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Failed adoptions stir outrage; reforms are elusive
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.
Some adoption advocates worry that the negative developments will result in fewer adoptions — and thus consign more children to lives in foster care or foreign orphanages.
"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.