Tuesday 8 November 2011

Hana Williams: Another child "disciplined" to death

This Saturday will mark six months since the tragic death of thirteen-year-old Hana Grace Rose Williams, born Hana Alemu, who died at the hands of her adoptive parents Larry and Carri Williams.

Hana is the third in a string of deaths linked to the use of training methods outlined in Michael and Debi Pearl's book, "To Train Up a Child". The deaths of seven-year-old Lydia Schatz and four-year-old Sean Paddock were also attributed to the use of these teachings. The siblings of all three children were found to have been struck repeatedly with plumbing supply line, the tool recommended by the Pearls for "training" children as young as six months old.

Are the teachings in the Pearls' book inherently abusive? At first glance, perhaps not. They wrap their message up in pretty bows, encouraging parents to "tie strings" and develop mutual respect and trust. A cursory read-through by a well-meaning parent may raise only a few easily-ignored red flags. But what happens when these teachings are followed religiously and taken to their logical conclusion?

The horrifying affidavit filed after Hana's death paints precisely this picture. For months, Hana had been regularly beaten, denied food, forced to shower under cold water outside, locked in a dark closet, and permitted to use only the lavatory set up for her behind the barn. She ultimately succumbed to hypothermia when left outside in the rain. Her adopted brother had endured similar abuses, including being hosed down in cold water when his documented medical condition caused him to urinate in his pants.

The Pearls would deny that any such abusive actions had any relation to the teachings in their book. And yet according to the affidavit:

"Other forms of discipline taught in this book include cold water bathes to assist in toilet training or putting the children outside in the cold weather, having them miss meals and sleeping on the floor or outside as forms of punishment."

The book itself further substantiates these claims:

"So, my suggestion was that the father explain to the boy that, now that he was a man [at all of three years old], he would no longer be washed in the house. He was too big and too stinky to be cleaned by the babywipes. From now on, he would be washed outside with a garden hose. The child was not to be blamed. This was to be understood as just a progressive change in methods. The next dump, the father took him out and merrily, and might I say, carelessly, washed him off. What with the autumn chill and the cold well water, I don’t remember if it took a second washing or not, but, a week later, the father told me his son was now taking himself to the pot. The child weighed the alternatives and opted to change his lifestyle. Since then, several others have been the recipients of my meddling, and it usually takes no more than three cheerful washings."

"If a child doesn’t like what is on the table, let him do without until the next meal. A little fasting is good training."

"If you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise. You are to rule over him as a benevolent sovereign. Your word is final."

"Use your own judgment as to what is effective. I found five to ten licks usually sufficient. Sometimes, with older children, usually when the licks are not forceful enough, the child may still be rebellious. If this occurs, take time to instruct and then continue the spanking. A general rule is to continue the disciplinary action until the child is surrendered."

Continue the disciplinary action until the child is surrendered...or dead.

After Lydia's death, Micheal released a statement saying that he "laughed at his caustic critics". A child is dead, and Michael laughs. He concludes his lengthy mocking statement with the following:
"Even my chickens are laughing...well, actually it is more like cackling, because they just laid another organic egg for my breakfast and they know that it was that same piece of ¼ inch plastic supply line that trained the dogs not to eat chicken."
To put this into perspective, consider author Stephen King's response when actual school shootings were linked to his book "Rage". Far from laughing, King expressed deep remorse and had the book pulled from further publication. That is the human, compassionate response to death. Michael Pearl laughed.

But there is hope. These deaths are not going unnoticed. As these children rest safely in the arms of their Heavenly Father, others are questioning the Pearls' methods. CNN recently a ran a two-part series on Michael Pearl and Lydia Schatz (Part 1 and Part 2), which was later followed up with their report Ungodly Discipline and interview Faith and Discipline after the death of Hana Williams. The New York Times has also reported on the Pearls and their role in Hana's death. Although the reports thus far have failed to truly unearth the severity of these teachings, they are a hopeful beginning.

Others are speaking out against the Pearls' abusive teachings as well:

In memory of Hana, I will be devoting next week to a three-part exploration of the "rod verses" in Proverbs. While the issue at hand isn't limited to corporal punishment - even many who spank find the Pearls' teachings to be horrifying and cruel - it is the Pearls' twisted use of Scripture that so many supporters, both fervent and reluctant, hold out as evidence that what he teaches must be biblical. It is my hope that the idea of physical chastisement as a necessary, or even acceptable, part of "biblical" discipline will continue to be questioned by those who learn of the tragic results of such twisted theology.

As I've asked before: How many more? How many more children need to die before the teachings of the Pearls are seen for what they really are? How much longer will this needless abuse happen behind closed doors, not at the hands of monsters, but those of well-meaning, loving parents who have been taken in by the Pearls' promises of godly children? This is not a case of taking away nuggets of gold and leaving behind the small part that tends to the extreme - no, this is a case of digging through a garbage dump in hopes of finding one small fleck of gold. Perhaps the Pearls are all the more insidious for that very reason: for all their advice of "tying heartstrings", the practicality of carrying out what they put forth achieves anything but attachment.


  1. I read this, then posted to my FB page for all to see. It's disgusting. I tried talking to my husband about it, and we couldn't even continue talking about it for more than a couple minutes. It puts such a bad taste in your mouth just thinking about it. My son is three days shy of 6 months old, and I can't see how anyone can manage to beat an infant (with a switch, I think he called it)that small. Or any child for that matter, but 6 months old, when they are not even sitting up by themselves yet, it is just disgusting.

  2. This is sick and so, so sad. My heart grieves for children that must go through this. I'm looking forward to your posts next week.

  3. These teachings are just horrific. It's so said that so many Christians embrace these. Who in their right mind could give a three year old (or any child) a cold shower, starve them and force them to use the bathroom outside? I just don't understand how a parent gets to that mindset at all. :(

  4. Hollie, I often wonder myself what would lead a parent to embrace such a mindset. One thought I've had is that in our culture, parents are instructed to ignore their instincts from the moment their child is born. Many are discouraged from breastfeeding, from feeding on cue, from keeping their baby close to them, and so on. They are given all sorts of dire warnings about spoiled and rebellious children. With a foundation of such fear and a habit of ignoring the parental instinct, perhaps it is not surprising that as the children grow, the parent would turn more and more control over to the instructions of these "teachers", continuing the ignore the instincts that would prevent them from embracing such horrific ideas.

    It remains, however, both unimaginable and tragic.

  5. Has there been any update on the trial? I have searched and even went as far as to call the local paper, where the trial is being held, but have found nothing. I really don't want this story to fade away, as Hana deserves better than that, even in death.

    1. She truly does, Steve. The most recent update I've seen was back in January, when Larry Williams violated his court order and was subsequently returned to Skagit County Jail. The blog Why Not Train a Child? continues to follow the story under the tag Hana Alemu "Williams"; I expect there will be an update when the case goes to trial.