Crime, Punishment, and the Undervalued Lives of Adopted Children

Imagine you are the mother or father of a 5-year-old little boy and a 1-year-old baby girl. For complicated reasons, you must put the children in the care of others. In this case, the children will be sent to live with a lawyer and his college-educated wife who live in a big house with a nice yard for kids. Good people.

About 6 months after your children have been with this couple, your baby daughter is diagnosed with retinal hemorrhaging, brain injuries, and fractures of the skull and femur. Baby girl’s leg apparently was broken for about 3 months before the couple sought medical help. Your little boy is hospitalized because of a body temperature of 93.6, an infection, possible hypothermia, and malnourishment. In fact, the boy had lost about 10 pounds, or about a third of his body weight, at the time he was admitted to the hospital. Both children are removed from the “care” of the couple, and now, after this abuse, violence, neglect, and trauma, are placed in foster care and must find a new family.

Imagine these are your beloved children. What do you think a fair punishment would be for the people who were entrusted with your little ones?

How about probation? No jail time. PROBATION.

If a stranger had broken into the Barbour home and harmed the children the way their parents did, he would be sentenced to far more than probation.

That certainly sends a message, doesn’t it, about the value of the adopted children, and the punishment a court will mete out for breaking their bones, starving them, and denying them care, as well as for violating the understanding that an adoptive family will care for and cherish children who need families.

The couple, Kristen and Douglas Barbour, adopted 2 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, Mr. and Mrs. Barbour (he was a state prosecutor; she a stay-at-home mom) were arrested for assault and endangerment of the two adopted children. They pled no contest to the charges this week. They will be sentenced September 15. Douglas Barbour will receive probation, according to news reports. Kristen Barbour will request probation, though it is possible she will get some small amount of jail time.

Where is the adoption agency in all this? Pound Pup Legacy reports that the home study agency was Bethany Christian Services. This means that Bethany did the home study with the Barbours, who would have attended their classes and met whatever requirements Pennsylvania, the US government, the Ethiopian government, and the agency have. The placing agency was, according to Pound Pup, International Adoption Guides of South Carolina. IAG would have referred the children from Ethiopia to the Barbours, and Bethany would be responsible for the post-adoption work with the family.

IAG closed its doors recently, as its staff was arrested due to a Department of Justice investigation for fraud and corruption. You can read about the IAG indictment here. Thus it’s unclear what sort of cloud these children arrived here under, given the reputation of and allegations against IAG. It adds to the overall heartache for this little boy and girl.

It may be that Bethany Christian Services is stepping in and helping now, though a tragic amount of water is under the bridge. I’d welcome news that they are advocating aggressively for these children.

Where is the court in all this? The judge is on record in this case as saying that this whole thing seems to be “a significant act of charity gone awry.”

To me, that statement is shallow, naïve, and callous. It condones the abuse and cruelty of defenseless children at the hands of people who have been selected to protect them, after their original family was unable to do so. It reeks of a sentiment that suggests the children came from a destitute place, and anything they get is better than what they had–and maybe more than they deserve.

Amanda H.L. Transue Woolston (MSW, author of/contributor to many books, adopted person, The Declassified Adoptee, founder of excellent resource Lost Daughters) phrased it this way: “If the court can think of no better conclusion than abuse of adopted children as “an act of charity gone awry,” clearly it has failed to acknowledge the humanity of these children. Adoption is not charity. Adoptees are not charity cases. The rights of these children have been violated and the court’s response is morally bankrupt at very best.”

The court and the defense attorneys apparently also believe there was no malice here.

From news reports: “They tried to do something wonderful to provide a better life for these kids,” said Kristen Barbour’s lawyer, Robert Stewart. “This wasn’t an act of malice.”

Multiple fractures, malnutrition, possible blindness, another loss of family, emotional abuse.

“It appears this simply became a situation that was overwhelming,” said Charles Porter, Douglas Barbour’s lawyer.

Adults who had parenting experience, who had resources, and who had choices in how to care for children, were overwhelmed. These adults refused to act on the advice of medical professionals, failed to bring a child with a broken leg to get medical help, and insisted that “rules must be followed in our house.”  Until the children were removed by the state.

Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said he believed the couple acted without malice.

What would it take for this treatment of vulnerable children to reach the level of “malice”? My understanding is that, as a legal term, malice means there was a deliberate intent to harm someone else, a wrongful act done intentionally, without just cause.

I cannot imagine what the “just cause” was, then, for the treatment the adopted children received, since it was significant enough for the state to remove them and terminate the Barbours’ parental rights. Broken bones, retinal hemorrhaging, weight loss, infections–all inadvertent?

The Barbours seriously harmed their adopted children, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. They are smart, well-educated people, who apparently decided, deliberately and knowingly, to ignore the advice of medical and other professionals. They continued to inflict harm on young, adopted children, harm they did not inflict on their biological children. The bio children, who likely witnessed their parents’ mistreatment of the Ethiopian siblings, were returned to the parents: the people who had two children removed from their care by the state because of the harm done to them.

Would you be okay with your children being in the care of people who had endangered and abused two little children, who pleaded “no contest” to the charges? I wonder if the people who returned the bio kids to the Barbours thought, “Well, they’ll be okay. It was just the adopted kids that were the problem.”

The Barbours are, after all, “good people,” according to their lawyer. I doubt that would be the view held by the Ethiopian government, who trusted that the children would be safe. I doubt that would be the view held by the children’s original families, whose vulnerable voices are silenced here. As an adoptive parent of 4, including twin daughters from Ethiopia, I struggle mightily with that characterization. I struggle also with the court’s narrow view about the harm that has been done to these adopted children, now in foster care, who are left to recover from tremendous, undeserved losses and injuries, at the hands of people who freely and legally agreed to protect and care for them.

People who will likely receive probation as punishment.

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.




13 thoughts on “Crime, Punishment, and the Undervalued Lives of Adopted Children

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  4. pammccrae your story is profound and insightful! As a Vietnamese adoptee born in ’73 and adopted into a family who also have their own birth children, I can attest that yes, so many parents adopted living in that naive idealistic world thinking that love would be enough. I’m sure my adoptive mum would write very similar words to yours … Thnxs for sharing!

    • I would like to hear more about your experiences. I think we birth mothers, especially ones from the BSE like me, and adult adoptees, especially transracial ones, have a lot to tell each other. We need to build bridges, not just between mother and child, but also between our two communities. My adopted son is in prison now (I don’t know why), and I have slight hope of our ever being able to talk about our life, but I would so like to hear about yours. I’ve learned so much from my first son about what it’s like to be adopted, and even though each individual’s experience is different, there are enough similarties that we can identify. Progress will only be possible when people stop being defensive and begin digging for the truth. I didn’t do this until just under three years ago, and I know how hard it can be. But when more and more voices are heard, those who remain silent may find the courage they need to speak out too, and we will all be stronger for it.

  5. Reblogged this on Red Thread Broken and commented:
    “If the court can think of no better conclusion than abuse of adopted children as “an act of charity gone awry,” clearly it has failed to acknowledge the humanity of these children. Adoption is not charity. Adoptees are not charity cases. The rights of these children have been violated and the court’s response is morally bankrupt at very best.” – Amanda H.L. Transue Woolston

  6. Pingback: No, adoptees have not been the reason why… | The adopted ones blog

  7. This is an egregious situation, no doubt about it, but our outrage needs to be directed not just at the Barbours but at everyone who colluded to allow this abuse to occur, from IAG to Bethany Christian Services and the religious “advisors” who, I am led to believe, influenced these parents to use harsh punishments on traumatized children. All adoptions should receive intensive support post-placement, especially international adoptions, where children have been traumatized by war or abandonment or developmentally delayed due to institutionalization. Obviously, the follow-up for this family was grossly inadequate. I know nothing about the Barbours beyond what I’ve read in the media, but, despicable as their actions were, I feel sorry for them. They are victims as well: of their own idealistic impulses and of a religion based on a philosophy of “spare the rod and spoil the child” rather than “suffer the little children.” Ignorance about enlightened child-rearing practices is no excuse, but it’s hard to be enlightened when you live in a fog of religious zealotry.

    • There’s no doubt there is much outrage to be directed. I agree with you on the need for much better pre- and post-adoption services and screening, and have called on adoption agencies many times to step up more. In attending and writing about the trial of Hana Alemu’s adoptive parents, I wrote Reflections on Hana: Acknowledging the Failure of the Adoption Community

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      • I read your piece “Reflections on Hana…” and find it remarkable and long overdue. My first husband and I adopted a 9-mo. old baby boy from Vietnam in 1974; he joined a four-year old brother, who was born to us. When I look back now, I am appalled at how cursory the home study was. There were so many red flags: my husband, an artist, was unemployed, and our sole income was what I earned as a beginning high school teacher; no one in our extended families was consulted or notified about our adoption plans; the fact that I had relinquished an infant son to adoption in 1968 was glossed over. I now realize why I was so driven to adopt; I was trying to make up for what I had done, to assuage my grief, and to absolve my guilt. My husband never forgave me for getting pregnant by another man, even though it occurred before we met, and this eventually led to the demise of our marriage. No social worker ever addressed the issue of my first pregnancy with us together or with me alone.

        Our son was described in his Vietnamese documents as a “relatively crying baby,” which was the understatement of the year. I was a good mother to our four-year old, an easy child, and I naively assumed that if I simply loved this new little baby, he would melt into our family like a piece of chocolate in a s’more. His difficulties were not as severe as some I’ve heard about, but they were way beyond what I was prepared to deal with. I thought I knew about caring for a child, and I did–for a child born to me. I knew nothing about the trauma of adoption or the needs of a trans-racial adoptee. I believed that a white family with a black-Vietnamese child would be an example and help lead the way to a more integrated society, but children are not causes, they are human beings. How many times did I hear, “What you did was so wonderful, but I could never do that myself.” No one ever said that to me when my daughter was born.

        Now, forty years later (forty-six years since losing my first son), I know the true cost of adoption to both birth mother and adopted child. I hope I’m not foolish for wanting to be a different kind of example today. My heart was broken when I lost my first son, and even though I was able to find him two and a half years ago and form a loving relationship with him, my loss of those 44 years can never be recovered. I love my adopted son, but I no longer have contact with him. He never finished high school, despite his high intelligence, and he has a criminal record and a string of failed relationships. The social workers and counselors who tried to help us over the years focused on his behavior but never addressed the fact of his adoption. I am angry that I was ever so ignorant about child development and attachment theory, but in those days even the “experts” were ignorant. Everything I read about adoption–and I read a lot–made adopting a child from a foreign country sound like the adventure of a lifetime. Yes, I read about difficulties such as abnormal sexual behavior or food issues, but that was with older children. Surely, our baby was young enough at 9 months to still be malleable. I love my son, but sometimes love is not enough. I am left with my guilt at having failed him, and he is…well, who knows?

        It is often painful to tell my story, especially the story of my adopted son, but if parents like me don’t share our experiences, other idealistic but perhaps unprepared families will find themselves in the midst of a chaos they can’t get out of.

  8. It’s a travesty the Barbours may get off without spending any time in jail AND especially that they were permitted to retain custody of their biokids. Their biokids have been taught that it is perfectly acceptable to abuse people, to fail to take sick children for medical treatment, that adopted siblings are disposable…and, well, get to stay with mommy and daddy. Ick!

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