' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Grief and doubt after an international adoptee's death: Max Shatto in Texas

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Grief and doubt after an international adoptee's death: Max Shatto in Texas

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Max Shatto on the equipment that may have killed him.
Earlier his year the death of a Russian child who died only months after being adopted by Laura and Alan Shatto of Texas was news, as it appeared to be yet another death-by-American-adoption story. The biological mother of the boy was found in Russia and she was pleading for the return of the dead boy's brother, then two, also adopted by the same couple. Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Moscow is support of a ban on adoptions by Americans, a ban that took place shortly before Max died. It was unclear at the time whether the boy had been harmed by the couple or died of accidental causes, as he was found to have bruises and scratches on his body, a possible sign of abuse that the Shattos vehemently denied.

According to The New York Times today, a lengthy investigation by police, prosecutors and medical examiners have concluded that the boy, Max, who came to the Shattos with a known heart defect--died of an accidental injuries,
probably caused by a fall from a swing set. The visible bruises were self-inflicted, the experts added, by a deeply troubled child who clawed his skin raw, woke up night after night screaming, banged his head against walls and hurled his body on the floor, all behavior that the Shattos tried to cope with in the 79 days he was with them--and behavior that their neighbors, family and doctor knew about. Within weeks of getting him, the Shattos installed a video camera in the bedroom that would turn on whenever there was movement because Max was hurting his brother or himself at night. They moved the bed father away from his brother's and the wall, as well as putting gloves on him at night so he would not scratch himself. When they turned to Gladney for help. Gladney officials told them the boy was too young for either therapy or medication, but a pediatrician they took him too prescribed a drug not usually prescribed for anyone under five, risperidone. The Shattos took him off it after a few days as it turned him in to a "zombie," according to Laura Shatto.

The medical examiner in Texas has concluded that a fall unto something hard caused a small tear in the bowel, an injury that can be life threatening. Children die of this every year. Laura Shatto was in the house at the time of the accident to use the bathroom, and only left the boys outside playing by themselves for a few moments. When she returned Max was on the ground not breathing. She tried CPR, as the did paramedics who were immediately called.

After the child died, Russian authorities claimed that Max was the 21st Russian child to die from abuse or neglect in the U.S. One boy died of heatstroke when his father left him for nine hours in an overheated car; and the memory of a 7-year-old being returned to Russia with a note pinned to him was still fresh in everyone's mind, although it happened 3 years earlier. The Russians demanded they return Max's 2-year-old brother, Kris, and around the same time Russian authorities stopped adoptions from their country, including ones that were in already the pipeline. It seemed like this was just other case of neglect and punishment by an American couple unable to handle a severely troubled child.

The Times story is a long take-out--two full pages, beginning on the front page and includes interviews from officials in Texas and Russia, Max's biological relatives in Russia, and friends and relatives of the Shattos, Laura, 44 and Alan, 51. Max and Kris (called Kirill in Russia) both had troubled beginnings when they were born in Russia to a woman who appears to be an alcoholic, information that was not given to the couple through their U.S. agency, Gladney Adoption Services in Forth Worth. The couple did say Russian authorities did tell them the mother might have been drinking during the pregnancy. But the Shattos, desperate for a child, ignored the warnings, and decided to take the brothers, who have different fathers. They wanted more than one child anyway.
The Shattos married six years ago when Laura, a teacher, was in her late 30s. They tried several rounds of in vitro-fertilization and had three miscarriages before they turned to adoption. No matter how it happened, they were the typical older couple before they began trying to have a child. Their ages--in their 40s--are quite normal for people looking to adopt: people for whom natural or assisted contraception failed, and people who look internationally, where the promise of a white infant (with dark hair and blue eyes, as they specified) is more likely, and quicker than in the U.S. Living in Texas, they turned to one of the nation's oldest agencies that has been bringing Russian babies here for two decades, Gladney. The Shattos were anxious to get started with the adoption process because Alan, a petroleum engineer, was already 48 and soon might be deemed too old for a toddler.

FETAL ALCOHOL SYNDROME OR NOT                                  
So, three trips to Russia ensued when the Shattos heard about two half-brothers, and while the couple had a few pangs of doubt due to problems--Max had the heart condition, and Kirill/Kris was born with a club foot. Then there was the mother's drinking. Yet they took measurements of the boys heads, sent the pictures to a doctor back home, who was looking for telltale signs of trouble, but eventually said that the boys--from photographs--looked fine.

The Shattos knew that the boys were developmentally delayed, probably as a result of staying in an orphanage. Their natural birth mother, Yulia Kuzmina, through neglect and poverty, had lost both of them. She placed Max in an orphanage because she lacked the means to provide for him, and later Kirill was taken away from her when child welfare workers found him dirty, neglected and undernourished. By October of 2011, both boys were institutionalized, as no one in her family was able or willing to take them in. Her mother has since disappeared and is presumed dead; her brother committed suicide, and her own sister grew up in an orphanage. Alcohol seems to be at the bottom of the problem, along with her own troubled family situation and crushing poverty. Ms. Kuzmina says she thought the boys would end up with a rich Russian family. While she blames the lack of real social services to help; her, her father is more blunt: "She is the one who doomed the boy," he says.

Yet the Shattos were told none of this; they were told the mother may have been drinking when
the she was pregnant, but they hoped it was just a few drinks, and when the officials did not offer much information, they naively did not press further. Love and desire conquers all, right?

The first Ms. Kuzmina learned the boys were in America was when she heard about Max's death, earlier this year. When the story about Max's death first broke, Ms. Kuzmina was trumpeted as someone who had turned her life around. She wanted Kris back, claimed she never got the support she needed in her hometown. Russian authorities paraded her on television where she wept and pleaded for Kirill's return. She said she once wanted to kill the Shattos, but in the succeeding months, her anger has subsided. "God will decide," she says.

There is no uplifting happy ending to this story. Kris, after initially being separated form the Shattos while they were under suspicion, has been reunited with them, but the sting of what happened looms heavily in their lives. Through she has been fully exonerated in Max's death in the U.S., Laura Shatto is sometimes called terrible names whens she ventures out, and wonders if she could have done more to save him. She is angry that the Russian agency and Gladney were not more forthcoming about the boys' backgrounds, and the mother's alcoholism. Heidi Cox, the Gladney general counsel, has said the agency was never told about the mother's drinking.

Laura Shatto can not bear to step into the backyard where the accident happened without her husband, and frets that the Russian officials who landed on her doorstep one day left open the possibility that she and her husband abused the boy. She wonders if Max's death and the fallout will threaten her job as a teacher. And while Kris, at two, did not ask about his brother at first, and did not seem to remember his violent episodes or his death, when he climbed on his Laura Shatto's lap when she was showing a reporter pictures of his dead brother, he pointed to them and said "Max!" delightedly, according to the Times story. "Max!" After each violent episode, there were days of quiet, Mrs. Shatto has said.

No one says that conditions in Russian orphanages are good. Certainly some of the children raised here by American parents will fare a thousand times better than growing up in a orphanage, even with the dislocation from their own culture. But the pressure must be on getting the countries to find the means to take care of their own children, through internal adoptions or better institutions, rather than merely to ship them to Americans and Canadians thousands of miles away and hope for the best.

Jane wrote the other day of Spence-Chapin getting further into international adoption, and dropping American infant adoption from their services--due the decline in the number of placements they are able to do. Abortion and the willingness and ability of single mother to keep their babies within their families has vastly changed the landscape, at the same time the worldwide demand for babies has risen. Last week I reviewed a Lifetime movie, The Baby Sellers, about the child trafficking that occurs to feed the hungry market for human flesh as infants.

Having educated ourselves about the corruption--kidnapping and outright theft of babies--that happens elsewhere, and documented by investigative journalists such as Kathryn Joyce and E.J. Graff, we are critical of the supposed good that international adoption does because the demand for babies in such a market pumped up by people like the Shattos, who think they are always only doing something right. True, their second son Kris appears to be doing well without the attendant problems of his other brother. Yet by being part of the system--until it was shut down, probably temporarily--in Russia, the Shattos were willing customers who borrowed and used up savings to bring the boys here. It seems awful to say it, but children in poor countries have become a profitable source of income, and children are treated like a natural resource to be exported in return for cold cash. Children have become commodities. Cash changes hands. Babies for export become part of a country's recovery plan, as happened in Korea after World War II.

Max's death should be a warming to other families as they dreamily contemplate adopting from "somewhere" without doing the hard reading that this endeavor cries out for. Babies have been stolen; parents have been duped, thinking their children were only going away to get an education; babies have been sold; and babies have been kidnapped. As Jane wrote earlier, you close down adoptions in one country, and they pop up in another like that Whack a Mole game. Moldava (right next to Romania, which stopped its wholesale adoption several years ago) keeps coming up now. Where will it end? God only knows. We don't. --lorraine
World of Grief and Doubt After an Adoptee’s Death  
Russian say "nyet" to US adoptions Foreign adoption may save 'one child' but hurts many
Adoption options as Russia closes its doors
The Baby Deficit 

International Adoption Advocates Fight Back against decline in adoptions

The Child Catchers exposes the stench of international adoption--and domestic adoption too
 Abuses in International Adoption: The Lie We Love
Abuse in International Adoption, Part 2 with new commentary
Spence-Chapin out of the infant adoption business

The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption 
“Kathryn Joyce’s book The Child Catchers is a compelling, meticulously researched, and insightful dissection of Conservative Christians and their participation in the international adoption complex. Joyce unmasks this new fertile ‘mission field’ of children, defined by a labyrinth of adoption agencies, organizations, and activists. By unmasking the truth behind many of these ‘adoptions’ of children with loving but impoverished families, Joyce gives voice to the children hurt by this neo-colonial Christian mission. The Child Catchers is an important must-read in order to understand the business of adoption, and the pain that can befall the child’s biological family, the child and, at times, the adoptive family.”--Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania
And see Jane's review, The Child Catchers exposes the stench of international adoption--and domestic adoption too

Fugitive Visions: An Adoptee's Return to Korea (Above)
"Trenka shakes up literary expectations in a beautiful, ponderous record of moving back to her birth country, Korea. Adopted as an infant, Trenka (The Language of Blood) was raised in the U.S.; in her latest, she faces lifelong feelings of inadequacy stirred by her move there, following an expired marriage (and several visits). Trenka uses her struggle for acceptance in Korea-her blossoming relationships with blood relatives, her struggle to achieve fluency in Korean-to re-examine a life of similar challenges in America. Trenka employs anecdotes, lists, newspaper clippings and other sources to create a multi-pronged approach to the idea of "home," though some techniques (like odd collections of key words) can be a distraction. Trenka tackles her bleak material with courage and grace, raising interesting questions, but her charm also shines in simpler memories, like her account of childhood piano lessons gone awry,"--Amazon


  1. Even when I tried to look at the story with an open mind, I had a hard time. We won't ever know what really happened to Max.

    I was bothered immediately by this line about the Shattos: "they decided to adopt from Russia, where they hoped to find two dark-haired, blue-eyed children who would look just like family."

    They wanted kids who would be JUST LIKE THEMSELVES. Adoption cannot ever provide the missing ghost child. We adoptees will never share our aparents' genes, and for goodness' sake, don't tell me that genes don't matter, otherwise why were the Shattos special-ordering dark-haired, blue-eyed kids?

    They also were told to proceed with caution: to avoid adopting two young children at once younger than three, who might have behavioral issues. "But the Shattos said they could not wait to adopt a second child. Mr. Shatto was 48 when they began the process; they worried that he would be deemed ineligible to adopt an infant or toddler by the time he was 50."

    Those are not young parents! What patience do they have, necessarily, with young, active boys? Why the rush? They *had* to have what they wanted. That instant family. Was it hard? Clearly.

    Who paid? Max did.

    He is being scapegoated for his behavior (as the Shatto's describe it), and oops, darn if that mesenteric tear didn't happen, and we cannot explain the bruises. It's a little bit convenient that the problem child is the one who is dead, and died less than three months after being adopted--when things were tough. It's tragic. I am sure they mourn him...and yet, their haste and desires played into his death as much as his mother's drinking and the potential fetal alcohol syndrome. Why did they listen to the Gladney official who said that medication and therapy couldn't help Max, over the advice of the pediatrician (although of course now Gladney says they didn't say this)? *Was* he self-harming in the orphanage, or not? How many three-year-olds truly *do* self-harm? They're usually quite self-protective little people. Or do we blame the supposed fetal alcohol syndrome, as the article insinuates?

    Why is there no word in the entire article about how *Max* was suffering? The entire focus seemed to be that he was a terror, blaming his problematic Russian genes and sympathizing with the poor, poor Shattos, who didn't get what they paid for. There was nothing about the losses of adoptees in there, until the end: Max's younger brother, Kris (Kirill) recognizes Max in a photograph. What about Kris' pain?

    Max paid the price of being an object for sale in a market economy, just as you said.

  2. Interesting, this is the same post Mortimer that the Jenkins murder had. Or that such extreme trauma of taking the baby caused him to have terrors. These baby traffickers are sick mf. Seriously if your citizens are sociopathic and slow learners hire them I. The government child system? Surely you have some data entry that needs to be done!

  3. Thank you for spelling out some of the troubling aspects of this story.

    Max and Kris were treated as commodities. The worst happened. Had this tragedy been avoided, this family would still have to deal with the consequences of their demands. Just awful all around.

  4. Without knowing more, at this point I'm going by the coroners report that Max died of injuries resulting from an accident. What stood out to me in this story was the fact that this couple went into the International Adoption process seemingly aware of very real statistics regarding the health of the children they were adopting. They were aware that children who have been institutionalized are expected to have developmental delays. They were aware that Max had a heart defect and Kris had a club foot. They knew enough about Max's medical condition that they took numerous measurements and photographs of his head for evaluated by a physician specializing in international adoption. The mother herself stated that the children could have "had horns"...those were the children they wanted. Well, Max seemingly *did* have "horns" in the form of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Why would this fact have changed their minds about adopting Max? There are no guarantees...you have a biological child and the dna is up for grabs. The same with an adopted child. Either you love them and accept them how they were born or you shouldn't throw your hat in the ring to begin with.

  5. Anon: could you please explain further?

    "Interesting, this is the same post Mortimer that the Jenkins murder had."

  6. I am getting tired of reading articles where all the focus is on the buyers. Lets think for a few although those boys were taken from an orphanage they knew nothing else. Then they are sent to the States, where they are unaware of the culture, the food is different to them, their whole lives are changed via plane ride. I suspect the child was frustrated and perhaps inflicting pain on himself was a sigh of that. Adopters don't want to admit to amy of this. The blame must lie with the agencies and that... Insert flaw birth mother. I know my daughter was told I was a crack head, FYI I've never even seen crack.
    That boy was in trauma, and now so is his brother. Perhaps he was unable to speak of the loss of his brother because it was more then he could handle. In his short life he has faced loss on a grand scale far too many times.
    All these adoptive parents have the same MO. I can't have a baby so some flawed female must make one for me to play house with. There is no regard to what the natural mom suffers with nor is there any given to the child who is in the middle of this. I read what the adoptive parents say, my daughters aparents are still vilifying me as the no good, didnt want her crack head almost thirty years later.
    We must continue to spread the truth about all sides of the ....ugh I'm going to say it... Adoption triangle,. It makes no difference if it is an international adoption or a domestic. ALL agencies need to be placed under a microscope.
    Sigh now I wonder how long before I read another story of poor adoptive parents.....

  7. Are you aware of this investigation?

  8. Bee: Yes, Jane is working on a post for tomorrow.



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