About two dozen people gathered Friday afternoon in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Courthouse to rally support for tougher criminal penalties in child abuse cases in the wake of the sentencing in the local case of a couple accused of abusing their two adopted Ethiopian children.
But those people were countered by about 10 others who stood quietly in the backdrop carrying stark white signs with black capital letters in support of Douglas and Kristen Barbour, reading, “If you knew Kristen, you would love her,” “What would you do if you were wrongly accused?” and “Accusations are not truth.”
Joanna Huss, who sits on the advisory board for Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families, organized the event as a private citizen after learning that Kristen Barbour’s sentence on two felony counts of endangering the welfare of children was changed last week.
“Today is the start of ordinary citizens standing up and saying ’enough is enough,’” Ms. Huss said. “All of us must take a stand. It is not enough just to comment on Facebook. Preventing child abuse is everybody’s responsibility.”
Originally sentenced by Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning to six to 12 months alternative housing, Kristen Barbour will now serve her time at the Mercer County jail. Judge Manning also granted her work release, allowing her to leave the jail five days a week to return to her home to care for her two biological children.
The two adopted children, removed from the Barbours’ home in Franklin Park in September 2012 after they were both hospitalized, have now been adopted by a new family in Highland Park.
Their father, Kevin Patterson, attended Friday’s rally, along with Jess Jordan Pedersen, who founded Tana Families Ethiopian Adoption Support Group in Western Pennsylvania.
She told the crowd that their group was “extremely disappointed,” and “more bewildered,” by the change in Kristen Barbour’s sentence.
It was “not only ludicrous, but acts as a huge exclamation point to the message sent to our community. And that is: You don’t count.”
But Robert Stewart who served as Kristen Barbour, and Charles Porter, the attorney for Douglas Barbour, had a news conference of their own Friday afternoon, explaining that Kristen Barbour was sentenced in the standard recommended guideline range for the charges to which she pleaded.
“[Joanna Huss’] attack has no basis,” Mr. Porter said.
“She didn’t know the facts,” Mr. Stewart said.
The attorneys said their clients chose to plead no contest not because they thought they were guilty, but because they feared a lengthy prison term if they were convicted at trial — as well as what that would mean to their two biological children.
“This case was greatly overcharged from the beginning,” Mr. Porter said, noting that prosecutors dropped the most serious charges because they could not prove them.
Their clients admitted to not acting quickly enough regarding the adopted children’s medical needs. The girl had an untreated broken leg, and the boy was malnourished. But, Mr. Porter continued, “It certainly wasn’t to the point they were intending to hurt or kill anyone.”
Late Friday, Judge Manning issued his own statement on the issue, saying Ms. Huss was ignoring and distorting the facts and maligning him and his colleagues on the bench.
“Ms. Huss and her supporters are running around claiming foul on the basis of horrendous accusations and vicious suspicions, from the initial criminal complaint,” he said. “In this country, we do not sentence, we do not punish, we do not imprison people on the basis of accusations and suspicions. We require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620, or on Twitter: @PaulaReedWard.