Family creates a home for Ethiopian adoptees abused by previous parents
March 8, 2015 8:45 PM
Kevin and Ali Patterson, along with their daughter Didi, 4, at right, look at photos of their son Robert, 8, during his early childhood in Ethiopia at their home Tuesday in Point Breeze.
Will Patterson, 13, gets a hug from his sister Didi at home in Point Breeze.
Robert, 8, and Didi Patterson, 4, eat Ethiopian food with their siblings at Tana in East Liberty. Once a month, the Pattersons join other families who have adopted children from Ethiopia for a get-together at the restaurant.
Robert Patterson, 8, watches his basketball team from the bench recently at the Jewish Community Center. Robert plays soccer too.
Didi, then 3, plays on a tablet while her mother Ali and oldest sister Iris, 10, talk after dinner at home in early February. Iris said she remembers when Didi barely spoke. “Now she knows as many words as I do,” she said.
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 2012, Douglas and Kristen Barbour adopted two children from Ethiopia. Six months later, they were accused of abusing them. The children, now named Robert and Didi, were placed into foster care after the Barbours’ arrest. In July 2014 those foster parents, Kevin and Ali Patterson of Point Breeze, formally adopted them.
The Patterson family — two parents, five kids and a grandmother — gathered for a birthday dinner of roast, salad, peppers and rolls, as well as blue cupcakes for Lila, newly 7, and a Sofia the First cake for Didi, who turned 4 a day earlier. The two sat beside their parents, with their three siblings scattered around the rest of the long, cherry-stained mahogany dining room table.
“Will tried to pull down my socks,” Robert, 8, complained to his mom.
Will, 13, protested, saying that he was playing.
“I know it’s play fighting,” Ali calmly responded. “But no play fighting at the table.”
The conversation ranged from talk of soccer starting for Robert soon — “Yes!” — to Iris, 10, being named Student of the Month at her elementary school, Pittsburgh Linden.
It was easy and sweet, chaotic and casual.
As the meal began, Grammy offered grace.
“Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts that we are about to receive through the bounty of Christ, our Lord,” Carolyn Patterson said. “Bless this family and these two birthdays and all the gifts that we have.”
• • •
Kevin and Ali Patterson met when they were in the fourth grade together in Grove City.
It wasn’t quite love at first sight, but they began dating their junior year in high school. They didn’t plan it, but both ended up at the University of Pittsburgh.
They married in 1997 and moved to New York where Ali went to NYU for her master’s degree in cinema studies and Kevin went to New York Medical College. He wanted to be a psychiatrist.
Ali was told by her doctor that if she was going to have a baby, she should do it while she was young because of medical complications.
She got pregnant during Kevin’s second year of medical school, and went into pre-term labor at 23 weeks. After 13 weeks on bed rest and a 54-hour labor, Will was born in May 2001. Ali was told she could not have any more children.
The bedroom became the nursery in their tiny apartment over the Cross Bronx Expressway in West Chester. Kevin and Ali slept in the dining room.
They returned to Pittsburgh for Kevin’s residency at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, partly to be close to their families.
As Will grew, he told his parents he was lonely.
“He’d make up stories about bunk beds and all these kids,” Ali said.
The Pattersons started to explore adoption.
They wanted kids who didn’t have better options. They believe children should stay with biological parents if possible, if not then with extended family, if not then to parents from their home country or culture, if not to parents of the same culture and race.
And if that couldn’t happen, that’s where the Pattersons would come in.
“In reality, we consider ourselves the fifth-best option,” Ali said. “But in real life, I think we’re pretty great.”
In 2006, they were referred to a 15-month-old girl in Ethiopia.
They were told there were health considerations and a possible developmental delay.
When Kevin first met her when he traveled to pick her up in Ethiopia, the little girl threw bananas and shoes at him, he said. She wasn’t walking yet — because the staff at the care center carried her everywhere.
When Iris got to their home, she immediately started running.
“It was like a bloom. Like opening a present over and over,” Ali said.
By the time Iris was 3½, she told her parents, “ ‘We need more brown people in this family,’ ” Ali recalled.
“She was right.”
In early 2008, they started the process to adopt a child from India. The little girl they were referred to had been born at 31 weeks, weighing less than 3 pounds. At 9 months she was not yet sitting up by herself.
They went to get Lila in May of that year from a Catholic orphanage in the very south of India where she was being raised. There was a Mass said for her, and nuns prayed over her.
”It was a beautiful moment — mixed sadness for them and joy,“ Ali said.
Lila quickly started to catch up with her siblings.
“There’s no doubt the other kids in the house are the biggest motivator,” Kevin said.
Although they weren’t seeking more children, in 2012 the Pattersons pursued foster-care training and licensing — even taking extra classes for trauma parenting. They figured they could be respite providers for other foster parents caring for special-needs children.
“Everybody was thriving,” Kevin said. “We were in a really good place.”
• • •
Ali was standing in line in Target in East Liberty on Oct. 6, 2012, when she checked her phone and saw a newspaper story forwarded to her from a friend in their adoption network.
It was about a Franklin Park couple, Douglas and Kristen Barbour, being charged with abusing their two adopted children from Ethiopia.
The Barbours, who had two young biological children who were unharmed, were accused of withholding food from their 6-year-old son and causing abusive head trauma to their 18-month-old daughter.
“ ‘This family is struggling, and these kids really need what we have to offer,’ ” Ali thought to herself.
She called Kevin and told him about it. He agreed that, for these children, their family “would be a soft place to land.”
Ali called their social worker and told her they were around if the Barbour children needed any help. In the third week of October, Allegheny County Children, Youth and Family services contacted members of the Ethiopian adoptive community to see if they had any recommendations for caregivers.
They recommended the Pattersons.
It was unclear if they would just be temporary caretakers or long-term.
“Love, for me, is not the thing,” Kevin said. “It’s an emotion. It can come and go and be stronger and weaker. You make the commitment, and then the rest of it happens.
“From the very first moment, I committed to these kids. If it was fostering, fine. If it would have been a transition, fine. It would hurt like hell, but it would have been in keeping with that commitment.
“I’m all in.”
“Absolutely loving them took not a second,” Ali said. “But I wasn’t naive about the challenges. There’s a difference between happiness and joy.
“I can take hard times and sadness because my life is full of joy.”
The boy, then named Eskindir, arrived in the Pattersons’ care on Oct. 24. The girl, Rediet, who was still being treated at the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh for her injuries, followed two days later.
Eskindir, then 6, was nervous at first, constantly wanting to please Kevin and Ali.
He asked what at first seemed like strange questions: “Which bathroom can I use?” and “Where should I eat?”
When they visited Rediet at the Children’s Institute, Eskindir told Ali that he couldn’t use the public bathroom there because he was “dirty.”
As the court proceedings revealed, Eskindir had sometimes been forced to eat meals in the dark in the bathroom at the Barbour home. If he had accidents, he was made to lie on a urine-soaked mattress — so often it caused his skin to break down.
The Pattersons reiterated to him that he could use whatever bathroom he wanted, that he would eat at the dining room table with them.
“He was sad a lot,” Ali said. “He grieved. Lots of losses.”
Eskindir was also afraid to go to sleep.
One night, Lila, then 4, told him that she would stay awake for him because she knew he was so tired.
By December, Eskindir told the family that he didn’t like his birth name, which means “Defender of Mankind.” He told Mama Ali and Daddy Kevin — that’s what he decided to call them because he thought using just their first names was disrespectful — he wanted to change it to a “Superhero” name. Although the Pattersons urged him to keep Eskindir, he didn’t want to. CYF ultimately agreed that he could use the name Robert, a common name in Ali’s family, and it has since been legally changed.
The Pattersons learned to be careful with him — to slow things down so he wouldn’t become fearful or flinch.
They also realized he was a ball of energy who always needed to be moving. They put a small trampoline for him in the family room.
“You can either struggle to change the child in ways that aren’t necessary, or you can change the environment,” Ali said.
"It’s hard to have no more answers than we do. Nothing will ever explain the violence."
• • •
When the Pattersons agreed to foster Eskindir and Rediet, they had heard that the little girl had been paralyzed on one side and blinded from the abuse.
Although she had recovered remarkably well — she was neither blind nor paralyzed — she was on seizure medications, had a completely flat affect and toppled over easily.
At his first visit to see Rediet at the Children’s Institute, Will Patterson began playing with her, and when he tried to leave, the toddler said, “Come back.”
The family thought she wouldn’t be speaking at all.
“It was exciting to see the potential there for relationships, as well as for healing,” Ali said. “It did not take long to have the sparkle in her eyes.”
Didi, as they now call her, started out going to occupational and speech therapy several times a week.
By January, she was trying to assert her independence.
“From 2 on, she has just been ... she’s just a light,” Ali said.
Kevin says it’s as if she’s gone through a system reboot.
“She just started over,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t fallout from what happened to her. Because of her brain injury, Didi can’t be rough-housed.
“All my kids know something catastrophic happened to her,” Ali said.
She has poor impulse control. It makes her incredibly outgoing and friendly — willing to hug anyone — but Kevin worries that it could also mean increased risk-taking, or vulnerability, later in life.
Nonetheless, the Pattersons are grateful for how quickly Robert and Didi have adapted.
“Once someone feels safe, then you can work on everything else,” Ali said.
• • •
One recent evening, as Kevin and Ali sat in their living room talking to a reporter, Didi came twirling into the room in Iris’ dark blue polka-dot jumper, her eyes wide and happy.
Lila, who studies Mandarin, entered from a hallway doing a cartwheel.
Iris, a tall and beautiful girl, wondered what was being talked about. Will, a quiet and lanky 13-year-old, just wanted to study at the dining room table. And Robert, with a huge, infectious grin, wanted to put off going to bed.
The Pattersons describe Will as a great big brother who has a particularly strong relationship with Didi, and is the only one allowed to use a nickname with Robert — “Berto.”
The Pattersons said they’re careful to make sure Will is well-supported, has other relatives where he can go for breaks, and gets his own one-on-one time with his parents.
The family court case and criminal case against the Barbours dragged on for nearly two years. In June 2014, Douglas and Kristen Barbour pleaded no contest to two counts of child endangerment and agreed to give up their parental rights to Robert and Didi.
That opened the way for the Pattersons to adopt the two children, which became official on July 22.
Kevin, a psychiatrist for Hillman Cancer Center, and Ali, who teaches film at the University of Pittsburgh, have helped the children learn about their lives in Ethiopia, though information about Didi is scant.
Robert was placed at 4 in a care center in Harar, Ethiopia, where he remained until his adoption by the Barbours.
Ali worked with an investigator in Ethiopia and found Robert’s previous foster family in Ethiopia.
“His foster mother wanted it to be clear she still calls him her ‘son,’ ” said Ali, who sends her pictures and updates.
“I think it’s so important that he knows how much he was loved in Ethiopia,” she said. “He deserves to have his own story, and that’s been taken away from him. That’s the worst part.”
Robert tells stories of memories he has from Ethiopia. At first, he spoke a lot about his life with the Barbours, but not often now. He goes to a play-based therapist.
“They have a lot of big questions,” Ali said.
“There’s nothing that can’t be talked about,” she said, though they make sure the responses are age-appropriate.
“It’s hard to have no more answers than we do. Nothing will ever explain the violence.”
No one involved in the children’s lives at that time, from their community, family or church, ever apologized to Robert and Didi, Ali said.
“Nobody said, ‘I’m sorry you suffered,’ ” she said. “That’s what makes me angriest and saddest. Their suffering is unimaginable.”
• • •
Robert, who is in second grade and studies German, loves the idea of designing things, including prosthetic limbs. He recently made a paper boomerang and then worked on various modifications, such as making it heavier and lighter, to see what effects the changes would have. He speaks without an accent and talks about marrying a woman like Michelle Obama and how he’d make coffee for her first thing every morning.
Didi attends preschool three days a week and loves gymnastics, art and dress-up.
Something Kevin has learned through the adoption of Robert and Didi, he said, is the meaning of resilience.
“I try to substitute the negative emotions with the wonder of these two kids,” he said.
The family goes once a month to Tana, an Ethiopian restaurant in East Liberty, to spend time with other Pittsburgh families who have adopted from Ethiopia.
“The Ethiopian community is very loving and supportive of our kids,” Ali said. “I can be a lot of things, but I can’t be black, and I can’t be Ethiopian.”
• • •
After the Barbours entered their pleas, the Pattersons debated whether to make a victim impact statement at sentencing, knowing that it — and they — would become part of the public record.
The Pattersons felt that they had an obligation to all children whose abuse or neglect might not be reported.
“There were so many missed opportunities for help for our children, from mandated reporters to people in the community,” Ali said. “People need to understand that it isn't their job to determine whether abuse and neglect are happening, but to report their concerns.”
Kristen Barbour, who entered her plea to a felony, was sentenced to six to 12 months in jail with daily work release to go home to care for her biological children. Douglas Barbour was sentenced to five years probation.
The Common Pleas Court judge who sentenced them, Jeffrey A. Manning, said at sentencing he did not believe the couple acted with malice.
Ali viewed Kristen Barbour’s work release to care for her biological children as an indication that the court viewed adopted children as different, since it decided that a woman who abused her adopted kids could be trusted with her biological children.
The Pattersons know that someday, Robert and Didi would look themselves up and see all the stories about what had happened to them.
“I don’t want them to be those kids,” Ali said. “They’re our kids.
“We wanted them to see themselves not as forever victims but as the resilient people they are, and we want them to know they are admired and adored.”
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org,. 412-263-2620 or on Twitter: @PaulaReedWard.
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