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Adopted Russian child's death: What is known about the case so far

The death of Max Shatto, a toddler adopted from Russia, brings grief to a Texas town and fires up protests in Russia, where a ban on US adoptions has taken on a cold-war tone.

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Indeed, the full autopsy report won’t be available for another two to eight weeks, says Sondra Woolf, an investigator with the Ector County Medical Examiner’s Office, adding that it wasn’t clear from the medical examiner’s observation of Max’s body what had caused his death.

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“He did have some bruising, but we won’t know if that had anything to do with the cause of his death till we get the autopsy,” Ms. Woolf says. “We don’t know if it was just everyday bruising.”

She added, however, that the boy had bruises on several places on his body, and “obviously because he’s 3 years old that makes us start looking at things a little more closely.”

On the day of Max’s death, local authorities also contacted Texas Child Protective Services, who opened an investigation into possible neglect and physical abuse. CPS officials visited the family home in the town of Gardendale – population 1,500 – and interviewed both the parents and others “who might have information about the case,” says Patrick Crimmins, a spokesperson for CPS.

But the agency ultimately left the Shattos’s other child, a 2-year-old named Kristopher, who was also adopted from Russia, in the custody of his parents. Child services is “monitoring the home,” Mr. Crimmins says but would not elaborate.

“CPS can remove a child from the home, if we believe they’re in danger,” he adds. “We’ve left this child at home because we feel he is protected at this time.”

CPS did not have an active file on either Kristopher or Max at the time of the older boy’s death, and there had not been previous complaints of neglect or abuse against the family. He says CPS generally completes its investigations within 30 days, although waiting on the medical examiner’s report can draw out that length. 

But with a ban on American adoptions of Russian children passed by the Kremlin late last year, the pressure from Moscow to answer for the death is rising. 

If abuse is confirmed, Max will be the 20th Russian adoptee to die under suspicious circumstances in the United States in the past two decades, out of a total of some 60,000 adopted children. By comparison, the Russian Ministry of Education estimates that 1,220 of the 170,000 Russian children adopted in Russia in the same time frame have died from neglect or abuse.

In Texas, 182 adoptive parents  were identified as perpetrators of child abuse in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, out of 72,051 cases total, according to statistics compiled compiled by the Department of Health and Human Service’s Children’s Bureau. Nationally, the bureau estimates that some 81 percent of perpetrators of child abuse are parents. Of those, 0.7 percent are adoptive parents. Approximately 1 percent of children in the United States are adopted, according to the Census Bureau.

Max Shatto was born Jan. 9, 2010, in Pskov, a city in northwest Russia, according to an obituary in the Shreveport Times in Louisiana. Photos from Facebook and online obituaries show a toddler with big ears and a perplexed gaze. His adoptive mother, Laura, was, until 2012, a high school teacher. 

“Max, you were not with us long enough to leave fingerprints on the walls but you left fingerprints upon our hearts,” read the obituary. “We love you and will always miss you.” 

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