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Parents Found Guilty in 'To Train up a Child' Death


Late last month, a couple was found guilty of murder in the child abuse death of their adopted daughter. A judge sentenced Carrie Williams to 37 years in prison for homicide by abuse, saying the woman "probably deserved more." Larry Williams was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the death of 13-year-old Hana Williams. On the night of Hana's death, Carri Williams called police to say the girl had "unintentionally killed herself" in the backyard. Police found Hana's body wrapped in a sheet; the cause of death was a combination of hypothermia and malnutrition. The Williams' allegedly starved her for days, locked her in a closet, forced her to sleep in a barn, and would not even let her come into the home to use the restroom, making her use a portable toilet behind the barn. In the home, police found a 15-inch tube the Williams's used to beat their daughter and a son adopted from Ethiopia at the same time as Hana.

The Williams case is notable because it is at least the third child abuse murder case connected to the controversial "Christian" parenting book, "To Train up a Child." The book, written by Michael and Debi Pearl, encourages corporal punishment in order to "train" children. The book, the Pearls say, is not a discipline book, but rather a guide to train children to be submissive and obedient before the need for discipline arises. To date, the book has been found in the home of at least three children, including Hana Williams, who have died from abuse.

In the book, the Pearls advocate using a 15-inch plastic tube, a switch, weed eater cord, or 1/4-inch plumbing line to strike children and infants as young as six months old in order to "break" them. In some instances, parents are encouraged to place an enticing treat in front of the child, then strike the child when he or she reaches for it. The Pearls recommend using the lightweight switch or tube because it is easily portable and not likely to leave marks--critics say this is to mask abuse, while the Pearls say they caution against abuse and tell parents not to strike hard enough to leave marks.

Yet while the book "To Train up a Child" purports to caution against abuse or extreme measures, the words in the book seem to guide parents toward abuse: 

  • "If he continues to show defiance by jerking around and defending himself, or by expressing anger, wait a moment, lecture again, and again spank him until it's obvious he's totally broken." (p. 59) 
  • "Switch him 8-10 times on his bare legs or bottom. While waiting for the pain to subside, speak calm words of rebuke. If his crying turns to a true, wounded, submissive whimper, you have conquered; he has submitted his will. If his crying is still defiant, protesting, and other than a response to pain, spank him again. If this is the first time he's come up against someone tougher than he is, it may take awhile...if you stop before he is voluntarily submissive, you have confirmed to him the value and effectiveness of a screaming protest!" (p.80) 
  • "If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he has surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring, and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally...A general rule is to continue the disciplinary action until the child has surrendered." (p. 46)

In addition to Hana's death, the deaths of two other children have been connected to the Pearls' book "To Train Up a Child." 

  • In 2010, 7-year-old Lydia Schatz died of rhabdomyolosis, or muscle death caused by extreme trauma usually caused in car accidents or even extreme Crossfit-style workouts. Lydia Schatz's injuries were the result of continual spanking. She was, quite literally, spanked to death by her adoptive parents who were practicing the disciple measures in the book. Lydia's father, Kevin Schatz, was convicted of second degree murder and torture; her mother, Elizabeth Schatz, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and unlawful corporal punishment.
  • In 2006, Lynn Paddock was convicted of murder in the death of her 4-year-old son, who was wrapped so tightly in a blanket that he suffocated. Paddock's surviving children testified that they were beaten daily with a plumbing tube. A copy of "To Train Up a Child" was found in the home.

The Pearls and their supporters say that "To Train Up a Child" encourages spending quality time with children, and while it does encourage parents to use corporal punishment, they say it does not condone abuse. However, many critics say that, at the very least, this book provides support for abusive behaviors, and in the hands of overwhelmed parents or parents with abusive tendencies, it becomes a deadly weapon.

In Oklahoma, corporal punishment is not forbidden--"reasonable force" is allowed for disciplining children. However, what one person sees as reasonable force for training a child may fall outside the lines of acceptable discipline. Learn more about Oklahoma child abuse laws or visit our website to schedule a confidential consultation with a child abuse defense lawyer.

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