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Questions Surround Death Of Hana Williams

Amy Radil
09/12/2011

On May 12 of this year, a 13–year–old girl named Hana Williams was found dead from hypothermia in the yard of her Sedro–Woolley home. Williams and her brother Immanuel had been adopted from Ethiopia three years earlier. Little more is known about Hana's time in the United States. Now a criminal investigation is underway. An Ethiopian community group in Seattle recently held a vigil to mourn her death. KUOW's Amy Radil reports.

TRANSCRIPT

Hana Williams' obituary was published in May. It described her great smile, her arrival in the US at age 11 and the fact that she died "unexpectedly." Her death from hypothermia was initially ruled accidental, although Child Protective Services (CPS) also said Hana had lost a great deal of weight while living with the Williams family.

In July, the other children of Larry and Carri Williams — including Hana's brother, Immanuel, who was adopted at the same time — were removed from their home and placed in foster care. The Skagit County Sheriff's Office said Hana's death was under investigation. And then, to the concern of many people, including Seattle's extensive Ethiopian community, there was no more word.

The Williams family home–schooled their children, so there weren't necessarily a lot of people outside the family who had contact with Hana.

Sherry Hill is the spokeswoman for the state's Children's Administration. She says there was no delay in the investigation by Child Protective Services, but there were difficulties.

Hill: "During our investigation, we did attempt to interview the parents and the siblings twice in May, so that takes time as well. But the parents, when we did go to the home would not allow the children to be interviewed without the parents being present."

Ultimately, Hill says, CPS got enough information to argue for the removal of the other eight children. She says once the criminal investigation is concluded, her agency will also be able to share what it's learned.

Hill: "It's likely that we will have determined, since we already argued this for the dependency, that Hana died due to abuse and neglect. Much of that information will be releasable."

Meanwhile, the bystanders to Hana's case are trying to wait patiently. Habtamu Bekele came to the US from Ethiopia at age 12. Now he works for a financial firm in downtown Seattle. Bekele saw a report on the investigation into Hana's death in August. As the story made the rounds, he says people became fired up.

Bekele: "The initial reaction was anger, and Let's go rally, and this and that, and I think through time and a couple days of discussion, we realized that this is still under investigation. It's not like we have all these facts of wrongdoing and nothing has been done."

After more reflection, members of the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association decided to hold a vigil instead of a rally. They invited the public to mourn Hana, and hundreds came. But no one at the event had known her.

Among the vigil organizers was the Bainbridge Island–based writer David Guterson, who adopted a child from Ethiopia four years ago. He used the same agency that the Williams family used when they adopted Hana and her brother Immanuel.

Guterson: "There were a couple things that concerned me. One was that the case of Hana Williams had the potential to sow some seeds of misunderstanding between the adoptive community and the Ethiopian community."

Guterson's appointed task for the vigil was to give whatever background he could find about Hana's early life. He says adoption records stated only that Hana's biological mother disappeared, her father had died and she was placed in an orphanage. She and her brother apparently joined the Williams family in part because Immanuel is deaf, and the family speaks sign language. But Guterson was able learn almost nothing about the time Hana spent in the US.

Meanwhile, rumors have swirled about the family's discipline methods and harsh treatment of Hana.

But Guterson says he's trying to keep himself and others from rushing to judgment. Guterson's father was a criminal attorney in Seattle, and he says he grew up hearing how easily facts can be misconstrued.

Guterson: "Hypothetically, it could be that this girl was suffering terribly from depression and anorexia and other emotional and psychological problems, that she was running away from home, that this family was doing everything they could to help her, but in the end she died of hypothermia in her own yard. We simply don't know. It could be that, or it could be something horrible; it could be terrible abuse. We don't know."

Skagit County prosecutor Rich Weyrich says he can't comment on the investigation, but he says, "It's not being ignored, put it that way."

Mulu Mebet Retta is president of the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association, and helped organize the vigil. She says she's worried about Immanuel, and has been in touch with Child Protective Services in hopes of reaching out to him.

She wants to invite him to visit their community center in Seattle, but such a visit would potentially need a judge's approval.

All the children are in foster care except one. He's now 18, and moved back with his parents.

Skagit County Commissioner G. Brian Paxton is overseeing the Williams children's care through the Superior Court. At a recent court hearing, he overruled the parents' wishes that the children continue home schooling, saying that's not an option right now. The boys likely entered public schools for the first time in their lives last week.

Immanuel will attend a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Anacortes.

Attorneys for the children say they want to be reunited with their parents. Judge Paxton warned them that despite any assurances their parents are giving them, it's not clear if or when they'll be able to return.

I'm Amy Radil, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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