Kristen and Douglas Barbour set out to adopt children five years ago, about the same time they were starting their biological family.
They spent more than two years in a frustrating and unsuccessful effort at a domestic adoption. In early 2011, they took steps toward international adoption from Ethiopia.
The Christian couple spent more than a year working through the extensive process -- essay questions, hours of interviews with their caseworker, child abuse clearances, medical testing and a home study.
They chronicled their progress in more than 200 entries in a blog they called "Our Adoption Journey," which began in February 2011. It ends sometime in August 2012, two months before they were charged with child endangerment and assault against the Ethiopian children they came to adopt in March.
Kristen Barbour, who wrote most of the posts, described in detail the lives of the Franklin Park family, which by then included a baby and a toddler (now ages 2 and 4).
In an entry dated Jan. 30, 2012 -- two months before the Barbours would travel to the East African country to pick up the new members of their family -- Mrs. Barbour describes readying the family home.
She made a pink, fleece tie blanket decorated with flowers, butterflies, ladybugs and dragonflies for the 1-year-old girl, and a hunter green "woodsy theme" for the 6-year-old boy. She wrote about how excited she was that the children would have their own beds, and not be forced to share with others.
Once the children were home, she chronicled a quick transition that had the Ethiopian boy holding the hand of his American sister as they walked through the grocery store just two weeks after arriving. They played Candy Land and sang Christian children's songs.
But those same heart-filling entries, read through the lens of the past three weeks, raise many more questions than answers. (The blog has been taken down, but entries remain publicly accessible through an Internet search for "cached" versions.)
What happened to this God-fearing couple to move them from happy and loving blog posts to felony charges of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of children?
They are scheduled for a preliminary hearing Tuesday, accused of starving their 6-year-old son and leaving him with lesions from being kept in urine-soaked clothing for long periods of time. The 18-month-old girl will likely be blinded in one eye and paralyzed after suffering abusive head trauma. Their attorney, Christopher Capozzi, declined to comment.
The two biological children were unharmed.
The greatest predictor of success in adoption is "appropriate parental expectations," said Adam Pertman, the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. He did not comment specifically on the Barbours' case, but spoke generally about adoptions.
"When people get a kid -- through whatever means -- it's an enthralling, enchanted, captivating time of life," he said. "[But] your expectations have to be tempered by reality. You've got to prepare yourself for the kid you're going to get."
Adopting older children -- even ones who are only 1 and 6 -- means that the children will already have their own personalities and behaviors.
"It's not going to be the same as raising a newborn," he said. "If you think you're going to bring two kids with any level of issues, and it's going to be perfect, it's a setup for real problems. Sometimes, it's a setup for disaster."
Married in 2005, Douglas and Kristen Barbour live in a two-story home with a big back yard in the North Hills that they bought in June 2006 for $177,500.
Kristen Barbour, 30, is a college-educated, stay-at-home mom, who blogged about cooking and craft projects and lavished words of love and praise on her family and God.
Douglas Barbour, 33, a graduate of University of Michigan Law School, is a state deputy attorney general -- now suspended without pay. The family is active at Christ Bible Church in Cranberry.
As a teen, Mrs. Barbour had already expressed interest in adoption. She worked summers with missionaries in two orphanages, according to her blog posts.
The couple planned on adopting from the start: "After Doug and I got married, we weren't exactly sure how the Lord would bring children into our lives. We didn't know if He would give us biological children or adopted children. We prayed for both means!! We weren't sure what the order would be. But, we knew that adoption was going to be in our family and we desired to have a mixed family (adopted -- both domestic and internationally -- and biological children)."
In a post by Douglas Barbour titled "Biblical Motivations for Adoption," a long list of reasons for Christians to adopt is given, including "Adoption by Christians brings children into the covenant community and thereby enables them to enjoy the blessings associated with that connection."
As they forged ahead in the adoption process -- with seemingly strong support from friends and family and a larger community of adoptive parents -- the Barbours went to great lengths to assure their two young biological children that they were loved.
The parents encouraged their children to pray several times a day for their siblings in Ethiopia. They included them in the preparations and were sensitive to the coming changes on them.
"Just as we are going through a lot of emotions and a 'roller coaster' with the waiting, longing, and praying, so is this little 3-year-old," Kristen Barbour wrote in a December blog post about her daughter.She wrote of a bond already forming between her biological and adopted children. "How can you love someone you have never met?" she mused in one January post, referring to her daughter's recurring prayer that the Ethiopian children "come home soon."
On Feb. 29, after months of planning, preparation and praying, the Barbours got clearance to pick up their adoptive children.
"Praise the Lord!" Kristen Barbour wrote that day. "That is what we have been doing all day!!"
She detailed setting the alarm extra early that day so the couple would be awake and praying at the time when their adoptive children's birth families were being interviewed in Ethiopia.
"So much reflection on this last year ... these last five years of waiting ... waiting on the Lord ... longing and fighting on behalf of orphans ... crying ... sobbing ... turning back ... disappointment ... questioning ... confusion ... and yet the Lord's faithfulness was constant."
In early March, the Barbours took a 13-hour flight to Ethiopia to bring their new children home. Mrs. Barbour didn't write about the whirlwind trip and orphanage pickup until more than a month later, on April 10 and 11.
"The door opened and I saw [her] being carried in by her sweet nanny. The tears were flowing (mine that is)," Mrs. Barbour wrote. "I put my head down to catch [my breath]; this little girl. Well, such a big girl now. A 1-year-old; not a tiny 4-month-old. ...
"Then, at the door appeared our oldest child and cutie pie son. He was smiling and gave Doug a big bear hug -- as I watched them hug, [he] seemed so much bigger than I had remembered in July."
The family returned to the United States on March 16. In the first blog entry made after that -- dated March 21 -- Mrs. Barbour wrote about the children's first few days in this country.
"In the last week, we have cuddled up with a child and gotten puked on. caught puke in our hands. held back one another's hair while throwing up. scooped poop for sampling. and on and on. And each of our children have received at least one of these 'love acts' from us this week (if not more than one!)."
Then she continued, "Sometimes when people think of adoption, they don't think about the nitty gritty, get down and dirty hard times. And we are in the depths!! But with the Lord's help, guidance, strength and grace!!"
Later in that same entry, she noted that her husband would be returning to work the next week and invited friends and neighbors who might read the blog to offer help with meals, groceries or errands.
As the weeks wore on, Mrs. Barbour wrote proudly about how well all four children got along, the home schooling she was doing and her first trip with them by herself to a grocery store.
But she also wrote about challenges, such as the 6-year-old's oral surgery to take care of his severely rotten and infected teeth and the need for supervision of Candy Land because the Ethiopian boy didn't play fair.
"I would like to blog about what is going on, the good, the bad, and the ... well, the ugly ... I guess," she wrote on June 10. "But my heart isn't quite ready to share all of that yet. And, the time isn't there either."
Six days later, that theme continued: "Wouldn't it be nice to read about how these last weeks and months have gone ... how we have grown ... how we have struggled ... how we have been taught ... stretched ... molded ... formed ... bonded together ... strengthened ... rejoiced ... endured ... Well, sorry to burst any kind of bubble or false anticipation."
The increasingly sporadic entries are still peppered with love and faith and God, but also hint at frustration.
According to the Oct. 4 Allegheny County criminal complaint against Douglas and Kristen Barbour, their 19-month-old daughter suffered abusive head trauma, too severe to be from repeatedly banging her head, which is what her mother told doctors at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
The examining physician noted to police that the girl would likely be reinjured or killed if she were allowed to return to her parents.
The 6-year-old told a forensic interviewer that his family would make him stand in the dark or eat dinner in the bathroom if he soiled his pants. He lost more than 9 pounds after moving to the U.S. and ate voraciously at the hospital, without medical treatment.
Police said the boy's room had only a mattress on the floor with sheets -- a sharp contrast with the elaborate decorating Kristen Barbour envisioned in a blog post. After their arrest, Douglas Barbour's father, Donald B. Barbour, posted 10 percent of the $25,000 bond for each of them, and they were released from custody.
The elder Mr. Barbour did not return phone calls for comment.
On Oct. 5, the day after the Barbours were charged, about 15 members of Christ Bible Church gathered for an evening prayer session led by the Rev. Jimmy Caraway. Two days later, he made an announcement about the situation before beginning his sermon.
"What is happening is nothing less than evil. I don't know how else to say it. It's nothing less than evil," he said. "They, the Barbours, did a very good, very biblical thing that was well thought through -- they adopted. And I tell you, this is not of God. ... They need a vast amount of prayer and support in other ways, and we as a church will be faithful." A video of the sermon is posted on the church's website.
Rev. Caraway twice declined to talk about his congregants for this story. He would not explain whether the charges or the alleged acts themselves are "evil" and "not of God."
A deacon at the church tasked with checking in on the family did not return a phone message.
The Barbours wrote in their blog that they adopted through Bethany Christian Services -- which facilitates between 1,500 and 2,000 adoptions each year at both the state and international level and was established in 1944.
The agency would not talk about the Barbours -- or even confirm that the couple were clients -- but did talk about the after-care services it requires.
Once children have been placed, Bethany conducts post-placement visits in the first year at one, three, six and 12 months. It refers families who are struggling to additional service, including counseling. It said its services meet state requirements.
Dr. Mary Carrasco, who leads a team at A Child's Place at Mercy, spoke generally about cases in which abuse is alleged. She said many parents have idealized versions of what their child will be like. "The one thread that runs through every one of these experiences is unrealistic expectations."
Mr. Pertman, with the Donaldson Adoption Institute, said follow-up care and education are essential to having successful family integration.
"Some level of training services and education have to be there, but you have to avail yourself of it," he said.