Removed From the Barbours, The Children Have Flourished

In “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers,” Anne Lamott wrote…Nothing can possibly make things okay again. And then, people and grace surround the critically injured person or the bereft family. Time passes. It’s beyond bad. But people don’t bolt. Love falls to earth, rises from the ground, pools around the afflicted. Love pulls people back to their feet. Bodies and souls are fed. Bones and lives heal. New blades of grass grow from charred soul. The sun rises. Wow.

Many people have asked how the two adopted Ethiopian children adopted by Douglas and Kristen Barbour are doing. The little ones arrived from Ethiopia in March 2012, were removed from the Barbours by the state of Pennsylvania in October 2012, and went to a foster home. The Barbours pled “no contest” in June 2014 to abusing and endangering the children, and terminated their parental rights this summer. They were sentenced this week: probation for him and a prison term of 6-12 months for her, which she may well serve at her home, not in prison. Read more here.

The children, a boy and girl, now 8 and 3, are flourishing since being adopted by a new family that includes parents Alison and Kevin Patterson, plus 3 siblings. It’s such good news, and the only happy part of this whole miserable case.

The following information is from the Victim Impact statements Alison and Kevin submitted to the court for the Barbours’ sentencing hearing this week; the statements and the photos below are part of the public record from the sentencing.

Alison Patterson’s statement:

“E  is an athletic, intelligent and good-humored boy with a handful of close friends. He debates between a future in engineering or medicine, though sometimes he considers professional sports or the circus.

He also struggles with his self-esteem, has some separation anxiety when parted from the other children in our family, has light scars from the sloughing of skin (“peeling like paint” was the language used to describe the condition), and has intrusive thoughts about the summer and early fall of 2012. These symptoms have decreased significantly over the past year, and he is a far different child from when he arrived, small and fearful in October 2012.

The first day we met, E asked me which bathroom he could use. When I told him that he could use any bathroom he wished, he told me that his “body was unsafe for other people.” I told him this was certainly untrue. But he believed it to his core — why would he have been kept in the bathroom in the dark if it wasn’t true?

He feared the dark, which we corrected by using nightlights. He feared the bathroom fans so much so that he would break into a cold sweat, and we replaced them with whisper-quiet fans. He asked where he could eat, what he could eat, whether he was allowed to eat the same foods as other family members, and whether he was still allowed to use the same bathroom or eat the same food when we had guests. He could not be upstairs alone, and feared that if he went to his room unaccompanied we might forget and leave him there.

He told us that after what had happened, he “[did] not know how to play with other kids anymore.” Our other children amazed me and my husband with their intuition and with their compassion. We supervised playdates closely to promote positive peer interactions, and his post-traumatic stress disorder therapy helped him to see himself as not so alien to other people. He began to make lasting connections.

It has been suggested that many of the behaviors observed were adoption-related, and that E was “troubled” and “overwhelming.” But his life in Ethiopia was no more “troubled” than that of many other adopted people. While his first family could not provide for him, he was and is adored by his Ethiopian foster mother K, and her grown children W and EE.  K says that she “call[s] him my son” and she misses him. EE keeps E’s picture at her own home, and thinks of him every day. I debated revealing this very private bit of information, but I hope it helps [the court] to think differently about “orphan.” E has been loved by many, and he is the son of many who are proud to call him son.

For (the daughter) R, anti-seizure medication had to be taken exactly on time to avoid seizure activity, this in a child with no seizure history prior to a traumatic brain injury in September 2012. When she arrived in our home, she had no reflexes, and she would not catch herself if she leaned while sitting. She had to learn to walk again, but we could not risk a fall. Thus, I had to be within literal arms’ reach at all times.

But she learned to walk. And then to run. And soon, with therapy and role modeling by the children around her, to talk. She is a marvel: funny and warm-hearted.

She also has poor impulse control, and a combination of high intelligence and the significant likelihood of permanent learning disability as a result of frontal lobe damage.Her vision has improved. Her Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation specialist is pleased by her progress, but cautions that school will be a challenge. Most of her disability will be invisible, and a private struggle.

R is too young to speak to you about her experiences, and perhaps too young to have any speakable memory of the events. But someday she will have to come to terms with the fact that her difficult start in Ethiopia was followed by her near death in Pittsburgh. E says little these days about 2012, and he functions marvelously in a large and loving family. But he also has a lot to live with for a little person, and as loved as he is, his life will never be normal. He will not always be a PTSD patient, but he will always be a child who almost starved to death in the midst of plenty.

E and R, like all child victims, deserve the court’s protection, as well as a sentence proportional to the harm done and permanency of the damage and reflective of society’s understanding of the value of these children’s lives.”

Little R Looking at a Llama– Photo by Heather Kresge Photography

Kevin Patterson’s statement:

“R is exuberant. She brings life to every room that she enters, and she has a smile that lights up everyone around her. She is active and smart. She likes to take care of baby dolls, and her hugs are strong and insistent. She is impulsive and trusting, throwing herself off of a climber at the playground and into my arms – “You catch me!” she said with a smile and without having considered the risks. She knows that she is adored.

As her father, I know that someone tried to kill my little girl, and that someday I will have to help her come to terms with that knowledge.

I want for my children what any good father would want. I want them to know that they are valuable, that their existence as people is important and meaningful. I want them to find joy in the world without feeling like it may all come crashing down at any moment. I know that, despite my love for them, I shouldn’t have them. The conditions under which they came to be my children are those of a dangerous and unjust world.

I have done and will continue to do everything in my power to expose them to the parts of the world that are lovely and good. I ask for your (the court’s) help in that mission. I would like to, one day, be able to say to them, and show them the proof, that their lives were valued not only by our family, but by our society. Given the seriousness of the crimes committed, the lasting effects on my children, the lack of admission of guilt or even expression of remorse for the children’s pain and for all they have lost, I ask for the maximum sentence possible for the crimes to which the Barbours have pled no contest.”

Kevin and Alison are not taking questions about the case, and have not commented on the Barbours’ sentence except in the Victim Impact statements above. A September 15 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article “Franklin Park couple sentenced for abusing adoptees” is available here.

Kevin and Alison shared the following thoughts with me, thanking the community, referring to Hana and Immanuel Williams, noting that no child should be abused, and that all children deserve justice:

We extend our sincere thanks to all who have expressed their love and support for the children. We are especially thankful to all those who have spoken up for our son and daughter when they could not speak for themselves and when we could not speak for them. Maureen McCauley Evans, amaseganallo (thank you in Amharic).

Hana Williams is in our hearts today, as are Immanuel and his family, and all children who have been blamed for the violence committed against them. It is worrisome that we have to assert repeatedly that it is never, ever, ever the child’s fault, but assert it we must.

Patterson Family Photo

My thanks to Kevin and Alison, and all good wishes to the children. May they always be safe and surrounded with love. Bones and lives heal. Wow.

Update on Trial of International Adoption Guides

Following the February 2014 indictment by the US Department of Justice of the adoption agency International Adoption Guides, three former staff members were arrested for fraud and bribery involving Ethiopian adoptions. One staff member, Haile Mekonnen (the IAG program director in Ethiopia) remains, apparently, in Ethiopia. Of the three arrested, Alisa Bivens (IAG Ethiopian program director in the US) pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing. You can read more here.

The trial of the other two US agency staffers, Mary Mooney (IAG Executive Director) and James Harding (IAG International Programs Director), was scheduled to start tomorrow, September 16, in South Carolina District Court, but it looks like it will be rescheduled. This is not unusual in our court system, and happens for a number of reasons. Maybe the lawyers need more time, or the defendants are working on a plea agreement, or there is more evidence that needs to be shared and reviewed.

Alisa Bivens will be sentenced later this year. In the meantime, victim statements are still being accepted by the Department of Justice Victim Advocate office. I urge all families who were victims of the IAG crimes–fraudulently obtaining adoption decrees and signing off on adoption contracts, misrepresenting information about children and adoption, submitting counterfeit forms to the US State Department, and bribing Ethiopian officials–to speak up.

This is from the DOJ press release in February:

“If you believe you have been a victim of this crime involving the named individuals or International Adoption Guides, please call 1-800-837-2655 and leave your contact information. If you have questions or concerns about adoptions from Ethiopia in general, please contact the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State through the email address AskCI@State.gov. If you have specific questions about an adoption from Ethiopia that IAG facilitated, you should contact the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State through the email address IAGadoptioncases@state.gov. 

This ongoing investigation is being conducted by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The prosecution is being conducted by Assistant United States Attorney Jamie Schoen of the District of South Carolina and Trial Attorney John W. Borchert of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.”

While it is heartening that the prosecution and punishment of IAG officials are moving ahead, it is dismaying (unconscionable, horrifying, unbelievable–I’m not sure of the right word) that this even happened. So much grief, loss, and heartache for so many children and families, in the US and in Ethiopia.

Adoption agencies, adoption-related organizations, COA (the Hague accrediting entity), and others are, I hope, looking long and hard not only at the crimes allegedly committed, but also at what services have been and should be offered to all the families who were affected by this. I hope they speak up for the children and families as well, acknowledging what is at stake here and how justice might be achieved.

Given that IAG is obviously out of business, how will adoption agency professionals step up and speak out? What standards will the supporters of Children in Families First insist on? How will this affect future families placing their children and those adopting? How will governments and agencies work to ensure that adoptions are not based in fraud and corruption?

Many victims here. Please speak up.

 

The Barbours’ Punishment: Probation and Alternative Housing

At today’s sentencing for the abuse and endangerment of their two adopted Ethiopian children, Douglas Barbour received 5 years of probation, and Kristen Barbour received six to 12 months of incarceration but is eligible for alternative housing.

Kristen Barbour said during the sentencing: “I hope (the children) will understand my intent and have it in their heart to forgive.”

As part of the plea agreement, the Barbours had terminated their parental rights. The children are doing well now that they no longer are with the Barbours. Their new adoptive parents testified at the sentencing about the boy’s starvation and malnutrition, and the little girl’s fractures and other physical problems.

What a message this punishment sends about adoption, parenting, and the value of children.

I will post more later. A link to a local CBS news report is here; a story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sorrow and Tragedy of Sonya Spoon

Surely you’ve seen the photos and heard the news: 24-year-old Sonya Spoon admitted to murdering her two small children. It’s a tragedy from any objective view. You’ve probably seen the photos from Sonya’s twitter feed, the sweet pictures of her children. Heartbreaking to see them now.

One of her tweets was a link to the song “Missing” by Evanescence. Sonya wrote that “Evanescence always gets how I feel during the highs and the lows.” It was posted June 7, exactly 2 months before she murdered her son and daughter. Why this song resonated with her, why she posted the link–I have no insights. The lyrics, though, are powerful:

Please, please forgive me,
But I won’t be home again.
Maybe someday you’ll look up,
And, barely conscious, you’ll say to no one:
“Isn’t something missing?”

You won’t cry for my absence, I know -
You forgot me long ago.
Am I that unimportant…?
Am I so insignificant…?
Isn’t something missing?
Isn’t someone missing me?

It’s possible that the lyrics reminded her, as an adoptee, of her Russian mother.

It’s possible they reminded her of the father of her child.

It’s possible they reflected how she felt in the world.

It’s possible it’s none of these things.

Sonya’s tragedy hits close to me because the murders took place in Cheverly, Maryland, where my kids, all now in their mid-20’s, grew up and still live, and where they rode the bus as kids to the same elementary school as Sonya and her brother.

I remember seeing Sonya, a little blond child, when she was adopted at the age of 3 from Russia. I think that would have been in 1993, around a time I was working professionally in adoption and becoming aware of the very tough realities of Russian orphanages and baby houses. I knew the family only in passing, to say hello to when we passed in halls of their elementary school, or walked by their house, around the corner from ours, en route to the Cheverly Community Center. We never know the sorrow and struggles of those we pass by.

How could a mother kill her two little children? I have no answer or insights about that, just incredible heartache for the children, their mother, their fathers, their grandparents, their playmates, their family, their friends. Sonya, whatever the judicial system outcome is, will have to live the rest of her life with the knowledge that her children are dead, and that she killed them.

Of course mental illness played a role here. I would guess adoption did too, and we have to stop being afraid to recognize how trauma affects individuals. I’m not saying this happened because she was adopted. Please. I’m saying that what happened to her in utero, what happened to her during her early childhood, what may exist in her genetic history, what the impact of being separated from her biological family may have had–much of that is related to trauma and loss. There is a spectrum to trauma, trust, and grief around adoption, and many children are resilient. Most grow up to be strong, healthy adults. Some have deep, dark, lifelong, real struggles.

I don’t know what went on in Sonya’s head. I feel certain that her parents tried to get help for her, that they loved her and their grandchildren deeply, and that the complexity of their grief right now knows no bounds. Anyone who has struggled to help a loved one, adopted or not, with mental illness knows well how tenuous the lifeline can be, how mentally ill people can accept and reject help, how high hopes can be for the right meds, the right therapy, the right treatment. And how easily those hopes can be dashed.

In most cases, of course, we muddle through, perhaps not elegantly but nonetheless safely, though often not without scars.

My final point here is a minor one, perhaps, but still. You’ve seen this photo of Sonya from news outlets, which many have thought to be Sonya’s police booking photo. Many have asked how she could smile in such a photo.

IMG_4808

It’s from her driver’s license. This doesn’t condone the crime, or the guilt, or the tragedy. It does suggest we often don’t have the full story when we pass judgement.

As a mother, as an adoptive parent, as a grandmother, I grieve. It’s all I can do.

 

 

 

 

 

Smear Campaign? No, There Are Other Reasons for Adoption Slowdown in Ethiopia.

Maybe Katie Jay Gordon, Esquire, is right. Maybe the US State Department is shutting down adoption in Ethiopia and then trying to cover it up. Maybe “State is responsible in large part for the dramatic slowing down of Ethiopian adoptions,” and “is responsible for the additional months or years that your child endured orphanage life while they (the State Department) were busy with their smear campaign against your family.”

Those quotes are from her recent blog post, US State Department Covers Up Smear Campaign Against Families Adopting From Ethiopia. I’m not an apologist for the State Department, but I do have a hard time understanding why and how State has covered up a smear campaign against families adopting from Ethiopia. We will have to wait to see the outcome of Katie’s lawsuit.

I certainly agree that there has been a significant slowdown in Ethiopian adoptions in recent years, and it’s not because there are fewer children who need families. I do not, though, think it’s only because the State Department is being uncooperative and smearing families–if they are actually doing that.

No, I’d argue there are many other reasons that adoptions have slowed down. The reasons are not as tidy as the State Department’s ostensible ploy. They are nonetheless very real.

Let’s start with the admittedly anecdotal. I know dozens of adoptive families, and they know dozens as well, who have adopted from Ethiopia, been told one story about their children’s history and reasons for adoptive placement, and who have subsequently found out the stories and the reasons were false. Dead parents are alive. Grandparents or siblings wanted to care for the children. A young mother was bullied into placing. Ethiopians were misled about what would happen after they placed their children.

Loads of examples of fraud and deception. Many have been uncovered when children were able to speak sufficient English, or when families did their own searches, or when adult adoptees returned and reunited. I also know many families who have been afraid to find out that their children might have been trafficked or kidnapped or otherwise fraudulently placed, and so have never opened that particular door.

Ethiopia, adoption agencies, and the US State Department are, I have no doubt, aware of many of these cases. They all follow Facebook and the Internet. They have no legal responsibility for the cases once the children’s adoptions are finalized. We can argue about the ethical responsibility. Nonetheless, I’d bet that the significant amount of fraud discovered after adoption is one reason for the slowdown, as well as for the increased searching, regulations, and hoops (PAIR, for example) these days, prior to adoption.

And that’s a good thing. Too many adoptive and first families have been devastated by fraud in adoption.

For more concrete examples of reasons for the slowdown, look to the news, which reaches Ethiopia as much as it does the US, Europe, Canada, and Australia.

Ethiopia itself announced a slowdown in 2011, for a number of reasons: concerns about fraud, insufficient staff, too many adoptions to process in a short period of time, intent to focus more on keeping children in-country, and more. They have yet to sign the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, and do not yet have the infrastructure that the treaty would require.

There have been several significant related developments in recent years.  One is the recent federal indictment of the adoption agency International Adoption Guides, including one staff person who has admitted guilt. The other 2 American staffers are due in court soon. The Ethiopian staff person remains in Ethiopia, and it’s unclear what will happen with him. The US Justice Department spent years building the case, which has a clear trail of bribery, corruption, and deceit. I’ve written about it several times, most recently here: Adoption Agency Director Pleads Guilty to Fraud, Bribery in Ethiopia.

Another example is the 2009 Australian Broadcasting System’s show Fly Away Children, which was the first major shadow over Ethiopian adoptions, suggesting that many children were being adopted under fraudulent conditions.

An important point here is that the adoption agency involved in that case, Christian World Adoption (CWA), was accredited for Hague Convention work by the Council on Accreditation. That is supposed to be a gold standard of reassurance for the State Department, adoptive families, and overseas governments regarding an adoption agency’s finances, staffing, programs, record-keeping, and so on. CWA was fully accredited–right up to the day in February 2013 when it suddenly closed its doors due to bankruptcy. Several other COA-accredited agencies have also closed, leaving families in the lurch as far as post-adoption services, annual reports, and access to information. These closings also suggest that the COA Hague accreditation is no guarantee of an adoption agency’s stability and longevity.

Another example in the news is the Slate article in November 2013 by Kathryn Joyce: Hana’s Story: An adoptee’s tragic fare, and how it could happen again. The article is about Hana Williams, the Ethiopian adoptee whose adoptive parents were found guilty of homicide. It is also about many other Ethiopian adoptees, young people now living on the fringes of American society, unable to return to Ethiopia but thrown out by their adoptive families. It’s a sobering read, and I’d be willing to guess Slate has readers in Ethiopia as well as in the US Justice and State Departments.

The case of Hana Williams, who died in 2011, has reverberated around the adoption community and the globe. Thankfully it is, one hopes, aberrational. Last December, the Ethiopian TV channel did an hour-long show about Hana and about other problematic adoptions; I have no doubts that the show affected the perception of adoption, and thus could have affected the slowdown.

Unfortunately, there is another tragic case of abuse and endangerment of Ethiopian adoptees right now in Pennsylvania. While again these cases are not common, they are horrifying for any of us to hear about, and would be dismissed only by the most callous hearts. There is a possibility that the adoptive parents could receive probation for the abuse and endangerment to which they have pled no contest. I’ve written about the case here.

It could also be that Ethiopia and the US State Department are paying more attention to recent reports regarding outcomes for first families, about whom an astonishingly, shamefully small amount of research is available. While their voices have been marginalized in the past, first families are slowly being heard, and their needs acknowledged. Some solid research is available here and here. Perhaps adoptions have slowed down so as to improve services to first families, before and after placement. I’d love to hear more from adoption agencies regarding this.

There is also increasing momentum in Ethiopia around orphan prevention and family preservation services. These are big, complicated, vitally important undertakings. Child sponsorship programs through Mommas With a Mission, the creation of new families from widows and orphans by Bring Love In, and the care of children in family settings in AIDS-ravaged communities by Selamta are only a few examples of successful programs that keep children from orphanages, or better, with their families. Add to that the work of AHope, which focuses on HIV+ orphans, and WEEMA, which empowers communities through clean water, education, health care, and economic development programs, and Roots Ethiopia, which supports community-identified solutions for job creation and education, and Ethiopia Reads, which build schools, libraries, and literacy across Ethiopia–add them up (and there are many more equally wonderful programs) and you can see how families can be preserved and strengthened, so that they don’t have to lose their children.

Many of the above and similar organizations are fueled by adoptive parents. If they had not adopted Ethiopian children, they may well not have established, fundraised, and sustained these organizations. It’s an unintended consequence, perhaps, of international adoption. It’s significant–it shows that many parents, while recognizing adoption as a means of bringing a beloved child to them, also know that the circumstances that brought their child to need adoption still exist, after the child is taken out of the country. Arguably, Ethiopia could continue to promote adoptions because of the substantial revenue it means to the country (fees, travel, translators, hotels, meals, guides, etc.), as well as the commitment by many adoptive parents to programs that help Ethiopians at little or no cost to the government. The revenue has certainly declined significantly. I am hopeful that the commitment of adoptive parents to their child’s country will continue regardless. Our goal as adoptive parents should be to build a world where children don’t need to be adopted, where they are born into and stay with loving, safe, healthy families.

I know all too well that there are children in great need right now: in need of families, clean water, access to health care, and basic education. I know what it’s like to be a waiting adoptive parent, desperate to bring an already loved if unknown child into the family. I also know what it’s like to look into the tear-filled eyes of a mother who has wrongly lost her child to adoption.

Time will tell if Ethiopia and the US State Department are making good and thoughtful decisions about adoption. They will, I hope, be able to answer not just to adoptive parents, but also to the adoptees and the first families about ethics, diligence, and integrity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Hana, Hoping (Again) for Justice in Adoption

One year ago today, Larry and Carri Williams were found guilty for the death of their adopted Ethiopian daughter, Hana Alemu, and for assault of their adopted Ethiopian son, Immanuel.

Yesterday, I visited Hana’s grave site in Union Cemetery in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. I knew I was going to write about her today, and though I am not a big fan of graves and cemeteries, I wanted to pay my respects. I left on the grave a tiny token purchased during my recent trip to Ethiopia, and told Hana she was not forgotten.

The Williams’ family did not place a gravestone of any sort on Hana’s burial place until after the trial had concluded, so some 2 years after she had died this marker was installed. It shows Hana’s birth year as 1994, which would make her over 16 at the time of her death, not 13, which was what her age was said to be by the adoption agency and possibly Ethiopian family records. The Williamses were charged with homicide by abuse, which requires children to be younger than 16 and carries a significant punishment. They argued during the trial that Hana was not 13 at the time of her death, but was older. The jury did not believe Hana was older than 16 when she died, and Carri Williams was found guilty of homicide by abuse. This grave marker suggests that Hana was 16, not 13, at the time of her death, though the Williamses never legally changed Hana’s age during her life.

Hana's grave at Union Cemetery. Photo taken September 8, 2014.

Hana’s grave at Union Cemetery. Photo taken September 8, 2014.

During the hour or so drive from and back to Seattle, I thought about what Hana and Immanuel might have been thinking as they went from SeaTac Airport to their new family, in August 2008.

The view along the highway would have been so different from what they may have seen in Ethiopia. Instead of RV dealerships and fast food restaurants, in Ethiopia there are children along the roadside herding goats and cows, women washing clothes in muddy rain puddles, and men hauling loads on donkey-driven carts. Instead of towering pines, in Ethiopia Hana would have seen acacia trees. She must have been a bit overwhelmed by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, along with the malls, businesses, and restaurants. This was her new life, with the promise of a family, safety, and love.

The view along I-5, heading north from Seattle.

The view along I-5, heading north from Seattle.

Less than 3 years after her arrival in the US, Hana died from malnutrition and hypothermia on May 12, 2011, at the hands of the adoptive parents who were supposed to love and protect her. Those same parents were also found guilty of assault of Immanuel. On October 29 last year, Larry was sentenced to just over 28 years in jail, and Carri to 36 years. They are currently serving their sentences in Washington state.

You can watch Judge Susan Cook’s sentencing of the Williamses here.

Next week, in Pennsylvania, Judge Jeffrey Manning will be sentencing another pair of adoptive parents of Ethiopian children. Douglas and Kristen Barbour, unlike the Williamses, chose not to have a jury trial and instead pled no contest in June to charges of child abuse and endangerment. Their two adopted children were removed from them by the state as a result of lesions, weight loss, hypothermia, healing fractures, and retinal hemorrhaging.

Are these 2 cases comparable? Both families already had biological children when they adopted 2 Ethiopian children. Both families have a stay-at-home mom and a working- outside-the-home dad. Both practice Christianity. According to a Post-Gazette article, Douglas Barbour wrote about Biblical motivations for adoption. Kristen Barbour wrote openly about her faith on a now defunct blog. In both families, the adopted children had eating and other issues common in older child international adoptions. In both cases, the families did not appear to have sought help, and instead relied on their own methods. In both cases, there were no charges of abuse regarding the bio children, only the adopted children. In both cases, the bio children witnessed their parents’ treatment of their adopted siblings. Both cases have a child’s significant weight loss and hypothermia as factors of abuse.

Both families appeared to have had a perfect storm of unrealistic expectations for children who have experienced trauma, and both appeared to have handled the adopted children with systematically increased punishments that did not achieve the intended results. In both cases, young children were grievously harmed.

I don’t mean to be facetious when I say at least in the Barbours’ case, both children are still alive. I have heard that Immanuel Williams and the Barbour children have all done well in their foster homes.

In the case of the Barbour children and Immanuel, it is safe to say these children have been harmed, abused, and endangered significantly, at the hands of the very people who were supposed to care for and protect them. The children have a long road of recovery ahead of them; they were innocent victims of people who they should have been able to trust. They have physical and emotional injuries that are serious and will affect them for their entire lives, injuries that never should happen to any little child.

Judge Cook, in sentencing Larry and Carri Williams, asked “What does justice require?” She talked about the materials the attorneys had given her about imposition of sentences, and said they had left one important part out. “The sentence needs to reflect society’s response to the conduct that the defendants engaged in.” In this case of the Williamses, she said, the sentence could be seen as an expression of society’s outrage about two children being horribly harmed.

I am hopeful that Judge Manning will also take the seriously the significant harm done to the two Barbour children. It is an outrage that children could be so deeply hurt by adults, and the offenses of abuse and endangerment deserve appropriate punishment–not probation. The children have to live the rest of their lives with the impact of what their adoptive parents did to them. I hope that the judge sees that clearly.

There is still time to send a message about fairness for these young adoptees. I wrote about why this is so important here.

May Hana rest in peace. May all children be safe and loved. May we all speak up for the children.

 

Grandparents Day 2014: Reflections on the Known and Unknown. More More More.

One of my son Christopher’s favorite books as a toddler was “More More More! Said the Baby,” by Vera Williams. It’s lovely, a Caldecott Honor Book, published in 1990, with wonderful illustrations also by Williams. One of the three little stories features a blond, white grandma swooping up her Little Pumpkin, a black child.

Here’s an illustration from the book:

moremoremore

You can hear Vera Williams talk about and read the book here. She wrote it for her grandson Hudson, and expanded it to include other babies.

Here’s Chris with his grandma, my mother, who–always with makeup and blond hair just so–never failed to get down on the floor and play with him.

Mom with her youngest grandchild, about 22 years ago.

Mom with her youngest grandchild, about 22 years ago.

My mom, who died 12 years ago, was an incredible grandmother. She loved her (adopted, African-American, African) adopted grandchildren unconditionally; her views on civil rights and racism moved from philosophical to personal, in a thoughtful, decisive way. She would have adored her great-granddaughter Z, born in 2006. I adore Z, as anyone who knows me even briefly is all too aware.

Like my mother, I am not biologically related to my grandchild. Z is the biological child of my adopted daughter, Aselefech. Z is genetically related to her aunt (her mother’s twin sister; both girls were adopted from Ethiopia in 1994), but not to her two uncles (my adopted sons). We all have dealt (from varying perspectives) with white privilege, with racism, with humiliation, with stereotyping, with grief. We crazy love each other.

Z has a non-adopted 7 year old’s understanding of adoption. She knows she looks more like her mom, aunt, and uncles than she looks like me, since I’m white and they are not. She knows what it’s like when people do double-takes when she says I’m her grandma. She knew since she was little about her Ethiopian family, in Ethiopia. She had seen photos, and heard stories. She has visited with her Ethiopian uncle who now lives in Seattle, via winning a visa lottery ticket several years ago.

Grandparents can be elusive creatures. They are often old when they become grandparents (I am a notable exception), though not as old as we think they are when we are children. Families used to live over the meadow or above the duplex from the grandparents; increasingly, that has changed. Adoption, especially international, creates a whole other level to knowing grandparents. As an adoptive parent, when my children were little, I thought about their birth mothers, then fathers, maybe. I gave little thought to other members of the family tree: the grandparents, the siblings, the aunts, uncles, cousins.

Over the years, as my children grew and my heart opened, I gave much more thought to their first families. Some are known, some are unknown. Some are gone. Some could still be found.

During our recent trip to Ethiopia, Z met Desta, her grandmother, Aselefech’s mother. Aselefech had last visited with her Ethiopian family in 2011; this was the first visit for Z.

Z did well, though she was understandably tentative. Like Aselefech, she looks like her Ethiopian relatives, yet she can speak to them only through a translator, one of the most poignant, painful parts of international adoption when the original language does not endure. Conversations with unfamiliar relatives can be awkward when we speak the same language and share the same culture, religion, education, and economics. It didn’t matter here. Desta loved Z before she met her on this visit, as she loves all her grandchildren (her 6th is expected anytime now). She cannot scoop up Z as my mom scooped up Chris, because Desta did not even meet Z until Z was almost 8. She missed those early years, as she will miss most of Z’s daily life; we don’t know when she and Z will see each other again. We will do our best to keep in touch, to send photos, to connect. So much heartache in adoption, along with so much love.

I am filled with gratitude and wonder that Z met, hugged, talked with, smiled at, and said goodbye to her Ethiopian grandmother, along with aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Chris lost his grandma when he was 12, and I know he misses her deeply. All my children do. Their grandmother was a powerful force of unconditional love in their lives.

My maternal grandparents died before I was born. I have good memories of my dad’s parents (we watched the Lawrence Welk Show together, and they came over for Sunday dinner each week), but I can’t say I knew them all that well. I wish I did. It’s astonishing how little we know about people just a generation or two away from us.

Adopted children (who grow up!) deserve to know their families. (Safety obviously has to be a factor, but fear of the unknown should not be.)  We adoptive parents need to embrace, at least emotionally, our children’s first families, including the grandparents who may well have wanted to know and love them. What a gift and blessing to know our grandparents, and to know their stories: what their childhoods were like, how they fell in love, what their happiest days were, what memories make them smile. I cannot imagine not having Z as my granddaughter; I love sharing stories with her and making memories. Being a grandparent has made me understand and appreciate so much in this wild life.

For all the losses and the missed time, what richness we have. Yes, it’s imperfect. It’s tempting to see only absence, rather than presence, and too many people have been marginalized or made far more vulnerable than is fair.

Still. Seek out more, more, more. Swoop up loved ones, known and unknown. Ask questions, listen to stories, and insist on understanding what the possibilities are. Tomorrow is not promised to us. People die. While you can, seek out more, more, more.

Happy Grandparents Day. Thinking of beloveds, in heaven and all over earth.

Z and me

Is Probation the Appropriate Punishment for Abusing Adopted Children?

Douglas and Kristen Barbour pled No Contest in June to charges of child abuse and endangerment of their adopted Ethiopian children. On September 15, they will be sentenced. Both are asking for probation. Join me and many others in sending a message to the court that probation is not appropriate punishment.

If the court decides that probation is fair, what would the message be about the value of these children? What would it say about the responsibilities of adoptive parents to care for children? What would it say to Ethiopia about how their children are treated? Who will speak out on behalf of innocent children who are abused and endangered?

The Barbours adopted two Ethiopian children, ages 5 and 1, in March 2012. They had 2 biological children who were about 3 and 5 at that time. In October 2012, Douglas and Kristen Barbour (he was a state prosecutor; she a stay-at-home mom) were arrested for assault and endangerment of the two adopted children. The little boy was hospitalized for hypothermia, had skin lesions, and was dramatically underweight. The baby girl had healing fractures and retinal hemorrhaging. After being released from the hospital, both children were removed from the Barbours’ home by the state of Pennsylvania and placed in foster care. Read more about the case here.

The Barbours were well-educated people, experienced parents, middle class, with access to many resources they chose not to use. If a stranger had broken into the Barbour home and harmed the children the way their adoptive parents did, he would be sentenced to far more than probation.

Probation is not an appropriate punishment for broken bones, endangerment, trauma, and abuse, to which the parents did not plead “Innocent.” They pled no contest. Probation sends a terrible message to the community about the value of adopted children, and of children generally.

Please share your views about that punishment by writing to Allegheny County President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, Court of Common Pleas, 330 Frick Building, 437 Grant St., Pittsburgh, PA 15219. Fax: 412-350-3842

(Unfortunately, I do not have an email. If anyone has an email, please let me know.)

A brief note will do. We need to speak out for the children.

Write to Assistant District Attorney Jennifer DiGiovanni (attorney for the children) at Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, 401 Courthouse, 436 Grant St, Pittsburgh, PA 15219.

Send an email to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Paula Ward about fairness for abused adopted children, at pward@post-gazette.com.

On behalf of the children, thank you very much.

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Heading for Ethiopia: Family, Half-Marathon, and First Mothers Project

Tomorrow morning, my daughter Aselefech, granddaughter Zariyah, and I will leave for Ethiopia. We will spend time with Aselefech’s family, with whom she reunited in 2008 (having been adopted in 1994), and with whom she and I last visited in 2011. It will be my granddaughter’s first trip to Ethiopia, where she will meet her extended Ethiopian family–grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins. Zariyah will see where her mother was born and spent the first five years of her life, and where Aselefech would have grown up, if she hadn’t been adopted.

I know there have been many reunions and ongoing connections between Ethiopian adoptees and their original families. I wonder, though, how many children of adoptees have been able to meet their Ethiopian relatives.

It’s all about family, and how we define it.

Our time with Aselefech’s family is certainly a huge highlight for all of us. Another exciting part of our time there will be Aselefech’s Ethiotrail half marathon via Run In Africa, a business co-founded by renowned Ethiopian long distance runner Gebregziabher Gebremariam, who among other accomplishments won the New York City marathon in 2010.

Aselefech is running the half marathon to raise funds for Bring Love In, a nonprofit in Ethiopia dedicated to family preservation, by creating new families from widows and children and by keeping children out of orphanages and with their families. She set a goal of US$5000, and has exceeded that goal; all the money (except for a small percentage to CrowdRise) goes directly to Bring Love In. We are so grateful to everyone who has supported her and contributed to her campaign. More information is available here.

We will also be spending time in the capital city of Addis Ababa, visiting with friends and family, and doing some sightseeing of beautiful Ethiopia.

I also hope to begin work on my First Mothers project, to preserve and share the stories of Ethiopian original mothers, those who have placed their children for international adoption.

I’ll be posting occasionally during the trip, and no doubt quite a lot when we return.

Many thanks to everyone who has been with us on this journey, offering words of support and encouragement, sharing ideas and possibilities, and being vital, vibrant resources. Thank you (in Amharic): Amaseganallo.

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Adoption Agency Director Pleads Guilty to Fraud, Bribery in Ethiopia

An international adoption agency staff person pled guilty yesterday in a South Carolina court to providing fraudulent documents to the State Department and to bribing Ethiopian officials. The tragedies created by these actions are unforgivable, and families in the US and in Ethiopia continue to suffer as a result. The ramifications for other adoption agencies and the scrutiny they now find themselves under will be intense–I hope. Particularly important will be Ethiopia’s reaction to the bribing of officials there in the name of international adoption.

Alisa Bevins, former director of Ethiopia programs in the US for the adoption agency International Adoption Guides, yesterday pled guilty to fraud in Ethiopia adoptions. She admitted that she, along with others, submitted fraudulent documents to the US State Department and paid bribes to Ethiopian officials in order to facilitate adoptions.

The “others” would be Mary Mooney, former executive director of IAG, James Harding, former programs director for IAG, and Haile Mekonnen, the IAG Ethiopian programs staffer in Ethiopia. Mooney and Harding are awaiting trial. Mekonnen has not yet been charged and is, I believe, still in Ethiopia.

The fraudulent documents were created to move children from orphanages into adoptive US families, but these children may well have had living family in Ethiopia, may not have been eligible for adoption, and may not have been in orphanages listed on their paperwork.

According to the Department of Justice press release: “In entering her guilty plea, Bivens also admitted that she and others paid bribes to two Ethiopian officials so that those officials would help with the fraudulent adoptions. The first of these two foreign officials, an audiologist and teacher at a government school, accepted money and other valuables in exchange for providing non-public medical information and social history information for potential adoptees to the conspirators. The second foreign official, the head of a regional ministry for women’s and children’s affairs, received money and all-expenses-paid travel in exchange for approving IAG’s applications for intercountry adoptions and for ignoring IAG’s failure to maintain a properly licensed adoption facility. Sentencing for Bivens will be scheduled at a later date.”

Per my post “Trial Scheduled for International Adoption Guides,” Bivens could receive a lesser punishment for this plea, and will not go to trial. Mooney and Harding are still scheduled to go to trial in September. I don’t know what the impact of Bevins’ guilty plea will be on the Mooney/Harding trial, but they could make a plea agreement as well, right up to the time of the trial.

Many people for many years have raised concerns about the role of money in international adoptions. This case shines a light on money as bribery, offered to and accepted by those ostensibly involved in international adoption, not child trafficking. It’s painful to consider, and it would be extremely naive not to do so.

None of this can undo the damage done to vulnerable children and families here in the US and in Ethiopia. Let’s hope, though, that justice is served in this case.