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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Kathryn Joyce's Discussion of the Death of Hana Williams (and a Suggestion for a New Diagnosis)

Kathryn Joyce, the author of The child catchers and other publications about child abuse associated with fundamentalist religious convictions, has published a heartbreaking narrative about the death of Hana Williams, a 13-year-old adoptee from Ethiopia  ( The story is truly a dreadful one and involves years of mistreatment culminating in Hana’s death from exposure and hypothermia, for which the adoptive parents have been convicted and given prison sentences of many years.

Hana’s life in a family of nine children had been ruled by the infamous book To train up a child, by Michael and Debi Pearl, which advocates punishments such as thrashing with plastic plumbing supply line from the age of four months (yes, months). The punishments she experienced, which also included being confined in small or isolated spaces and made to shower with the garden hose outdoors, were inflicted for getting homework wrong, standing in the wrong place, cutting the grass too short, and “sneaking” food (this last being a frequent theme in abuse of foster and adopted children).  Her death from hypothermia occurred after hours without shelter in drizzly 40-degree F. weather; her adoptive mother, Carri Williams, no doubt was unaware that a person does not have to literally freeze to death, but can die as a result of lowered body temperature at temperatures far above the freezing point. Death caused or facilitated by hypothermia has occurred in other similar cases, like the death of the Russian adoptee Viktor Matthey (or, commonly, the deaths of boaters who fall overboard in cold waters).

Kathryn Joyce’s article connects the Williams’s adoptions, and the abuse of Hana and other children, with the parents’ religious beliefs. As Joyce has pointed out in The child catchers, a movement for adoption has in recent years been part of American evangelical Christian thinking. In addition, some fundamentalist religious groups have emphasized publications recommending parenting that demanded children’s obedience and enforced it with physical punishment. This tendency began with the Baby Wise books in the 1990s (publications later strongly criticized because the rigid regulation of early feeding had harmed some infants), and proceeded to approval of  the obedience-producing manual To train up a child (see for another death associated with this book). The enforcement of child obedience as the principle task of parenting dates back to Puritan times in the United States, and belief in this value has always considered intense punishment as regrettable but essential to save the child from danger of hellfire. In most cases, however, the children do not die or even have severe enough injuries that the parents would seek medical attention for them, so we are not likely to hear of them--  and as many of the children in  question are homeschooled, there are no teachers, and perhaps no near neighbors, to notice chronic mistreatment.

Joyce also describes the connection between fundamentalist Christian beliefs and multiple adoptions resulting in “mega-families” with 20 or more children. The belief that the “Great Commission” of spreading the Gospel requires adoption of children who would otherwise not be Christians is clearly related to this phenomenon--  if a person believes it is a religious duty to take as many children as possible, clearly only practical barriers will limit family size. As Joyce points out in The child catchers, any care deficits that may occur as a result of having too many children are considered to be outweighed by the spiritual victories accomplished. But any parent or child care provider can testify that having too many children to care for makes it impossible to do a good job, or even to notice the needs of every child. For this reason, state laws and guidelines set limits on the staff:child ratio of  day care centers in order to facilitate good individual development. For whatever reason--  perhaps shared faith or personal relationships—not all adoption organizations take these issues into consideration, but instead cooperate with the creation of adoptive families too large to care for effectively. (Yes, the children may help care for each other, but they do not do the job that a committed adult can do with a small number of children.)

I wonder, though, whether in addition to religious beliefs, we may be seeing these “mega-families” formed as the result of a form of emotional disturbance in the adoptive parents. It’s certainly clear that excessive motivation toward some normal activities should be regarded as pathological. Excessive eating and drinking, and “sex addiction”, interfere with normal life and are reasons for psychological treatment. Hypersexuality may even be a symptom of brain damage. Could there, then, be a pathological level of the wish to have children that most (but certainly not all) people experience? Is there some yet undescribed problem we might call “hyperparentalism”, which leads to an inescapable, anxious yearning for more and more children, but does not cause good care for the children when they arrive? If so, can we detect this before adoption--  and can we get adoption caseworkers to regard such urges as pathological rather than admirable?

I throw this idea out as a possible explanation of part of the megafamily phenomenon. I know, of course, that there are plenty of other reasons for this kind of behavior. These may include financial benefits for foster care or adoption. There may be advantages of social respect and honor for women whose religious and cultural milieu does not permit her to be employed or to study toward professional qualifications. There may also be advantages for husbands who would prefer for their wives to stay at home and be as dependent as possible.

 When these benefits are mingled with religious beliefs, they seem to offer some explanation of multiple adoptions, and even of cruel treatment. Nevertheless, I have to wonder whether the explanation is complete without some consideration of the more personal motives of adoptive parents who seek more children than they can care for, and maltreat the ones they have.      


  1. I wonder, though, whether in addition to religious beliefs, we may be seeing these “mega-families” formed as the result of a form of emotional disturbance in the adoptive parents. It’s certainly clear that excessive motivation toward some normal activities should be regarded as pathological.

    There certainly are those who refer to some of the mega-families as "collectors." Occasionally on the news you hear about pet "hoarders." It's not unheard of for these folks to start out as legit animal rescuers who let things get horribly out of hand. Maybe there really is a compulsive element??

    I should add, though, that in the case of some families, it really seems to be a case of, "How do I say no when it means a child will die?" You hear that a lot, especially from parents who adopted disabled and/or medically fragile kids from some pretty terrible orphanages in Eastern Europe. They write about being haunted by what they saw in those places and by leaving so many suffering children behind.

    Obviously, that rationale can only go so far. At some point you do have to put the needs of the kids you already have above those of the kids who could be saved. It's just a really hard line for some of these parents to draw, having seen what they've seen firsthand in the orphanages.

    And, of course, this is with the full acknowledgement that many of the kids--such as Hana--probably were not in dire need of adoption. But I did want to explain the rationale that I see from a certain subset, as I think that rationale is a little different from just plain-vanilla child collecting.

    1. Your points are very well taken. I don't think I was clear in saying that my notional diagnosis would be only one of many motives for taking more children than can be cared for.

      I'm just trying to think of some characteristic of parents who harm their adopted children that might be identifiable before the adoption was approved, and that adoption caseworkers might be able to pick up and be willing to respond to. Although it might well be that people who are haunted by memories and therefore want to adopt more will never be identified as potential problems by caseworkers ( who tend to have a "rescuing" theme in their own lives), it's possible that caseworkers could pay attention to a sense of anxiety and compulsion driving a potential adoptive parent.

      I believe that we do need to get away from a romanticized view that a huge family is wonderful in and of itself, and that people who adopt many children are therefore noble and even saintly, whatever the children's backgrounds and whatever the consequences. When a family is so big that if it were a day care center it would have to be licensed and comply with child care laws, we need to stop assuming that we can depend on the innate goodness of the adoptive parents to make everything come out well.

      My question is, can we find some characteristic of adoption candidates that can be identified before harm is done, rather than depending on the uncertain enforcement of the law to protect children?