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Originally published September 12, 2013 at 5:18 PM | Page modified September 13, 2013 at 7:57 AM

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Guest: Reform adoption laws after Hana Williams’ death

State adoption laws are in dire need of overhaul, writes guest columnist David Guterson.

Special to The Times

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THE high-profile trial of Larry and Carri Williams — both found guilty Monday of charges stemming from the death of their adopted daughter Hana and the assault of their adopted son — highlights the need for meaningful adoption reform in Washington state.

Hana died of malnutrition and hypothermia. Parental practices that contributed to her death included, among other horrors, incarceration in a locked, unlit closet about 2 feet wide and 4 feet long.

The Williamses are expected to be sentenced in October, at which point the news coverage will probably stop and Hana’s death will recede from view. In the meantime, the people of Washington will have a window of opportunity to press for adoption reform while cameras are rolling and Twitter feeds are active.

The reform needed should militate aggressively against abuse of adopted children. Current laws are patently insufficient and in dire need of overhaul. In fact, during 2011 — the year Hana died — the state Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsman documented 11 cases of severe abuse and/or neglect of adopted children.

In response to these and to other cases from 2009 and 2010, that office and the state’s Department of Social and Health Services convened a work group that, last September, made reform recommendations. Its efforts, while laudable, went nowhere quickly. The bill they inspired, Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1675, expired in committee.

There’s a silver lining, however. Had the bill passed, legislators might have felt justified in sitting on their hands after reading about Hana in the newspaper. Yet the bill had proposed next to nothing: a slight stiffening of qualifications for social workers performing home studies; some new procedures for tracking failed adoptions; and finally, that approval of prospective adoptive parents should not be based on their child-discipline practices unless those practices are illegal. To what extent would any of that have helped Hana?

While the Williams case should galvanize political will behind adoption reform, proposals will have to strike the right balance between the productive and the possible. Calls for increased scrutiny of adoptive parents or for limiting their parental rights will immediately run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the liberty of parents to raise their children free of state interference.

To put this another way, the minute a child is legally adopted, adoptive parents have rights over him or her that were not in place the minute before.

Given these realities, efforts at adoption reform should focus on vetting prospective adoptive parents and on insuring that children are not placed in homes where they will be abused. Current preplacement and home-study practices don’t work.

After Larry Williams was convicted, his attorneys stated that he was “naive and unprepared to deal with” the challenges inherent in the adoptions he had undertaken. It is exactly that sort of naiveté and lack of preparation we must address through legislation. The time for reform has come.

David Guterson, a Bainbridge Island resident, is the author of “Snow Falling on Cedars” and an adoptive parent.

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