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.




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?