The deaths of the three children each allegedly happened at the hands of their parents. Though they lived in different parts of the country, the parents all had several things in common: They adopted children, home-schooled them and beat them with quarter-inch plastic tubes. They also followed the child-rearing teachings of a Tennessee evangelist, Michael...
Sean Paddock suffocated when he was wrapped too tightly in blankets.
Lydia Schatz died after being spanked for several hours.
And Hana Grace-Rose Williams, of Sedro-Woolley, was left out in the cold, where she died naked, face down in the mud.
The deaths of the three children occurred in different parts of the country — North Carolina, California and Washington — but each allegedly happened at the hands of their parents, all of whom were charged with murder.
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The parents had several things in common: They adopted children, home-schooled them and lashed them with quarter-inch-diameter plastic tubes. They also used the child-rearing teachings of a Tennessee evangelist, Michael Pearl, and his wife, Debi.
The Pearls wrote “To Train Up a Child,” first published in 1994, and which teaches parents how to use a “switch” to make their children obey. Michael Pearl says it has sold more than 670,000 copies, been translated into a dozen languages and is popular with some Christians who home-school their children.
The authors say raising a child is as simple as training a dog, and they cite biblical verses supporting use of the “rod.” Their website includes comments from many followers who say they have successfully raised happy, obedient children using the Pearls’ principles.
The Pearls, however, issue a warning to parents: Never spank in anger. And they say many people have “misconstrued” their words.
Critics claim the couple’s advice amounts to a prescription for child abuse.
“It’s truly an evil book,” said Michael Ramsey, the district attorney for Butte County, Calif.
Ramsey successfully prosecuted Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz for hitting their daughter Lydia to death in Paradise, Calif., in 2006 with a plastic plumbing-supply tube — the kind the Pearls mention in an article on their website called “In Defense of Biblical Chastisement.”
Lydia, 7, was adopted from Liberia. Her transgression? Mispronouncing the word “pulled” from a children’s book. She said “pull-ed,” according to Ramsey, and the hitting began.
The Pearls also drew fire after the 2006 murder of 4-year-old Sean Paddock, who suffocated after his mother swaddled him too tightly in a blanket. Lynn Paddock told a Johnston County, N.C., court she wanted to keep her son from getting out of bed.
She was a devoted follower of the Pearls, prosecutors said, and she had come across their writings while surfing the Internet. She’s now serving a life sentence for first-degree murder and felony child abuse.
In Washington state, the death of Hana Williams marked the third time the Pearls’ names and their book have surfaced after the death of a child — but the first time Washington state child-welfare officials had come across it. The Williamses have pleaded not guilty and their case is in the pretrial phase.
Dead of hypothermia
Hana, 13, was adopted from Ethiopia in 2008 by Larry and Carri Williams, of Sedro-Woolley.
She was regularly spanked and locked in a closet, and was forced to sleep in a barn and take garden-hose showers outside, according to an affidavit from the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office. The affidavit was based on information from the couple’s six natural children, another adopted child, medical experts and other family and friends. The interviews were conducted by detectives and investigators from the state’s Child Protective Services.
In 2009, Hana weighed 108 pounds, but over the past two years of her life, she lost 30 pounds, largely because her parents denied her food as punishment, the affidavit says. She was so thin she couldn’t retain enough heat May 12, the night she died. She had been outside with no clothes and died of hypothermia, an autopsy found.
On the backs of her legs were marks consistent with being beaten earlier in the day, the affidavit alleges.
According to the investigators, the Williamses were familiar with the Pearls and had given a copy of their book to an acquaintance.
Larry Williams, 47, a Boeing worker, told sheriff’s detectives the children were disciplined with a piece of white plastic more than a foot long. It had a round ball on the end, and he said he had picked it up at a plumbing-supply store.
On Sept. 29, after four months of investigation, the Williamses were charged with homicide by abuse. They were also charged with assault for allegedly torturing Hana’s adopted brother, 10, also from Ethiopia.
The couple are free on bail. If convicted, they face life terms in prison.
All but one of the Williams children have been placed with relatives or foster parents, CPS says. The eldest, now 18, is back home.
The Williamses, through their attorneys, declined to comment for this article.
Rachel Forde, who represents Larry Williams, said in an email: “Just because the government makes an accusation doesn’t mean it’s true. … Once the jury hears the evidence, unfiltered by the prosecutor’s lens, we believe that a much different picture will emerge about the lives of the Williams children and Hana’s tragic death.”
After Hana died, Michael Pearl issued a statement.
“We share in the sadness over the tragic death of Hana Williams,” he said. “What her parents allegedly did is diametrically opposed to the philosophy of No Greater Joy Ministries and what is taught in the book, ‘To Train Up a Child.’ “
No Greater Joy Ministries is the name of the business the Pearls run in Pleasantville, Tenn.
If the Williamses had a copy of the book, Pearl said, they either didn’t read it or “totally ignored its contents.”
In a telephone interview, Pearl, 66, said spanking is just one part of a comprehensive program on child-rearing and should be “reserved for rebellion when children are angry or defiant.”
“I’m passing on traditional parenting methods, traditional common sense that’s been around for 6,000 years,” he said.
Much of the book — written mostly by Michael Pearl — features advice on developing better “fellowship” with children and serving as a good role model. It’s also got short chapters on home schooling and what to do when your child gets bullied.
But spanking is clearly the heart of the book.
“He that spareth his rod hateth his son,” from Proverbs 13:24, is cited often, as are other biblical references to discipline.
Many Christians disagree with the Pearls, but the Tennessee preacher argues the rod is a gift from God.
“A child properly and timely spanked is healed in the soul and restored to wholeness of spirit,” he writes. “A child can be turned back from the road to hell through proper spankings.”
Pearl encourages parents to think of the switch as a “magic wand” and says teaching a child to obey is like training an animal:
“A dog can be trained not to touch a tasty morsel laid in front of him. Can’t a child be trained not to touch?”
That’s a comparison that irks many child advocates.
“Children aren’t dogs,” says Karen Moline, a member of Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform, a New York-based advocacy group. “They’re thinking, speaking people who have needs and their own identities.”
A Christian website called Why Not Train a Child? was created in 2004 to counter the Pearls’ arguments.
The site links to an online petition asking Amazon.com to stop selling the Pearls’ book. It’s been signed by more than 7,000 people.
In their book, the Pearls suggest setting up training sessions by placing something desirable, like a pair of glasses, in front of an infant. When the child reaches for it, the Pearls advise, calmly say “no” and “thump or swat his hand with a light object so as to cause him a little pain, but not necessarily enough to cry.”
In an interview, Pearl recommended using a plastic spoon, rubber spatula or small branch. It should be slim, like a pencil, and about 2 feet long. “Any kind of thing that can sting without breaking the skin,” he said.
References to the plastic plumbing tubes can’t be found in the book, but they exist in his online postings, where he says he got the idea from an Amish woman with eight or 10 children who said she hung the tube around her neck to keep it handy.
In the interview, however, Pearl said: “It’s not something I advocate or that people need to do.”
An entire chapter of the book is devoted to parental anger, with several warnings not to spank when hotheaded.
“If you can’t control your emotions,” he said, “it’s not for you.”
Pearl says his advice is often misquoted by critics. “We wish people would read our work,” he said.
Ramsey, the California prosecutor, has — and he says it was crucial to the parents of Lydia Schatz.
“I think it was very important for their philosophy,” he said. “They were basically following this recipe for disaster.”
The book has a “seductive pull” for parents who want a cheerful, compliant child, but it creates tension between the two, Ramsey says.
In one passage, Pearl says parents should “not allow the child’s crying to cause them to lighten up on the intensity or duration of the spankings.”
In another, he advises parents to sit on a child if necessary and “hold him there until he has surrendered.”
There is no mention in the Pearls’ book, except for spanking, of the kind of discipline Hana allegedly suffered at the hands of her parents.
The book contains a brief anecdote about a man who toilet-trained his toddler son by washing him with a cold hose, but that is the only reference to cold showers.
He doesn’t write about withholding food or suggest that children be forced to stay outside.
As for locking a child in a closet, Pearl said, “I would consider that an act of extreme child abuse.”
There’s one issue Pearl and his critics agree on — that the Pearls’ spanking strategies weren’t designed to work on older, adopted children. “I encourage Christian parents not to adopt children from foreign countries,” Pearl said, and they shouldn’t be older than any of the parents’ biological children.
He added that spanking is “almost counterproductive” for children once they turn 6.
Hana was 13; Lydia was 7. Both were from foreign countries.
In the end, the Pearls’ book may not be of much significance in the prosecution of Larry and Carri Williams.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” Skagit County Prosector Rich Weyrich said. “If the child’s abused, the child’s abused. There’s no excuse for a death.”
Jeff Hodson: firstname.lastname@example.org.