Adopted toddler's alleged death-by-abuse in Texas inflames Russia

A Kremlin ombudsman says that Russian 3-year-old Maxim Kuzmin was killed by his adoptive Texan mother last month. The accusation has stoked a new firestorm in Russia over US adoptions.

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters
People take part in a rally in St. Petersburg, Russia, last month to protest against the law, passed in late December 2012, that bans Americans from adopting Russian children. Proponents of the ban are pushing to broaden it further in reaction to the reported death of Russian adoptee Maxim Kuzmin in Texas last month.

The alleged death-by-abuse of a 3-year old adopted Russian boy in Texas has triggered a fresh uproar in Russia, which recently passed a law banning all US adoptions amid claims that Russian children who go to the US are not adequately protected by the law and may be singled out for special mistreatment.

The adoption issue has become the single most emotional topic on the growing list of acrimonious US-Russia differences. The latest allegation, though as-yet unverified, has generated a media firestorm in Russia and has the Kremlin's children's rights ombudsman and chief advocate for a total ban on foreign adoptions, Pavel Astakhov, telling journalists that immediate action must be taken to protect other vulnerable Russian children in the US.

"An adoptive mother has killed a three-year-old Russian child in the state of Texas. The murder occurred at the end of January,"  Mr. Astakhov wrote in his blog Monday.

"The boy died before an ambulance called by his mother arrived. According to a report by medical examiners, the boy had numerous injuries," he added.

No. 20

If the facts cited by Astakhov are accurate, then the death of 3-year-old Maxim Kuzmin, renamed Max Shatto when he came to the US, would be the 20th documented case of a Russian child adopted by US parents dying under suspicious circumstances in the past two decades. That is an extremely small fraction of the approximately 60,000 such adoptions that have occurred over the same time period, but every past example has ignited intense controversy in Russia and bolstered calls by nationalists and communists to end for good the "shameful" practice of exporting Russian children.

Texas Child Protective Services confirmed to the Associated Press that it had received a report on Jan. 21 of the death of Max Shatto, and that the Ector County Sheriff's Office in West Texas was investigating.

Russia's parliament observed a minute of silence Tuesday for Maxim, and many deputies called for an immediate halt to all foreign adoptions, even those that have already been approved by Russian courts.

"Why should we send our children to certain death?" Svetlana Orlova, deputy chair of the upper house of parliament, told the Interfax news agency.

The downward spiral

As US-Russia relations spiraled downward late last year, President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which imposes visa and economic sanctions on a list of Russian officials who are accused of serious human rights violations.

Russia swiftly responded with the Dima Yakovlev Act, named after one of the Russian orphans who died, which prescribes a list of restrictions on what US passport holders may do in Russia and bans them from adopting Russian children. President Vladimir Putin supported the measure, and signed it into law in late December.

Even some long time critics of foreign adoptions say that the politicization of the issue has gone too far.

"Every such case of a child dying through abuse is a tragedy, whether it happens here or in the US," says Nina Ostanina, a longtime Communist deputy of the Duma who now works as an expert for the Duma's commission on family, women, and children.

"For the past 20 years people in power were silent about such tragedies and now they are shedding tears. But it's a pity that it's rare that we come to know about such cases when they happen inside Russia. They should all be made public.... Such cases should not be politicized, and this is what is happening now," she adds.

It also happens in Russia

According to the Russian Ministry of Education, which oversees adoptions, Russian children adopted by Russian families in Russia have died through abuse or neglect at a rate that's far higher than those adopted by American families. According to the Ministry there have been about 1,220 deaths out of some 170,000 Russian adoptions in the past 20 years, compared to 19 deaths in America out of approximately 60,000 adoptions.

Mr. Astakhov, the Kremlin's ombudsman for children, has argued that the adoption ban is a necessary first step for realizing his plan, entitled "Russia Without Orphans," which would close all orphanages and find happy homes in Russia for all of the approximately 120,000 children who remain institutionalized in Russia.

"Why should Russia be a donor of orphans?" Astakhov said in an interview with Russia Beyond the Headlines. "We are a great country, self-respected and self-sufficient. In the midst of the crisis of the 1990s, we allowed foreign adoption. But it is time to put an end to it."

Among other things, a painstakingly negotiated bilateral US-Russia adoption accord, which had only come into force last November, was cast into legal limbo by passage of the Dima Yakovlev Act. That agreement would have greatly tightened up adoption procedures, and created mechanisms for Russian officials to monitor the progress of Russian children – who remain Russian citizens until the age of 18 – in their new American homes.

The hasty sidelining of that agreement may now make more it difficult for Russian officials to pursue their demands for more information and input into the investigation of what happened to Maxim.

'It's just dirty politics' 

On Tuesday, the State Duma summoned US Ambassador Mike McFaul to come and answer questions about US responsibilities toward adopted Russian children in the absence of the diplomatic accord.

"We expect Michael McFaul to provide information on how and what they will do for the Russian children remaining in America," Yelena Mizulina, the chair of the Duma's commission on family, women, and children, told journalists.

"These children are our citizens, and the abolition of the agreement does not mean we have no right to demand US responsibility for the fate of these children and the return of these children to Russia," she said.

Several Russian officials, including Ms. Mizulina, have accused the US of hiding the facts and impeding investigations into the suspicious deaths of Russian children.

"In this whole situation, I personally resent the lies and hypocrisy with which the US State Department is trying to disown responsibility," Mizulina said.

The US Embassy in Moscow said that the US government is doing its best to facilitate coordination between the Russian consulate in Houston and local authorities in Texas, who are responsible for investigating the case.

"This is a terrible tragedy, and it would be good to see an impartial investigation," says Boris Altschuler, head of the independent Center for Children's Rights in Moscow.

"But the Duma deputies, Pavel Astakhov, and the others are also engaging in a form of child abuse by politicizing this issue the way they are.... They are sacrificing the chances for thousands of Russian orphans for hardhearted political reasons. It's just dirty politics."

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