the biggest assumptions hearing people make about Deaf Culture is that sign language is not a “real language”, but just word-for-word translation of spoken language. Of course hearing people would know, right? Because hearing people are the largest users of sign language in the world. WRONG. The vast majority of hearing people do not use sign language, do not know any Deaf people, and have never spent time in a d/Deaf space. 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. My parents had pretty much zero experience with Deaf culture. The only hearing loss a lot of hearing people are familiar with is the hearing loss their grandparents developed later in life. I am here to tell you that this is not the same thing as growing up Deaf.

It is exceedingly rare for me to meet a hearing person that is familiar with basic concepts of Deafness, unless that hearing person is involved in the Disability Rights community or has studied disability studies in school. So why do hearing people continue to create policy around d/Deafness?

Many hearing people are astounded that I can talk. This happens about once a week, no exaggeration. I encounter a new person who has never met a Deaf person before, and they do not expect me to be able to speak. I find this ironic, since it is the hearing world that has consistently denied my access to cultural Deaf language, and has forced upon me a language that is not optimal for my needs. When a hearing person discovers that I can speak, what usually follows is: “How can you be Deaf if you can talk?” News flash: Deaf people can talk. Some of us choose not to, some of us struggle with it, some of us speak more than others. There are many ways to be d/Deaf.

Because hearing people assume so much about deafness, they have decided that sign language is not a “real language”, and that it should not count in college as a language credit. This causes all kinds of problems for Deaf people.

I have written about my experience growing up and coming to accept and understand my Deaf identity here . What I have not spent much time writing about is my experience as a Deaf person in college. It has been too painful to revisit. But I need to, because the problems I have are just continuing for younger generations, and it is totally unnecessary and a huge barrier to the success of the Deaf community.

When I transferred to CUNY Hunter College in New York for undergrad in 2005, the counselor for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing students (who was hearing and did not sign) told me that I was “not allowed” to take a language, and that my ASL language classes taken in high school and community college would not count towards a language credit. Why? Sign was not considered a “foreign” language, and it did not have a culture.  I was devastated. Also, since hearing people think that Deaf people cannot talk, or that it is too much trouble for them, this meant that I was not allowed to take a foreign language at the school, either. Instead, I would have to make up these language credits with something called “cultural classes”. Four of them.

So, after being told I had no culture and being denied the ability to study a language, or to use my own second language for the credit, I instead was required to take classes on “culture”. Some hearing person had decided what “culture” entailed, and disability and Deafness were not a part of it.

Now, I love learning and I love school, but I was not thrilled that I had to take four extra classes and spend a longer time in undergrad due to this issue. I was 24 years old at this time, and I did not know my rights. It made me very sad that I was not allowed to study a language, not even Latin, which is barely spoken aloud anyway. This is an example of why stereotypes that Deaf and disabled people are stupid or not capable of achieving exist. We are segregated from a lot of things and not even allowed to take the same classes, but instead made to do some other bullshit, and it takes us longer to graduate for that reason.

Some hearing people might think, well, that’s how it goes, there is no way to teach a foreign language to a Deaf person. WRONG. This is where understanding Deaf access comes in. I should be able to learn any language I want to learn. All I need is access. If I want to learn Russian, for example, I would take a class and have a sign language interpreter who knew Russian and English work with one who knew English and ASL. I would actually be learning a lot more than just spoken Russian that way, I would be picking up Russian sign, too (but, you know; Deaf people cannot talk and are bad at learning languages *eye roll*). A reputable sign language agency could instruct someone on how to set this access up, and in a city like New York, where my undergrad was, you can bet that there are Russian sign language interpreters. Also, I have said this before: IT IS THE LAW TO DO THIS. DEAF ACCESS IS A FEDERAL LAW. 

So, is sign language a “real language”? How about a little primer:

Sign language is not universal. Many hearing people assume that it is. Sign language is different in every country, and it is different in each English-speaking country too. British Sign is different from American sign, and so on. Blowing your mind? That is because you probably think that sign language is word-for-word translation of spoken language, and is based on spoken language. It’s not.

In the U.S., there are different types of sign language. Some Deaf people use ASL (short for American Sign Language) in a style that is considered more culturally Deaf. People who grew up using sign language and/or have other Deaf people in their family use ASL more, but the style (dialect) can differ from person to person. Sign in the U.S. differs by race, class, and region. There is “English” style sign, which is what I primarily use, which is more about words and is structured differently that ASL.

However, many American signs are based in French sign language. This is an example of how ASL is a different language with its own origin and history. Like every language in the world, there is a history and a culture around sign, and there are different styles and dialects of it, too.

Sign language is conceptual. Sign language is about concepts, and concepts can be described visually. This is why sign language lends it self well to theory. Karl Marx, for example, can translate easily into ASL. I think that many areas of study could be enhanced by ASL, and that ASL can support communication and understanding in a variety of fields. Limiting language to just speaking words does not allow for the best experience in understanding or producing knowledge. I feel that spoken languages based only on words can be extremely limiting. However, spoken language continues to be preferred and exalted over sign. The reason? Social constructs around Deafness and disability as defects that need to be “fixed”, and have nothing to offer, and ideas that sign language is somehow lesser than other languages. 

So, not only do hearing administrations at certain colleges deny Deaf students access to learn a foreign language, therefore hindering their advancement in academia and their development as humans in the world, but then they’ll refuse to take American Sign Language credits. This makes no sense at all. Can you understand how this just hinders Deaf people from achievement? It also prevents hearing people from learning sign, since sign language classes are not going to fulfill their language requirements. If more hearing people learned sign language, then there would be much more inclusion and access in this world. Some colleges accept ASL credits; many still do not. Things are changing, but more colleges need to get on board.

It is old fashioned and quite honestly repulsive, audist and ableist to treat sign language this way. Deaf people are not the only ones to benefit from sign, either. Many disabled people use it or could benefit from using it, including babies and children. You don’t have to have disability or be Deaf to benefit from sign.

There is a rich, vast, storied history of Deaf culture in this, and other countries. There is a culture of Deaf people that is very different from hearing culture. There are a lot of books, documentaries, journal articles, and more that surround Deaf Studies. There is a lot to learn about it.

Sign Language is a language. Sign Language has a culture. Sign Language has many dialects. Sign language is different all over the world. It is time for this to be understood and accepted. It is time for universities to treat sign language as a REAL LANGUAGE and to make it count as a language credit. It is time for hearing people to understand how sign language works before they make policies and rules around it. It is time to step out of the past and stop with the isolation of Deaf and disabled people. It is time for full inclusion. Nothing About Us Without Us. Do not make policies around a marginalized group when you are not a part of it. Do not shut people out of accessing life, the world, careers and education. Include sign language and include Deaf culture in college curriculum.

For more information, check out this video. It does not have audio description, and for that I apologize. I will work on finding one that does. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disability Day of Mourning 2017

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Image of a single candle burning with a dark background. 

Followers of this blog are aware that often I cover very serious issues in Disability Rights, such as homicide, abuse and neglect of disabled children. It is not easy for me to write about and research these articles, especially because as a Deaf and disabled person, I can identify with the children. The reason I write about these subjects is because many` do not realize that disabled people in general, not just children, are murdered and abused at higher rates than able-bodied people. I have focused in this blog on homeschooled disabled children who were tortured for years leading up to the homicide. This is a very specific type of case. There are other cases involving disability homicide that we also see a lot: the murder of a disabled child or adult by parents or guardians who have been entrusted with caring for that person’s physical needs.

If you follow disability homicide related news as I do, you know that there are so many cases of disabled people being murdered each year by parents and caretakers that it is hard to keep up. And sadly, what often happens in these cases is that the parents of the disabled victim are considered to have been unduly burdened by the disabled person in their care. There is sympathy from the media, criminal justice and legal systems towards these murderers. In many cases where a parent murders a disabled person in their care, the disability is autism. Many autistic children and adults are murdered each year by those who have been trusted to assist them in their daily lives. And so often the response is the same: that poor parent. They were so unfairly burdened by the disabled person. Let’s give them a lighter sentence, or no sentence, and lots of sympathy. Never mind what the victim went through. Even if there is a harsh sentence doled out in the court, the media and public reaction is often still sympathy for the murderer.

In more typical cases of homicide where the victim was able-bodied, the experience of the victim is highlighted. Language surrounding these cases is not sympathetic to the murderer, especially after they have been convicted and sentenced. It would be considered offensive and insensitive to the victim and those who are grieving that person to do so. So why is it different in cases where a parent murders a disabled person? Because disability is not understood in the criminal justice system, the media, and many other areas of society. Autism, for example, is considered by many to be sad condition; a burden, a defect. Autistic children are “puzzle pieces” to figure out. People think that maybe the autism was caused by a chemical or an environmental “toxin”. It is a shame that their parents never got themselves a neurotypical child, is a common thought. All of this is untrue. There is nothing wrong with autism; autistic people do very well with the right understanding and education. The case of George Hodgins, a 22 year old autistic man who was killed by his mother in 2012, is an example of how media sympathized with the murderer.

The same type of notions are believed about other disabilities, too: it is a shame, a burden, a defect, and so on. Disability is not a defect, it is one of the many ways that humans are diverse. Disability is not something that can or should be eradicated; it is a natural part of human biodiversity. And diversity is extremely important. It is beneficial for society to have many ideas that come from different places. A person’s experience may be outside the mainstream, and they may notice and understand things that others don’t. Diversity brings many ideas to the table. Also, all humans have inherent worth. Humans are deserving of dignity and respect, and it is better for everyone when human rights are upheld.

When a parent murders a disabled person in their care, there is something going on with them that is not the fault of the disabled person. While it is true that caretakers can feel overburdened, it is never acceptable to murder or abuse the disabled person in their care. There are many reasons that people kill and hurt each other, but the fact remains: homicide, abuse and neglect are illegal. It is not “less illegal” when the victim had a disability. It is not any less of a crime. The victim still suffers.

It is important to keep the memory of these victims alive, and to continue working for justice in Disability Rights. Tomorrow there will be vigils all over the U.S., and a virtual vigil will be held on Facebook at this page, happening tomorrow, March 1st, from 3pm-7pm:

https://www.facebook.com/events/544387322435021/

Syracuse University is having a vigil on campus outside Hendrick’s Chapel on the Quad tomorrow, March 1st at 1:30pm. The event is accessible with ASL interpretation and braille documents.

This year, I will be thinking of Erica Parsons, who was finally laid to rest last weekend. She would have been 19 years old. I will also be thinking of Hana Alemu Williams.

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Erica Parsons. [image of a photograph of a little girl, around age 7, with short brown hair, bangs, and brown eyes.]

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Hana Alemu (Williams) [Image of a photograph of a little girl of about ten years of age, smiling, with a pink floral top on. Her dark hair is pulled back from her face].

 

 

 

Disability, Homeschool, Intercountry Adoption and Homicide: The Case of Hana and Immanuel Williams

In October 2016’s blog post I wrote about homicide victim Erica Parsons, and how adopted, disabled, and homeschooled children can be abused and denied a proper education when parents exploit loopholes in the law for their own gain. These parents do not provide disability accommodations to the child in need, even when they have received government funds to do so.

We also saw with that case how a lack of disability accommodations in a homeschool can be a tool of abuse and homicide, and also how abusive parents take out frustrations on and exploit disabled, adopted children. Erica’s story is not the only one like it. Sadly, there are many cases involving the murder of children like Erica.

Adopting disabled children from countries outside of the U.S. and bringing them to American homes gained popularity in the last decade, reaching heights in 2005-2007. Many children from the global South have been adopted into christian homeschools, as intercountry adoption was particularly emphasized within that group. Intercountry adoptions to the U.S. resulted in so many cases of abuse and homicide that certain countries have imposed moratoriums children being adopted to the U.S.

Disabled children are positioned by the adoption movement as being particularly in need of being adopted. And in many cases, they likely are. However, what happens when these children come to the U.S. and are expected to blend into a large, homeschooling, Christian Fundamentalist family? And is intercountry adoption the best way to address global disability?

The intersection of adoption, disability, homeschool and religion has resulted in many cases of abuse, neglect and homicide of children.

Christian Fundamentalist Patriarchy

Christian Patriarchy is a name given to an ideology found in evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. The main tenets are large families, traditional gender roles, modest dress and debt-free living. I have written about it before, here. I firmly believe in religious freedom and it is not my intent to disparage this movement, nor do I think all such families are abusive. This post is about those who do not follow the law.

duggar-familyTelevision’s popular show 19 Kids and Counting, featuring the Duggar family. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are the proud parents of 19 children, and identify as Independent Fundamentalist Baptists. They adhere to many of the tenets of Christian Patriarchy. The Duggar family is pictured in front of their house in Arkansas, United States. [image of a large family posing in front of their very long, pre-fab style ranch home which has 5 large gables on the green tin roof. To the far left are the parents, each holding children. The children who are standing are arranged from youngest to oldest. They are dressed conservatively and the girls have long hair. All of the boys have very short hair, polo shirts and khakis or jeans on. The girls have polo shirts over long skirts or denim jumpers.]

Part of the Christian Patriarchy movement in the United States has been a call from community leaders and ministers to adopt children from the global South; developing-world countries which are often perceived by the West as troubled. Above Rubies, a magazine and now website with a Facebook and Twitter presence, has long been a popular and respected publication among primarily women readers seeking to observe principles of Biblical Womanhood. Above Rubies was one of the first to sound the alarm regarding the perceived need for Christian families to adopt African orphans, using the daughter of editor Nancy Campbell as an example. Nancy’s daughter and her husband adopted six children from Liberia. Nancy Campbell was instrumental in pushing the adoption movement, telling readers that it was akin to welcoming “Jesus himself” into their homes, and a form of ministry.

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Countries in Africa were presented by ministers, Christian leaders like Nancy, and Christian adoption agencies as having millions of orphaned children in need of homes immediately. As a result of this and other factors, Ethiopia became one of the world’s top ‘sending’ countries of children to the West, second only to China for numbers of children adopted out. There are complex factors surrounding adoption from Ethiopia and other African countries, one of which is the trafficking of children to orphanages where they are declared “abandoned”, in order for human traffickers to make money when people from the West adopt them. Journalist Kathryn Joyce has written about this issue extensively in articles and her book, The Child Catchers. According to the National Institutes of Health, orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa numbered in the millions in 2007. There is a definite need to address this population, but it must be done correctly.

In a community which already stressed the importance of a large family, adherents to the Christian Patriarchy ideology were now being encouraged to adopt more children. Adopting older, disabled children was exalted as being particularly Godly, due to the perception that such children are unwanted and more in need of homes, and also, harder to raise. Christian Adoption websites often feature older, disabled kids in a special area titled “Waiting Children”.

In the United States, there is no central authority which oversees adoptions. However, state and federal funding can be received by families who have adopted disabled children.

Hana and Immanuel Williams

Hana and Immanuel Williams were adopted from Ethiopia in 2008 by Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro-Woolley,Washington state; a rural area close to the Canadian border. The Williams were a homeschool, Christian Fundamentalist family with seven biological children. A friend of Carri’s testified in court that Carri was inspired to adopt children from Africa by an Above Rubies women’s retreat the two went on. Carri wanted more children, but could no longer conceive naturally.

Initially, the Williams planned only to adopt Immanuel, a deaf little boy who was matched to them by an adoption agency called Adoption Advocates International (AAI). Carri had studied American Sign Language prior to getting married at age 19, and the agency thought it was a good match. After viewing a 60-second video of ten year old Hana, who resided at the same orphanage- Kidane Mehret Children’s Home in Addis Ababa, which is affiliated with AAI, the Williams decided to adopt her, too. Hana had family in Ethiopia, but they were too poor to care for her. Her father had died, her mother disappeared, so she had for a time lived with extended family until they gave her up for adoption due to poverty. At some point during her time in Ethiopia, Hana developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is not unusual for orphaned or abandoned children to develop PTSD and other psychological and emotional disabilities. Also, once children are orphaned, which is traumatic enough, a following traumatic event can often occur since they are no longer protected by their parents.

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Hana Alemu with her extended family in Ethiopia. [image of a family gathered around a table with a pink and white striped cloth on it, with a large baked bread and candles. To the far left is a grandmotherly woman dressed in white, wearing a white head scarf. Next to her is Hana, indicated by a box over her image. She is about 5 and looks wide-eyed and shy. She has a light blue sweater on and a bun. She is surrounded to her left by family members, on is a young boy, the others look teenaged, and there is an older person at the end of the table.]
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From left: Hana Alemu (renamed Hana Grace Rose), and Larry and Carri Williams. [image is made of up three individual photographs. The first is of Hana when she is living in America, she is smiling, her hair is braided, and she is wearing a black T-Shirt with some hot pink lettering on it. Next to her is an image of brown-haired Larry, looking long-faced and pensive in the courtroom, wearing a red plaid button up shirt and a brown courdorouy blazer. Next to him is an image also from the courtroom, of a blond haired woman also looking pensive, this is Carri.]

 

Larry and Carri never went to Ethiopia, but had Hana and Immanuel flown to Washington state with an escort, a practice that the Ethiopian government has since outlawed as part of its ongoing attempts to curtail abuse of adopted children. One of the problems with this is that parents and children do not spend any time getting to know each other prior to adoption, and American parents do not visit the culture the children are from, which could be key to understanding and connecting with them. However, the idea here is not to understand another culture with these types of adoptions. It is to “minister in your own home”, as Above Rubies put it, and to save and rescue children from what is perceived as a negative place.

Once part of the Williams household, isolated in a gated community, Hana and Immanuel were both subject to abuse. Like Erica Parsons, they were singled out from the other children and harshly punished. Hana had a hepatitis B along with the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and was older than Carri thought she would be, starting her period soon after arriving in Washington, which disgusted Carri. Carri abused Hana severally, locking her in a four-by-two-foot closet, making her sleep in the barn and use a port-a-potty outside, and shower in the front yard with a garden hose. Reasons behind some of this abuse was due to Hana having hepatitis, which Carri thought would contaminate the rest of the family, so she therefore decided to quarantine and humiliate her.

Hana did not play with her adopted siblings, and was mostly kept in the closet, away from the rest of the family. Her hair was shaved as a punishment, and she and Emmanuel did not share meals with everyone else, and were made to eat outside, even in harsh weather. Hana was also excluded from being homeschooled, according to law enforcement.

Immanuel was also abused, being hit by Larry Williams hard enough to draw blood. He was punished if he did not hear people, kept away from a Deaf church member who attempted to communicate with him, and often made to stay outside the house and in the yard, like Hana. The other children were forbidden by their parents to sign with him when he was being punished, and both Hana and Immanuel were punished frequently. It is a common misconception that sign language is easy to learn and that it is universal. Immanuel would not immediately pick up American Sign Language, but would have to learn it. It is unclear what type of language he used in Ethiopia. Even if Carri knew ASL before she was married, it is no guarantee that she understood d/Deaf culture, or was still fluent in ASL after not using it for a long time. Simply having some experience with ASL does not necessarily mean someone is a good match for a d/Deaf child. There are many things that factor into being a good match for raising a d/Deaf child, particularly one from a country which speaks a different language.

Larry and Carri Williams prescribed to the now infamous book that I have written about in previous posts, To Train Up a Child by Michael Pearl of No Greater Joy Ministries. Law enforcement found a copy of the book in the Williams’ household, and evidence that the children were switched with the type of plastic plumbing tube recommended by Michael Pearl. To Train Up a Child is a book well known in Christian Fundamentalist circles, and advocates corporal punishment of children and infants based on seventeenth-century Puritan childrearing. This was the method taken in order to blend Hana and Immanuel into the family and to deal with the challenges and disabilities they came with.

The abuse Hana suffered eventually resulted in her death on the evening of May 11th, 2011. She died from malnutrition, hypothermia and gastritis. She was 13. Her body was covered in scars from being beaten with the plastic plumbing pipe, and her head was shaved. Hana was once again forced to remain outside in the yard in the cold weather on this night. Carri called an ambulance when she found Hana laying face down in the mud. During the EMT’s attempts to revive Hana, Carri repeatedly told them that Hana was “passive aggressive” and “rebellious”. Kathryn Joyce wrote a detailed report of the homicide and trial for Slate.

Larry and Carri Williams were both arrested in connection with Hana’s death, and their surviving eight children were taken into state custody. Once he was able to see a social worker and doctors, twelve-year-old Immanuel was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and his language development was noted as delayed, which is not surprising considering he was not properly accommodated for his hearing loss in the Williams home and likely not in the orphanage, either.He testified in court during the trial that he was unsure where Hana had gone, or what had happened to her, but he thought she was maybe dead. It is possible he was confused about what happened due to not being communicated with and not being able to tell what was going on due to his hearing loss.

Deaf children need specific one-on-one instruction and education around learning to sign, speak, read and write. They need speech pathologists, ASL interpreters, and instruction in sign language, and to be seen by an audiologist. It is impossible for one person to provide all of these services in a homeschool. The isolated nature of this type of homeschool also prevents a child like Immanuel from meeting and communicating with other Deaf children and adults. It is highly cruel and abusive to prevent a Deaf child from being able to communicate, and to use communication as a form of punishment, as the Williams did with Immanuel.

On September 9th, 2013, Larry and Carri Williams, who had tried to escape harsh sentencing by lying that Hana was older than 13, leading to her body being exhumed during the trial, were sentenced to prison. Each were convicted of manslaughter in Hana’s death, and Carri received an additional conviction of homicide by abuse. They were both found guilty of first-degree assault on Immanuel. Carri was sentenced to just under 37 years in prison, and Larry 28 years. The trial was attended by many from the local Ethiopian community, who sadly were all too familiar with this type of case. Immanuel and the other children were placed with family or in foster care.

As a result of this story, Washington State put emphasis on addressing issues with adopted children being abused, neglected, and murdered. From Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article:

Although the research was started before Hana’s death, her story became the focal point, and illuminated common forms of abuse that other children suffered: being locked in rooms or forced to stay outside, having food or access to toilets withheld, and social isolation, often including being withdrawn from school, that obscured the abuse. At least nine of the 26 school-age children were reportedly homeschooled, several because their mother “did not want the teachers feeling sorry for them because they are ‘all sad’ and looked like they are starved at home.” Abuse tended to spiral, as parents exaggerated children’s misbehavior, punishments increased in frequency and severity, and isolated children lost the possibility of reaching outside help.

The Role of Disability

Disability is an area that specifically needs to be studied with regards to cases of homeschooling in general, but also adopted homeschool children. Disabled children, and in particular d/Deaf children, are particularly prone to abuse. Disabled and d/Deaf children suffer from abuse at higher rates than able bodied children. There are many reasons for it. When a child is adopted, that can also add another layer of complexity in abuse cases. Parents can feel differently about adopted children than their biological children, and single them out for mistreatment. The presence of disability can serve to exacerbate an abusive situation due to the frustration it can cause parents.

Religion is another area where ableist biases can come to the forefront and facilitate movements where able-bodied adults seek to save and rescue children, thinking that any situation is preferable to the one the children were initially in. This is not accurate, and cases like Hana and Immanuel’s illustrate that disabled children need accommodations and services, and to be treated with respect and love. Disabled children do not exist to make adults more seem more “godly” to their religious communities. Disabled children are not commodities to exploit for government money. And they are not going to be “saved” simply by being adopted.

Conclusions

According to the World Bank, one billion people experience some form of disability, and levels of disability are higher in developing nations. Disability is not a bad thing, but a natural part of human biodiversity. However, much of the world is not built in order to universally accommodate all people. Disabled children like Hana and Immanuel are often put into orphanages and institutions globally, because there are limited services, infrastructure and education in their countries to support disability. Some disabled children grow up in institutions and never leave them. If there were services in their countries to support their integration into the community, that would be much better, as every person deserves to live in their community and in a home.

Just as institutionalization and keeping children in orphanages is a serious issue in disability rights, mass adoptions of disabled children from developing nations to the West is another side of the coin; and neither are optimal. The U.S. adopts more foreign born children than any other nation, so ensuring that disabled, adopted children receive their rights once on US soil is important, particularly if there are large movements, like the one written about above, to specifically adopt disabled children. In many cases, disabled children are adopted into families that are equipped to accommodate their disabilities and provide them with a safe and loving home, and this can be a wonderful option for a child in need. However, there are enough cases where the opposite occurs instead, and it is a cause for alarm. The fact that so many are in homeschools is also a cause for concern because as we saw with Erica Parsons, many states do not have disability rights law that cover homeschool, and homeschool can be used as a cover for abuse.

Further sources:

“Disability Overview.” Disability Overview. The World Bank, 21 Sept. 2016.

Hodson, Jeff. “Did Hana’s Parents ‘train’ Her to Death?” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times, 28 Nov. 2011.

Jordan, Miriam. “Inside Ethiopia’s Adoption Boom.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 28 Apr. 2012.

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