A Tragic Echo of Abused, Adopted Ethiopian Children

Am I foolish to think there will be a public, powerful statement from the international adoption community, especially adoption agencies and policymakers, demanding that these parents receive more punishment than probation for the endangerment and abuse of 2 very young adopted children?

Kristen and Douglas Barbour of Pennsylvania today pled “no contest” to endangering the welfare of their two adopted Ethiopian children, placed with them in March 2012 through the adoption agency Bethany Christian Services. The Barbours were charged with assault and endangerment in October 2012. The “no contest” plea, as I understand it and I am not a lawyer, is often a result of a plea bargain. It means they are not pleading guilty, but they recognize there’s evidence sufficient to convict them if they were to go to a trial. Sentencing will take place September 15.


Douglas and Kristen Barbour

You can read the story in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette here.

Last summer around this time, I was attending the Washington state trial of Larry and Carri Williams, who were convicted for homicide and abuse of their adopted Ethiopian children, Hana and Immanuel.

The similarities between the Barbour case and the Williams case are eerie.

Two unrelated Ethiopian children were placed in a family with other biological children. Hana and Immanuel were about 10 and 8 at placement; the Barbour children were 5 (the boy) and 13 months (the girl).

Things went well at first, with happy photos and cheerful blog posts.

Then things became more challenging, and the families withdrew to use their own discipline and approaches. The Barbours apparently did seek out some help from an intentional adoption clinic doctor, but then “balked at his advice,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The little boy in the Barbour family weighed 46 pounds the first time he saw the doctor after arriving in the US. When the children were taken into custody and the parents arrested in fall 2012, he weighed 38 pounds, and was diagnosed with malnutrition–just like Hana, though of course Hana died. The boy was made to eat his food in the bathroom because he soiled himself, and lived in a sparse bedroom, very similar to the treatment of Immanuel.

The baby girl was diagnosed in fall 2012 with retinal hemorrhaging which has resulted in blindness, as well as a brain injury and several healing fractures, including her femur and toe. A baby. I can barely tolerate typing that.

The Barbours are not accused of abusing their two biological children. The Williamses were not accused of abusing their seven biological children.

The adopted children in both families did not apparently comply sufficiently with the rules of the households into which they had been placed. The little Barbour boy, for example, didn’t play fair in Candy Land, according to a blog post by Kristen Barbour. One of the most puzzling parts to me in the Williams’ trial was that horrible, disproportionate  punishments were doled out to Hana and Immanuel for behaviors such as adding numbers incorrectly, not saying thank you after a meal, and trimming the grass too short.

The little boy placed with the Barbours had toileting issues, something common in internationally adopted children, and not unusual in a lot of non-adopted children. Immanuel Williams had his struggles too, that resulted in being denied meals or sleeping in a bathroom. These are issues that are certainly frustrating, but there is so much research, techniques, and support available that do not involve endangerment to children.

Both the Williamses and the Barbours are Christians, and appeared to have been motivated by their faith to adopt. Douglas Barbour wrote a post titled “Biblical Motivations for Adoption.” citing a long list of reasons for Christians to adopt. This October 2012 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article explains more.

Both the Williams’ and the Barbour’s biological children will now live with the knowledge that their parents abused their Ethiopian siblings for whom they all prayed even before the children arrived. The biological children probably witnessed the abuse of and cruelty afflicted on the young adoptees by their parents as well, and that is its own type of trauma.

Connections have been made with Hana’s biological family in Ethiopia, and so they are aware of what happened to her. I wonder if the Ethiopian families of the Barbour children will ever know how they have fared since being adopted. I hope so, as sad as the news would be. They deserve to know the truth.

The judge in the Barbour case calls this “a significant act of charity gone awry.”


The defense attorney says “the Barbours probably should have mellowed in their approach.”

“They are good people,” their attorney says.


On every level, this case is a tragedy. I am speaking out. International adoption agencies and adoption policy makers, where are your voices, on behalf of the children?


13 thoughts on “A Tragic Echo of Abused, Adopted Ethiopian Children

  1. Are you all really so naïve to believe everything you read in the newspapers to be the whole, compete and absolute truth??!?! As an adoptive mom, previous foster mom and biological mom, I have read what is in the papers about children placed in my home and also saw the written accounts with testimony from both sides. Also, as a medical responder in the ER, read reports about situations I saw of people coming thru the doors and many times the details were not even close to accurate that appeared in the papers the next day. Granted, there are people out there who do horrible things to children and adults, but I have learned to not throw the first stone, especially if I do not know the details.

    I do know information not mentioned in the above blog that wasn’t in the newspapers or accounts anywhere. Bethany isn’t and hasn’t been as supportive as they want to claim. Also, the family did have services in the home for the children multiple times over each week. Wouldn’t we expect someone in our homes every week for at least an hour each time over many weeks time span to notice something amiss?!? Why didn’t they report anything?

    Just a thought.

    • I agree that we rarely have all the information in any situation. We can only go on what we’ve got. For me, the facts that the children were removed from the Barbours’ home by the state of Pennsylvania and that the Barbours pled no contest to endangering the welfare of 2 young children are powerful pieces of information. Also, the fact that the children have apparently done well in their foster family makes me wonder about the quality of the services provided to the Barbours, including the fact that the providers reported nothing–and then the children were removed by the state and charges were brought against the Barbours. I wish continued healing and health for the children.

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  4. They are NOT good people! How can people say that? “Good people” don’t abuse children. EVER!!! I am a stepmom. My daughter had some really awful things happen to her at her bio mom’s and as a result, she acted out. But I never withheld food or physically/verbally abused her. I tried hard to understand what she was going through. These people are MONSTERS.

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  7. Raising adopted children is NOT the same as raising biological children! Adopted children have already experienced so much trauma and loss before they even come into your family. They need extra love, attention and parenting with kindness. Potential adoptive parents should know how much more work raising an adopted child could be. Assistance and guided parenting should be offered through the adoption agency. There should be more follow up and support through adoption, not here’s your kid, see ya. I pray for these beautiful children, for their biological families and their loss. There has to be more accountability or end all international adoptions. Child abusers should NOT be left to continue to raise children. How horrific If the safety of these children can not be insured then again it is time to end international adoption. This broken system is costing too many innocent children their lives.

    • The biological kids of the Barbours should have been PERMANENTLY removed from their care — because the Barbours torturned the Ethiopian kids in front of them. That’s child abuse. That is HORRIFIC. That implicitly tells the bio-Barbours that it is acceptable to beat/starve/torture and abuse kids.

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  9. “International adoption agencies and adoption policy makers, where are your voices…?”


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  11. I’m horrified about so many things in this case:

    – that Douglas Barbour only got probation
    – that Kristen Barbour may not serve any jail time either
    – that the Barbours regained custody of their biological kids.

    Tortuting adopted kids in front of biokids is acceptable? Letting kid torturers keep custody of biokids is a good idea, why, exactly?

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