Monday, September 2, 2013

Awaiting the Verdicts in the Williams Trial: Another Michael Pearl/To Train Up A Child Associated Death

* Trigger Alert for those who were previously abused. *

I had hoped to prepare two more posts on the subject of nouthetic counseling before the end of this trial, as I did expect it to continue for at least an additional full week. I was surprised to learn yesterday that the Williams' defense team rested their case on this past Friday. The jury will resume deliberation of their verdict on Wednesday.

Here in the US, we celebrated our national Labor Day holiday today, but I am not so interested in celebrating. As most people will enjoy the long weekend that heralds the end of the summer season here, my thoughts keep drifting off to the late Hana Alemu “Williams” who died from neglect and abuse at age thirteen under the care of her evangelical Christian parents who homeschooled her. I'm also deeply concerned about her surviving adopted brother, a fellow Ethiopian named Immanuel who is now twelve years old.

Following the death of two other adopted children as a consequence of a system of allegedly Biblical corporal punishment, it was Hana's death that finally compelled me to attend a meeting of the International Cultic Studies Association after more than a decade of procrastinating. I was deeply honored that Janet Heimlich (author of Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment) was able to attend my presentation there concerning how some sectors of evangelical patriarchy use ideology to vilify both women and children, as well as how this vilification can result in physical abuse, morbidity, and mortality.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Michael Pearl or these deaths, I will again revisit this subject, hopefully offering you a helpful synopsis. I elect not to address the Pearl-related death of four year old Sean Paddock who died of asphyxia in 2006 because his case is rather different than these other two more recent ones. I will also refer you to this post about the death of Lydia Schatz for more details. I've also written a long series of posts about the ideological pressures used against these homeschooling parents and the moral disengagement that results from the thought reform promoted through the writings and among the followers of Michael Pearl. Also note this list of all posts discussing harm to children as a consequence of religiously motivated discipline programs for children with a focus on Pearl, including off-site links to additional history, information, and resources.

Comparing and Contrasting the Williams and Schatz Families

Hana died in her Washington State home as a consequence of profound neglect and physical abuse at the age of thirteen, though the defendants are attempting to dispute her age. (If it can be demonstrated that Hana was sixteen at the time of her death due to poor documentation or deception on the part of the adoption agency and the orphanage in Ethiopia, her parents face lesser criminal charges concerning their role in her death.) I'm also struggling with my mix of thoughts and emotions concerning their adoptive parents. I find that I had far more compassion for the contrite parents of the Liberian adoptees, Lydia and Zariah Schatz. These Evangelical Christian homeschooling parents faced a similar situation, and were very guilty of horrible abuse, but I also understand the tremendous power of the thought reform used by Pearl and the tremendous pressures within the culture of homeschooling to follow Pearl's methods.

In the Schatz Family, while using the Michael Pearl recommended implement to hit seven year old Lydia after several hours for mispronouncing a spelling word, the child collapsed from the consequences of renal failure. She was found dead in the Chico, California home of Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz when emergency services arrived, the home where these evangelical Christians homeschooled their children. Lydia's surviving thirteen year old sister Zariah was also found to be in renal failure as well and was hospitalized. The parents plead guilty to the charges against them in 2011 and were incarcerated, but they also demonstrated great remorse. Testimonies from the people who knew them well found them to be kind people but were following the instructions of Michael Pearl to obtain the results that he promised them – if they followed his instructions implicitly. The children's bodies broke before their spirits and behavior did.

I Find the Williams Family Much More Disturbing

Though I am not discounting the influence of Pearl on Carri Williams in particular, I am more deeply troubled by what seems to me to be a lack of integrity, familial love, and parental concern in the behavior and example of the Williams parents. I see little to no contrition in them, and I am also very disturbed by the lack of loving sacrifice on the part of Larry and Carri Williams for one other in this legal battle. Each Williams parent has plead “not guilty” to the charges against them, and the individual testimonies of the parents label the other for the responsibility for choosing the specific methods allegedly meant to discipline their adopted children. Each parent claims to have only been complying with the poor decisions the other in the hope of reducing their own culpability and sentence. We shall see how these arguments impressed the jury later this week.

I find their individual self-interest at the expense of their respective spouse deeply troubling, particularly because Carri claimed under oath this week that they followed a complementarian gender hierarchy in their marriage. If that were truly the case in principle, each partner would be “falling on the sword” to spare the other party a more stringent sentence, just out of principle if not also just out of mutual love. We've witnessed just the opposite this week. They attempted to blame and smear one another to spare themselves a greater punishment. In coming days, we will learn whether or not this was an effective strategy, though I believe that it speaks poorly of their character.

Emmanuel suffered from urinary incontinence, not an uncommon problem for boys that age who have been adopted from foreign orphanages. The Williams parents both testified that they felt that the child did so willfully, so he was not only forced to sleep on the floor, was locked in from the outside of the family's “shower room” and nursery closet for as long as twelve to fifteen hours (with linens and blankets for comfort), was “hosed down” in the yard outside, and siblings would also do so in the house with Emmanuel as a punishment. (I've read nothing about Hana suffering from bedwetting, but I have read references to testimony that she was also being hosed down like an animal in the yard outside of the home.) Both children spent time sleeping on the floor in these aforementioned rooms rooms that were locked from the outside, one that kept the children in complete darkness, though Hana also would be required to sleep in the barn in a sleeping bag. For Hana, to correct her thinking, the family would play audio recordings of the Bible from outside of the nursery closet while she was locked there in the dark for extended hours.

The Williams' natural children were told to stop using sign language with Emmanuel at some point, and they would only communicate with him by stomping on the floor. Both Hana and Emmanuel were eventually served frozen food or sandwiches made with bread that was soaked in liquid to make it unpleasant, and they were often forced to take meals together alone outside, away from the family. (Some of this was explained as punishment for stealing food.) Hana was found to have an H. pylori infection which contributes to some gastric ulcers, so this was certainly no help to her condition of malnourishment. These adopted children were eventually excluded from the celebration of holidays with the rest of the family. Hana's head was shaved more than once, and because of concern about a Hepatitis B infection, she was eventually restricted to use of an outdoor chemical toilet and was denied use of the facilities inside the home. And, of course, there were the beatings with switches, plumbing line, and glue sticks. The children were beaten on the bottoms of their feet per Emmanuel's testimony, a time honored practice of child abusers because resulting injuries are harder to notice. It is legal in the State of Washington to spank a child, so long as the action leaves no signs of a mark on the skin or tissue.

The Williams' natural children were spared the extensive abuse that was inflicted upon adopted, foreign born Hana and Immanuel. This was also true of the Schatz family, but to my knowledge, their siblings were not also instructed to participate in the Pearl-recommended abuse practices. The Williams parents not only enlisted their other natural children to punish their adopted siblings, they also instructed their children to conceal information and lie to authorities about the measures used against Hana and Emmanuel. Though Bill Gothard and Jonathan Lindvall have also either recommended or practiced restriction of food and confinement in locked closets and rooms, and though Pearl has recommended the hosing of incontinent children out of doors to shame them into compliance, the Williams Family seem to me to have grossly extended these already abusive methods. Experts witnesses defined these practices and treatment as torture. The food issues also seem more significant when considering Hana's substantial weight loss and the fact that both adopted children had no access to medical care since 2009. (Recall that Hana died in May of 2011).

I understand well that defense attorneys are hired to defend their clients, and part of their job involves exhausting every loophole available to either vindicate their clients or at least mitigate charges so that their clients face the least imposing sentence as is possible. In addition to all of the deeply disturbing aspects of this process, I've found the grilling of Emmanuel, Hana's brother, to be especially difficult. This young, deaf boy spent several days on the stand, for two and a half hours each day only, using deaf interpreters. This boy was questioned and negated, and it was even suggested that he'd altered his testimony because he received lunches and was allowed to play video games while waiting to give testimony because of this special treatment. (Though many therapists testified that the boy suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, this was also aggressively challenged, but these witnesses adamantly maintained that the trauma occurred in the Williams' home after the adoption.) The child was miserably treated while in the Williams' home, but he was questioned in an adversarial way before the court as though he was the source of this own problems, soliciting his own abuse due to poor behavior. He witnessed the starving of his sister and shared in a good deal of the treatment that Hana received, but he was treated as the culprit by those advocating for his parents.

I am also disgusted by Carri Williams similar testimony about Hana. Carri stated in court that she believes that Hana had, in fact, “killed herself,” consistent with what she reported to the 911 Emergency Operator. She also claimed under oath that Hana did not look emaciated (my wording) until she saw the child dead on the floor of her home. My interpretation of her statements suggest that she believed that if Hana was found to be under weight upon autopsy, then she (Carrie, the mother) felt that it was a condition that had something to do with the dying process and was not due to starvation prior to death.

On social media and in comments in some media reports of the trial, people who knew Carri claim that she was not only a long-time and zealous evangelist for Pearl's methods, she also allegedly made statements to people that she could not wait for Hana to come of age so that she no longer had to be responsible for her. This was likely another motivation to make the claim that Hana was actually older than the stated age noted on her adoption and homeschooling enrollment documentation. If Hana were just a year or two older than they were lead to believe, the Williams Family could disown her sooner rather than later. Some have also stated that Carri had a fantasy about adopting a younger, doll-like girl that she could mold and model, but instead, found a budding teen in her care, complete with what Carri called “oppositional” behavior. This brings to mind other things I have written about parental convenience as opposed to a duty to care appropriately for a child.

For the past few weeks, we have not only read reports of testimony wherein the parents of these children have blamed one another for the conditions that Hana lived under, we've heard Carrie claim that she was not ignorant of both Hana's declining health and of other approaches or resources that could have helped them overcome the challenges they faced with both of these adopted children. They've sought to have Hana's documented age changed, allegedly, to reduce their own culpability and the magnitude of their sentencing. And, most notably, Carri Williams claims in many ways that the children were responsible for their own suffering and demise. As she states on the call to 911, Hana killed herself. When the emergency operator asked her to explain why Carri thought Hana had “killed herself” (wondering what symptoms made her believe that the girl was indeed dead), Carri's immediate response was, “Um, she's really rebellious.”

To find summaries of each day of court testimony and news reports, please visit the website, Why Not Train A Child? You will find daily summaries there, links to media reports, in addition to a catalogue of information about all of these deaths. I am also beyond impressed with writer Maureen McCauley Evans' reporting on the events and testimony in the courtroom, so much as she's been able. She's chronicled events on her blog, Light of Day Stories. Both of these sources will direct you to media reports from which my here summary was drawn.

The Pearl Method

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Pearl, though you may read more HERE, let me offer this summary. Michael Pearl is an evangelical minister with a Baptist flavor who follows a system of strict, adversarial hierarchy in the home. As you will have noted in the embedded videos, he devised an authoritarian system of corporal punishment for children. In terms of gender, his wife lays out her family's beliefs in the very shame-based book called Created to be His Helpmeet which became staggeringly popular among Evangelical Christian homeschoolers. He calls his system of punishment “Child Training” which quotes the language of the King James Translation of the Bible directly. He propagates his methods through his parachurch organization and magazine, both named No Greater Joy (coining another phrase written by the Apostle Paul), and through his book called To Train Up A Child. Considering that most of the people who subscribe to his teachings ascribe to a special creation theory of the origins of life and a special status for mankind as created in God's image, Pearl ironically leans towards what I would define as an evolutionary or Darwinian model of how to approach behavioral training and management in children. He derives his behavior modification system for children from the same approach used by the Amish to train horses.

I will state that the book does a very good job of stressing the consistency that a young child needs, I find little else about the book that is positive. It shames parents into accepting a system that requires parents to hit their children with a whip-like piece of pluming supply line because it does not leave lasting marks on the skin. (This technique has resulted in rhabdomyolosis, a potentially lethal condition that causes kidney failure resulting from substantial muscle damage, fragments from which lodge within and block the filtering structures within the kidney.) According to Pearl, punishment must continue until a child's behavior (or comfortable breathing) has been completely “broken,” as demonstrated by the child's passive posture and behavior. Failure to follow through into this broken state is tantamount to sending the child to hell, as resisting the parent is directly analogous to rebellion against God Himself that will surely persist into that child's adulthood.

The media continues to report that the book advocates the striking of children with an implement as early as six months of age, but the book and isolated quotes on the website also state that if a two month old can “fuss,” they can be punished. (Read pertinent quotes from the book HERE, and do not buy the book but read the text HERE.) Pearl also teaches the binding and squeezing of infants to cease their crying (the cause of Sean Paddock's death), not as a method of making that child feel secure but as a form of punishment to arrest behavior. As wives are thought of to be the natural enemy of the husband due to an inherent gender-based adversarial relationship, infants are also defined as diabolical tyrants who willfully seek to dominate their parents. This type of attitude towards other human beings for a greater cause has been demonstrated in Albert Bandura's research to cause moral disengagement.

For more comprehensive information documenting and critiquing Michael Pearl's approach, please visit the website, Why Not Train a Child? The host there, Hermana Linda, has tirelessly catalogued and noted all of the documentation related to these cases, criticisms of Pearl, commentaries about him, and some of Pearl's own responses to criticism against him. She also tracks good information about other practices of abuse within the Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian community. Tulip Girl also hosts a blog with moving perspectives, documentation and histories concerning Pearl, the fallen victims and the survivors, other “Christian” restrictive/abusive child-raising systems, as well as inspiring posts about moving on from such systems to embrace far better alternatives.


In summary, it is quite obvious that I am grieved for the children who suffer (and have died) under this kind of abuse, and I grieve for the parents who were emotionally and spiritually blackmailed into employing such aggressive and harmful practices of abuse because they believed these techniques would be the best thing for their children. Many did so because they believed that it was possible to remove the motivation for bad behavior if not sin itself from the hearts of their children. Many did so, believing that they were actually saving their children's souls from eternal hell and torture. And then, there are other parents who I believe follow these practices because they promise them that they will achieve their implausible fantasies. I think that some also wish for their lives to be easier, so they follow these practices for their own convenience.

As a Christian, I am grieved that such extreme cases have come to represent what Christianity produces, and they use it as a straw man to discount Christians, God, if not all religious pursuits. I find that Pearl's book weaves some Christian ideas into his traditions, but they are not Christian traditions that are found clearly and plainly in the Bible. Some people look at the extreme example of Pearl and believe that he represents all of us. Those who have issues with faith and with Christianity, or even those who have had bad experiences with or in homeschooling where these techniques gained great popularity can use them as a straw man to discount all Christians. In private, I often say that the cruelty of the fringe give the good and earnest Christians and homeschoolers a terrible name, when we do not even follow or believe these types of principles and do not live these lifestyles. Christianity purposes to show forth God's love and boasts that it is the source of health, life, and eternal life. These examples resulted in sad abuse and death. All of this leaves me broken in so many ways, I cannot count them.

Hopefully, there will be more to come
(I am planning two additional posts)
concerning nouthetic and Biblical counseling
after the Williams Trial has concluded.