Douglas and Kristen Barbour began their journey as parents of two adopted children from Ethiopia with the best of intentions.
The devout Christians from the North Hills endured months of screening, criminal background checks, the permission of the children's birth families and the bureaucratic vagaries of the foreign adoption process before they were allowed to bring them to America. They worked conscientiously to prepare their two birth children for the arrival of their African siblings.
The congregation of Christ Bible Church in Cranberry where the Barbours worship kept the couple in prayer during the sometimes arduous adoption process. For centuries, adoption has been among the least controversial Christian virtues. If there's anything Christians and non-Christians agree on, the importance of taking care of orphans in their distress is high on that list.
In March, when the Barbours disembarked from the plane after a long flight from Ethiopia, their newly adopted 1-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son were healthy. They hadn't been rescued from East Africa. They had come from loving communities.
Fast forward seven months. The happy arrival at the airport has long since been eclipsed by an unspeakably dark chapter in the lives of those children. Douglas and Kristen Barbour have been arrested and charged with child endangerment and assault. Mr. Barbour's father paid the bail, but the 33-year-old lawyer was suspended without pay from his job as a state deputy attorney general.
Today, the Barbours face a preliminary hearing on the assault and endangerment charges. Someone will have to account for why a girl, now just 18 months old, could grow into adulthood blind in one eye and paralyzed from what doctors diagnose as abusive head trauma.
Someone will have to explain to the judge why a 6-year-old boy suffers from lesions resulting from the chaffing of urine-soaked pants on his skin. There has to be a reason that the boy lost nearly 10 pounds in the couple's care after leaving Ethiopia. Was the boy lying when he told investigators his adoptive parents starved and punished him by making him stand in a dark bathroom to eat his meals if he soiled his pants?
The Rev. Jimmy Caraway, the pastor of Christ Bible Church, offered a spectacularly opaque observation about the Barbours' entanglement in the criminal justice system: "What is happening is nothing less than evil," he said. "I don't know how else to say it. It's nothing less than evil." Rev. Caraway made the statement to his congregation without specifying whether he thought the charges against the Barbours were "evil," or if he thought they were at fault.
Still, the pastor managed to defend the couple by describing their decision to adopt as "very biblical" and "well thought through" despite the horrendous cost to the children's health.
Traditionally, adoptions are publicly celebrated in churches during announcement times built into every worship service. Pastors ask congregations to uphold the adoptive parents and their children in prayer while also offering more tangible support as needed. Usually, a congregation agrees to do so, because it rarely has to go beyond lip service.
Recently, 15 members of Christ Bible Church gathered for an evening prayer service on behalf of the Barbours. That's a start, but one wonders whether anyone from the congregation ever visited the couple's home during the months the Ethiopian children were allegedly abused. When the kids went to church, why didn't anyone notice their deteriorating condition?
Did the congregants believe the family's treatment of the kids was consistent with biblical mandates to discipline children? Did the Ethiopians get a double portion of punishment because they are foreigners? The Barbours' natural-born children showed no signs of injury or malnutrition, confirming suspicions that distinctions were made between the siblings.
Somewhere along the line, the screening process failed these kids by putting them at the mercy of a couple clearly in over its head, and closer scrutiny of the agency that brokered the adoption is warranted.
Today, the Barbours will have plenty of time to muse on Jesus' admonition regarding the treatment of children: "And whosoever shall cause one of these little ones that believe to stumble, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck, and he were cast into the sea."
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.