When a Texas 3-year-old named Max Shatto died suddenly on Jan. 21, the tragedy sent ripples of grief through the small town where he lived with his parents and younger brother. Local obituaries referred delicately to his “passing into God’s arms,” and friends and family poured their condolences into an online guest book.
“My heart is broken for the family,” wrote one commenter. “May God comfort you, as only He can.”
Then, in mid-February, nearly a month after the death, the Russian government came forward with a stunning allegation: that Max, a Russian adoptee whose birth name was Maxim, had died from abuse and neglect at the hands of his American adoptive parents, Laura and Alan Shatto.
Suddenly, a small town tragedy exploded into a diplomatic firestorm, the latest touchstone in an ongoing and venomous fight between the US and Russia over the adoption of Russian children by Americans, which the Kremlin has long decried as a “shameful” exportation of the country’s children.
This is "yet another case of inhuman torture of a Russian child adopted by US parents," said Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Dolgov in a statement Monday.
But as the controversy spills over into its third day, significant questions remain about both the circumstances of the boy’s death and how it will affect prospects for lifting a ban on Russian adoptions – and even the delicate balance of US-Russia relations.
“Let me underscore that it is a terrible tragedy that this child has died,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland during a press conference Tuesday, adding that the US government had already been in touch with Russian authorities about the case for several days.
“But none of us, not here, not anywhere in the world, should jump to a conclusion about the circumstances until the police have had a chance to investigate,” she added.
By then, however, many Russians had already made up their minds.
"An adoptive mother has killed a three-year-old Russian child in the state of Texas. The murder occurred at the end of January," wrote Russia’s children's rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov on a blog Monday morning, setting off the controversy.
The boy, he continued, died in his home after his adoptive mother called an ambulance for him. “According to the autopsy report, the boy had many injuries,” he continued.
But details from Texas law enforcement quickly began to complicate the story.
To start, the boy's mother told law enforcement that she had left Max playing in the yard with his younger brother and returned to find him lying on the ground, unresponsive, according to the Odessa American. And according to the local sheriff's office, the boy died in the hospital – not at home.
Moreover, there is also no autopsy report conclusively showing “many injuries,” the county medical examiner’s office says, because, so far, no autopsy report has been released at all.
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.
“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.”