time to move on? Friends and relatives of Laura and Alan Shatto have urged them to move from Texas back to Louisiana with their adopted son, Kris, and start a new life there.
Nicole Bengiveno • New York Times,
she gave up max: Yulia Kuzmina, the biological mother of a boy who was adopted as Max Shatto and later died in Texas, has been living at a church shelter in Kamennyy Konets, Russia.
Sergey Ponomarev • New York Times,
shattered dreams: Laura Shatto with paperwork for a troubled Russian boy she adopted named Max, who died at age 3, in January in her back yard in Gardendale, Texas.
Nicole Bengiveno • New York Times,
Widening ripples of grief in Russian adoptee's death
- Article by: RACHEL L. SWARNS and DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
- New York Times
- August 31, 2013 - 7:44 PM
Kris loved to soar on the swings. Max liked to fly down the slide.
So when their mother, Laura Shatto, opened the door on that January afternoon, the toddlers — two newly adopted brothers from Russia — headed for the back yard. They were captivated by the swing set, with its bright blue slide, trampoline and glider.
Shatto played with her sons for about 20 minutes, she recalled, before she had to run to the bathroom. She considered taking the boys inside, but it had been a stressful day for Max, with tears and tantrums. The back yard was fenced in. And it would just be a few minutes.
It was a split-second decision, she says, the kind of quick calculation parents make all the time, weighing what seems like taking the smallest of risks against disrupting precious moments of peace. But when Shatto returned, Max, 3, was lying in the grass, she said. He was not breathing.
In the next frantic minutes, Shatto, then paramedics and emergency room physicians, tried unsuccessfully to revive the child. It seemed like a terrible accident until the doctors saw the multicolored collage of bruises on Max’s body.
Suddenly, Shatto was no longer a grieving mother struck by calamity. She was a murder suspect, a symbol of the worst fears about adoption.
“They’re saying I killed my baby!” Shatto, 44, cried in a telephone call to her mother.
Max’s death set off an international furor, one that has reached far from this tiny, windswept oil town where Shatto, a former teacher, lives with her husband, Alan, 51, a petroleum engineer. Russian legislators and news anchors assailed the couple as criminals. Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Moscow in support of a ban on adoptions by Americans that took effect before Max’s death.
Police, prosecutors and medical examiners eventually concluded that Max’s death on Jan. 21 was an accident, resulting from internal injuries probably caused by a fall from the swing set. Max’s bruises were self-inflicted, they said, by a troubled child. But child welfare officials here, who have not disputed the finding about Max’s death, said they couldn’t determine who caused the bruises, leaving the Shattos under a cloud of suspicion.
Death threats and shouts
The Shattos have become pariahs in their own community. Anonymous callers have left death threats on their answering machine. Shoppers have accosted Shatto and shouted “Murderer!” as she stood in line.
The couple say they did nothing to cause Max’s injuries or death. They say they loved the boy with the shy smile who burst into song the first moment he stepped into his bedroom, ate pecans straight from the tree in the back yard and curled up at night with his fuzzy brown bear. They describe themselves as victims of an adoption system that failed to disclose the severity of Max’s problems.
The short, sad life of the boy has become more than the story of one child, a boy who was neglected by his biological mother, consigned to an institution and finally chosen by a family in Texas. His death came at a time of sharply souring relations between the United States and Russia, becoming another point of contention between the countries.
The New York Times reviewed Max’s autopsy report, adoption and medical records, and other documents; it also interviewed officials in Texas and Russia, medical experts, Max’s biological relatives, and friends and relatives of Shatto. Those reports and interviews helped bolster the Shattos’ account: Max’s pediatrician, Shatto’s mother and three friends all said the couple had expressed concern about the child’s behavior. Yet doubts persist among the authorities in Russia, who say they have been denied access to investigate reports and documents in this case, and among child welfare officials in Texas, who say they were “unable to determine” if Max had been physically abused by his parents.
The Shattos, who grew up in Ruston, La., and married in 2006, underwent criminal background checks and a home inspection. They studied Russian, went through new-parent training and spent hours corresponding with caseworkers at Gladney, one of the nation’s oldest adoption agencies.
The Shattos spent most of their savings, in addition to money they inherited from a parent, to cover the costs: more than $50,000, according to Gladney’s estimates.
Both children had problems
There were issues, though. Kris had a clubfoot, his profile said. Max appeared to have a heart defect. Both boys had developmental delays, common to children who have been institutionalized or have endured neglect. At their age, the Shattos had decided, they could not handle a child with serious cognitive or developmental needs. They had to be prepared to say no, they told each other, if the children did not seem healthy.
But they were overcome by emotion when they finally met Max and Kris. “I saw them, and I just started crying,” Laura Shatto said. “When you’ve been waiting to be a mother for so long, well, they could have had horns and we were still going after them.”
But the Shattos said the orphanage officials did offer some disturbing information: Max and Kris’s biological mother might have been drinking while she was pregnant, the couple remembers them saying. The couple hesitated, but not for long.
The Shattos had been reassured about the boys’ well-being by a visit to Dr. Bruce Eckel, a pediatrician in Fort Worth, Texas. Eckel, who declined a request for an interview, determined that they were fine, the Shattos said.
Still, the couple worried. Max was waking up almost every night screaming. He hoarded food. “Initially I figured it was just adjustment issues,” Alan Shatto said. “We thought it would pass.”
Instead, the Shattos said, it escalated. On Jan. 4, the Shattos went to see Eckel again. Convinced that Max had serious psychological problems, the report said, Eckel prescribed an antipsychotic medicine. The Shattos gave the risperidone to Max for a few days, but stopped after he suffered from side effects. “He was like a zombie,” Laura Shatto said.
The Shattos buried Max on Jan. 30 in their hometown in Louisiana. Friends and relatives have urged the Shattos to move on, to sell their house and return to Louisiana, where they can rebuild their lives in a place unencumbered by painful memories.
© 2013 Star Tribune