Was This 3-Year-Old Adopted From Russia Killed by His Mother?

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Feb. 22 2013 11:33 AM

Fatal Adoption

Did Max Allen Shatto’s adoptive mother kill him?

Russian orphan children
Orphan children play in their bedroom at an orphanage in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

Photo by Vladimir Konstantinov/Reuters

It’s the dirty little secret of adoption from Russia: Roughly once a year, an American adoptive parent kills an adopted child. There have been 15 confirmed such homicides since 1996, from Russia alone. Of course, Americans have adopted more than 50,000 Russian children during that time—the country has been in or near the top three sources for American international adoptions during that time—but that is a horrific number nevertheless.

I do not know what happened to Max Alan Shatto (born Maxim Kuzin), the 3-year-old adoptee who died in a Texas hospital, and who Russian authorities allege was beaten to death. The toddler had bruises that may or may not have been from abuse; he may or may not have been on inappropriate anti-psychotic meds. Authorities in Ector County, Texas, are investigating. Nor do I know anything about his background or behavior.

And yet his case, and others like it, raises the terrible question of whether Americans are adopting these children to abuse them.

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Yes, it happens—probably as often as adults give birth to bio-children in order to abuse them. One notorious adoption-abuse case involved a single American man who adopted a Russian girl he used for sex, putting the videos online.

But horror stories like that are the exception. Here’s what happens more often: Hopeful and slightly naïve people unknowingly adopt exceptionally traumatized children. We’re talking about children whose behavior would test even the most prepared and patient parents. And it pushes a few unprepared parents right over the edge. The hundreds of thousands of children in Russian institutions include children with very difficult backgrounds. Many are separated from violent, abusive, chaotic, or severely alcoholic families. Some are abandoned because of major medical issues. Some have fetal alcohol syndrome, significant attachment disorders, or seriously problematic behavior in which they act out, mimicking the way they were once treated.

These issues aren’t necessarily disclosed. Russian orphanages are notorious for sending misleading, incomplete, or falsified medical histories on the children they offer for adoption, eliding information that would enable prospective parents to decide, in advance, whether they could handle the child. Two years ago, one family that unknowingly adopted such a brain-damaged and violent Russian child sued its reputable adoption agency, Bethany Christian Services, for what it said was a misleading placement. Once adopted, some of them—not most, let me stress, but some—display shocking behaviors that include absolute coldness or rage in response to affection, violence, screaming, suicide attempts, molesting or abusing pets or other children, fire-setting, and so on. The right adoptive parents—read: intensively prepared to become full-time social workers—with the right medical team behind them may be able to handle those children. But an unprepared parent, someone who expected that love and attention could heal all, can explode.

On the other side, the American adoption system doesn’t necessarily screen or prepare parents effectively. Adoption is grueling: The prospective parents must go through a home study, in which a social worker evaluates their fitness, and a series of other examinations and background checks by independent and government agencies. The “paper chase” takes months or years; the scrutiny is intrusive, far more than any bio-parents must endure. And yet the clients are the ones who pay the social worker, who therefore has an incentive to assess favorably in order to keep work coming. The adoption agency is only paid if it places a child, so it, too, has an incentive to deliver a child. Under the U.S. International Adoption Act of 2000, which brought this country into compliance with the Hague Convention on International Adoption, accredited international adoption agencies must offer parent education before a child is placed with a family. But that’s when those lessons seem most abstract. Parents need mandatory support afterward.

As any parent knows, it’s impossible to imagine how draining (or rewarding) parenthood will be until you’ve been through it. Everyone goes into it with blinders on, learning on the job. Beforehand, you nod at your friends’ horror stories and smugly imagine you will handle it all much, much better. Then you’re shocked at how even an ordinarily headstrong child can be exhausting when you’re sick or tired. Now, add a traumatized, brain-damaged, or abused child who has been ripped away from her country, her language, her familiar foods, her friends, her climate, and dropped into a bewilderingly strange family who smile at her maddeningly and expect her to behave like them. She responds with the kind of violence she already knows. Education beforehand isn’t enough. Those parents need someone who checks in on them regularly, emergency phone numbers for advice night and day, support groups, specialized education, and referrals to relevant medical specialists.

Experts tell me that adoptions from Eastern Europe often “disrupt” or are dissolved. Desperate parents call the adoption agency and throw in the towel, saying they cannot keep the child in their home. Good for them. Better to admit defeat than be pushed to abuse or homicide. All reputable agencies have an informal fostering system for placements that don’t take, and have a network of people willing to take those particularly challenging placements. Some of them wind up back in institutions, here in the U.S.

I admire beyond words those adoptive parents who willingly take in children who might not be able to express or display affection for years, and whose violent misery expands to fill the house. We can’t expect that of ordinary people. Families in distress—and now I am talking not just about adoptive parents, but all parents—can’t be left isolated with their problems. No, there’s no excuse for abuse or homicide. And yet all of us need help sometimes. We need a system that delivers not just children but the support their families need to thrive.

E.J. Graff is a contributing editor at American Prospect and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.

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