Widening Ripples of Grief in Adoptee’s Death

GARDENDALE, Tex. — 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 backyard with their three dogs
bounding along. They were captivated
by the swing set, with its bright blue
slide, trampoline and glider.
Mrs. 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 backyard was
fenced in. And it would just be a few
minutes.
“Mama’s going to be right back,” she
remembers reassuring them.
It was a split-second decision, she says,
the kind of quick calculus that parents
make all the time, weighing what seems
like taking the smallest of risks against
disrupting precious moments of peace.
But when Mrs. Shatto returned, Max, 3,
was lying in the grass, she said. He was
not breathing.
In the next frantic minutes, Mrs.
Shatto, then paramedics and emergency
room physicians, tried unsuccessfully
to revive the child. It seemed like a
terrible accident — a severe allergy
attack or perhaps a seizure — until the
doctors saw the multicolored collage of
bruises on Max’s body.
They marked his chest, his groin, his
thigh, his left arm, his right arm, his
chin, his neck, his face. Suddenly, Mrs.
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!” Mrs.
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
Mrs. 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
— some carrying photos of Max and
Kris aloft — in support of a ban on
adoptions by Americans that took effect
before Max’s death.
“I wanted to kill them,” Yulia V.
Kuzmina, the boys’ biological mother,
said about the Shattos.
The police, prosecutors and medical
examiners in Texas 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
deeply troubled child who clawed his
skin raw, banged his head against walls
and hurled his body on the floor. But
child welfare officials here, who have
not disputed the finding about Max’s
death, said they could not determine
who caused the bruises on his body,
leaving the Shattos under a cloud of
suspicion.
And the authorities in Russia remain
unconvinced of the couple’s innocence.
Accusing them of “cruel treatment” and
“inappropriate care,” Russian officials
have said they were moving to annul
Kris’s adoption and have demanded the
2-year-old’s return. They have accused
the couple of fabricating Max’s history
of self-injury to cover up their
mistreatment.
The Shattos have become pariahs in
their own community, indelibly stained
by the tragedy. Anonymous callers
have left death threats on their
answering machine. Shoppers have
accosted Mrs. Shatto and shouted
“Murderer!” as she stood in line at the
supermarket. Some friends no longer
visit or return phone calls.
The couple, speaking to The New York
Times in their first public discussion of
the case, 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 backyard
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 who was
born Maksim Nikolaevich Kuzmin 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 here 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. (State
Department officials say that any
annulment of Kris’s adoption by the
Russian authorities would not be
recognized in the United States.)
It has also exposed the often unspoken
tensions between parents in the United
States and the countries where they
find children to adopt, strains often
tinged by the chasm of class. Some
countries — including Cambodia,
Guatemala and Vietnam — that once
sent children to the United States have
slowed or stopped foreign adoptions
because of baby-selling scandals,
corruption or efforts to encourage
more domestic adoptions.
In Russia, passions over the treatment
of adoptees have been inflamed in
recent years. Three years ago, an
American mother sent her 7-year-old
adopted son on a flight back to Russia
alone, saying she had become
overwhelmed by his emotional
problems. Russian officials have
declared that Max was the 21st Russian
adoptee to die from abuse or neglect
while living with families in the United
States. Among them was a toddler who
died of heatstroke after his adoptive
father left him in a parked vehicle for
nine hours on a hot day in 2008. After
Max’s death, the Russian government
rebuffed efforts by the United States to
finalize adoptions for several hundred
American families who had met their
prospective children before the ban
was imposed.
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 Mrs. Shatto. Those reports
and interviews helped bolster the
Shattos’ account: Max’s pediatrician,
Mrs. Shatto’s mother and three friends
all said the couple had expressed
concern about the child’s behavior as it
developed over a period of weeks.
Detectives interviewed other relatives
and friends who said they witnessed
Max’s violent episodes, prosecutors
said. And the Shattos sought help from
Max’s doctor and their adoption
agency.
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”
whether Max had been physically
abused by his parents.
Here in Gardendale, Mrs. Shatto said
she often lay sleepless at night, haunted
by Max’s death and tormented by
questions. If the ambulance had
arrived sooner, would Max still be
alive? If she had been more adept with
CPR, would he still be alive? If she and
her husband had known about Max’s
problems and gotten him help from the
start, would he still be alive?
“I was completely broken; there wasn’t
a lot of me left,” she said, remembering
how she feared that she might have
inadvertently injured Max while she
performed CPR, though the medical
examiner found no evidence of that. “I
kept wondering: ‘Did I hurt my baby?
Did I hurt my baby?’ ”
And, of course, the most unanswerable
question of all: if she had not stepped
away for those crucial minutes, would
Max still be alive?
“All I ever wanted to be was a mom,”
Mrs. Shatto said. “We didn’t expect that
‘Ozzie and Harriet’ thing. We know
that doesn’t happen. All we wanted was
a family.”
Happy Journey
The first e-mail the Shattos received
about Max gave no hint of the trouble
to come. He peered solemnly out of the
photographs that the Gladney Center
for Adoption sent, a little boy with big
brown eyes and wispy brown hair.
“Max is very serious guy and it is not
easy to make him smile, but sometimes
he does smile!” said the description
from the Russian orphanage that
accompanied the photos. “He has a
younger brother, Kirill. Boys need
loving parents.”
Mrs. Shatto was at her desk at Midland
Senior High School, where she taught
economics, when the e-mail popped
into her in-box. It was May 24, 2012,
and for months she had been telling
everyone she knew about her plans to
adopt.
“She was so excited,” recalled Peyton
Howard, 19, a student in Mrs. Shatto’s
class that day. “Things were finally
going right for her.”
The Shattos, who grew up in Ruston,
La., and married in 2006, had been
trying for years to have a baby,
struggling through multiple fertility
treatments and three miscarriages.
Heartbroken, they decided to adopt
from Russia, where they hoped to find
two dark-haired, blue-eyed children
who would look just like family.
A big woman with raven hair, Mrs.
Shatto is a mile-a-minute talker with a
Louisiana drawl who hugged away her
students’ worries. But she also has an
eye for detail, and she immersed
herself in the adoption paperwork. She
had a ready partner in her husband,
who is burly and white-whiskered with
an engineer’s affinity for facts, figures
and precision.
They underwent criminal background
checks and a home inspection and
applied for visas. They studied Russian,
went through new-parent training and
spent hours corresponding with
Gladney caseworkers. Based in Fort
Worth, Gladney is one of the nation’s
oldest adoption agencies and had been
bringing Russian adoptees to the United
States for nearly two decades.
The Shattos spent most of their savings,
in addition to money they inherited
from a parent, to cover the costs:
roughly $31,000 for one child, an
additional $12,000 for a sibling, and
the cost of the three required trips to
Russia, according to Gladney’s
estimates.
Soon Mrs. Shatto was peppering her
friends and colleagues with questions.
While she had cared for her nieces and
nephews, being a mother was different.
“She was always asking us: ‘How do
you do this? What is the response to
that?’ ” said Christopher Hightower, a
parent and fellow teacher at Midland
High who offered advice about
surviving teething and illness. “She had
worked so hard to get these kids. She
didn’t want to leave anything to
chance.”
The one thing Mrs. Shatto did not
worry about was whether taking on
two young children at once would be
overwhelming. Experts warn that
adopting siblings, particularly toddlers,
can take a considerable toll. “With two
children coming home at 2 or 3, it is
likely that one or both will have
behavioral issues,” said Dr. Lisa Albers
Prock, the director of the adoption
program at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“I tell parents to proceed with caution.”
But the Shattos said they could not wait
to adopt a second child. Mr. Shatto was
48 when they began the process; they
worried that he would be deemed
ineligible to adopt an infant or toddler
by the time he was 50.
The couple’s biggest concern was about
fetal alcohol syndrome, which is
pervasive in Russia and can lead to
physical, mental and emotional
problems.
There were other issues, too. 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 the age of 2 years and 3
months, Max was more equivalent to a
child of 1 year and 9 months,
according to information provided to
Gladney by the Russian orphanage.
The Shattos sent the boys’ medical
information to Dr. Dana E. Johnson, a
pediatrician at the International
Adoption Clinic at the University of
Minnesota. Right away, Dr. Johnson
said, he saw a problem: Max’s head
seemed a bit small. “Brain size is one
of the few measures of cognitive ability
that we have early in life,” he said.
But he was not sure of the accuracy of
the measurements described in the
profile. So in June, when the Shattos
arrived at the orphanage in Pskov near
the Estonian border, they were armed
with a tape measure in addition to their
Russian-English dictionary, a camera,
clothes and gifts.
At their age, they 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,”
Ms. 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.”
The couple spent about four hours with
the boys that day. They also measured
the boys’ heads and took photos from
myriad angles. They said they noticed
scratches on Max’s face — documented
in the photographs they took during
that trip and the two that followed —
that they said orphanage officials
described as inevitable in an institution
filled with children. No one mentioned
any self-harming behaviors.
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, though the
officials offered few details.
The Shattos were shocked, given that
the profile from Gladney did not
mention any history of parental
drinking. (Heidi B. Cox, general
counsel at Gladney, said the agency was
never told that the mother drank.)
The couple hesitated, but not for long.
No one at the orphanage seemed
worried about the issue. Perhaps the
mother had only a drink or two, the
Shattos told each other.
“You know, you hope for the best,” Mr.
Shatto said.
So the Shattos decided to sign the
paperwork necessary to commit to
adopting the boys. When the final
assessment from Dr. Johnson arrived
on June 15, just two days before they
headed back to Texas after that first
trip, they felt enormous relief.
“I remember very explicitly looking at
the photographs of the kids,” said Dr.
Johnson, who was authorized by the
Shattos to share his medical evaluation
of their son. “I thought their growth
was fine, and their development
appeared good.”
There was a caveat: even children with
normal facial features can have subtle
brain damage if they have been
exposed to alcohol, Dr. Johnson
warned.
But the Shattos were moving ahead. On
Nov. 3, they brought their boys home.
Trouble at Home
Max, pensive and serious, loved hugs
and toy cars and staring up at the sky.
He sang and made music wherever he
went, tapping on overturned
flowerpots like miniature drums. He
liked to assemble and disassemble toys
and watched his father carefully to see
how things worked.
Kris was gregarious and seemed more
athletic, even with his clubfoot. He
liked watching football with his father,
who could not help but dream about his
sons’ futures.
“Max was the more intellectual type; I
thought he was the one we would send
to M.I.T.,” Mr. Shatto said. “Kris was
the one we would send to Notre Dame,
more the sporting side.”
The Shattos had been reassured about
the boys’ well-being by a visit to Dr.
Bruce Eckel, a pediatrician in Fort
Worth who specializes in foreign
adoptees and examined the boys a few
days after they arrived in Texas. Dr.
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 in his toy
cars, in his Big Wheel — and in his
cheeks. At dinnertime, the family tried
to make a game out of getting him to
chew.
Mrs. Shatto told some of her colleagues
about Max’s meltdowns and head
banging. “She tried to take him out of
the house, and he would just scream,”
Mr. Hightower, the Midland teacher,
recalled Mrs. Shatto saying. “It
honestly just sounded like this kid had
some anxiety issues or something
worse.”
By December, the Shattos said they had
installed a motion detector and a video
camera in the boys’ bedroom that
would start recording whenever Max
got out of bed. (He sometimes got up to
hurt himself or to attack his little
brother, the Shattos said; they said they
later gave the videotapes to the police.)
They said they were also calling Dr.
Eckel to report what was happening.
But an explosion was often followed by
several days of peace. “Initially I
figured it was just adjustment issues,”
Mr. Shatto said. “We thought it would
pass.”
Instead, the Shattos said, it escalated.
The couple moved Max’s bed away
from the wall and put gloves on his
hands to keep him from scratching
himself. They said they continued
calling Dr. Eckel’s office and spent
hours searching for answers online
and talking to friends and relatives.
“She would call and say, ‘Mama, he’s
hurting himself, he’s hurting himself,
why is he hurting himself?’ ” recalled
Mrs. Shatto’s mother, Peggy Worley,
73. “She’d be crying on the phone. She
had never seen anything like it, and
neither had I.”
On Jan. 4, the Shattos went to see Dr.
Eckel again. He would later tell
investigators that the boy arrived in his
office with a hemorrhage in his left eye
and scratches and bruises all over his
body, according to the medical
examiner’s report.
Convinced that Max had serious
psychological problems, the report said,
Dr. Eckel prescribed risperidone, an
antipsychotic medicine sometimes
prescribed to children and teenagers
who have autism and engage in self-
injurious behaviors. It is not typically
prescribed to children under 5, experts
say.
“The behaviors that the parents were
describing,” Dr. Eckel told an
investigator from the medical
examiner’s office, according to the
report, “were consistent with a severe
case.”
The Shattos drove home that day with a
prescription in hand but no real
answers. The pediatrician also referred
them to a psychologist for Max. The
Shattos gave the medication to Max for
a few days, but stopped after he
suffered from side effects. “He was like
a zombie,” Mrs. Shatto said.
They did not pursue therapy, they said,
after meeting with Gladney
caseworkers who told them that Max
was too young for medication or
therapy. (Ms. Cox at Gladney denied
that caseworkers had discouraged the
Shattos from such assistance.)
“They told us we needed to love him
more,” Mrs. Shatto said.
Splintered Family
She is pale and thin, a wisp of a
woman who averts her eyes when she
speaks, as if to distance herself from
her own history. At 24, Yulia Kuzmina,
Max’s birth mother, is a jobless high
school dropout, described by her
neighbors and her own father as an
alcoholic who preferred carousing to
caring for her children.
Just like Max, Ms. Kuzmina came from
a family splintered by drink, violence
and strife. She was a mother who knew
precious little about mothering.
Ms. Kuzmina’s own mother was an
alcoholic, and her parents separated
when she was 11. Her stepsister ended
up in an orphanage. Last year, her
brother hanged himself, and her
mother vanished and is believed dead.
When she was in her early 20s, Ms.
Kuzmina gave birth to Max and Kris,
the sons of two different men. She said
Max’s father nearly killed her,
attacking her with an ax before the
baby was born. By then, she was
drinking heavily, according to her
father, a neighbor and local child
welfare officials.
In an interview, Ms. Kuzmina said that
social workers in her hometown never
gave her the support she needed. “I
wanted them to give me a chance,” she
said. Of her sons, she added, “I think
they would have been better off with
me.”
Her father, Andrey Kuzmin, scoffed at
that notion. He was quick to assign
blame to his daughter, saying, “She is
the one who doomed the boy.”
Mother and son briefly shared a run-
down concrete-block house without
running water or a furnace in Gdov,
southwest of St. Petersburg near the
border with Estonia. Tourists still flock
to the sandy beaches and fish-filled
waters of nearby Lake Peipus. But
there is no such draw in Gdov, a
ramshackle village where potholes scar
the rutted roads.
The poultry farm, the hog farm, the
cattle farm, the milk factory have all
closed, Ms. Kuzmina said. “Everybody
is leaving,” she said, “because there are
no jobs.”
For a time, Ms. Kuzmina, who dropped
out of school after ninth grade, sold
mushrooms and berries that she
collected in the woods after Max was
born, Russian court records show.
She was estranged from Max’s father.
So she and Max lived with her mother,
until she landed a job on a road
construction crew in the city of Pskov,
the regional capital, about 90 minutes
from Gdov.
Max was an infant when she left him
with her mother, who was drinking
heavily. In September 2010, social
workers visited the house and found
him “dirty, hungry and untended.”
They sent him to the local children’s
hospital, the records said. He was 8
months old.
“When I came back, the child was
already taken away,” said Ms.
Kuzmina, recalling the day she
returned from Pskov to visit. “My
mother said, if you had arrived one
hour earlier, you would have seen
him.”
Two months later, court records show,
Ms. Kuzmina requested that her son be
placed in a state institution because she
lacked “enough means to provide for
the child.” In February, Max was
transferred to an orphanage in the
town of Pechory, more than two hours
from Gdov. He never saw his mother
again.
Ms. Kuzmina said she tried to visit him,
but was told she could not because the
orphanage was under quarantine.
Orphanage officials say Ms. Kuzmina
called but never visited. They also say
she promised to take Max home in
August 2011 but never did.
By then, Ms. Kuzmina had Kris — his
given name is Kirill — who was about
7 months old. But he, too, was taken
away after child welfare workers
reported that they found him dirty and
neglected, and without any milk or
baby formula, court records show.
Ms. Kuzmina insists that she was a good
mother to Kris, and that she drank only
on special occasions. She said the social
workers had to tear him out of her
arms. “I clenched him,” she recalled. “I
was yelling at them and cursing them.”
By October 2011, the courts had taken
away Ms. Kuzmina’s parental rights.
Neither her father nor other relatives
were willing or able to take the boys in.
Ms. Kuzmina said she thought the
children would end up with a rich
Russian family. She learned that the
boys were in America only when she
heard about Max’s death this year.
In the weeks after his death, Russian
officials paraded Ms. Kuzmina on
television, where she wept for the
cameras and pleaded for Kris’s return.
But her anger at the Shattos has
subsided with the passing months.
“After I learned about it, I was ready to
kill them,” she said. “But now, I don’t
know. God will judge.”
‘It Wasn’t Real’
The Shattos buried Max — who had
lived with them for just 79 days — on
Jan. 30 in their hometown in
Louisiana, in a cemetery that glimmers
with yellow wildflowers and white
dogwoods in spring. Then they returned
home to deal with the criminal and
child welfare investigations.
The Shattos said the child welfare
worker assigned to the case repeatedly
accused Mrs. Shatto of abusing Max and
killing him and barred her from living
with Kris to ensure his safety. (A
spokesman for the Texas Department of
Family and Protective Services said that
the Shattos’ complaints about the
caseworker’s unprofessional conduct
were addressed internally and that the
employee has since resigned.)
Mr. Shatto’s sister came from
Louisiana to help him care for the
toddler. Mrs. Shatto, who was allowed
to visit Kris only two hours a day,
stayed with a friend and at a hotel. It
would be more than two months before
she returned home.
“They tell you your baby’s dead, but
you think the weirdest things,” said
Mrs. Shatto, recalling those first weeks
after Max’s death. “Is he cold? Does he
have his teddy bear? Is he by himself?
It wasn’t really real.”
But it was. And the news of Max’s
death was spreading through
Washington. Officials at Gladney had
informed Senator Mary L. Landrieu, a
Louisiana Democrat who is an adoption
advocate.
At the time, Ms. Landrieu was trying to
persuade Russia to finalize the
adoptions of children that were under
way before President Vladimir V. Putin
banned all adoptions to Americans in
late December. Mr. Putin signed the
measure into law in retaliation for an
American law that bars Russians
suspected of violating human rights
from traveling to the United States and
owning assets here. But Russian
officials also cited the death and
mistreatment of Russian adoptees in the
United States to rally support for the
ban.
Hoping to prevent an outcry overseas,
Ms. Landrieu informed the Russian
ambassador about Max’s death,
reassuring him that Texas officials
were investigating the matter.
Soon after, a fact-finding team of
Russian diplomats knocked on the
Shattos’ front door. On Feb. 18, Pavel
A. Astakhov, Russia’s child rights
commissioner, tapped out this post on
Twitter: “Urgent! In the state of Texas,
an adoptive mother killed a 3-year-old
Russian child.”
Soon, reporters were camping out on
the Shattos’ driveway, and the family
was receiving death threats. Mr. Shatto
turned off the ringers on their home
phones and disconnected the doorbell.
The Shattos had also hired a lawyer,
Michael J. Brown, a former federal
prosecutor, who had arranged for them
to hand over their adoption and Max’s
medical records. He also arranged for
the Shattos to meet with the detectives
who were investigating their son’s
death.
The criminal investigation by the local
authorities was quietly taking a turn
away from the initial suspicions. The
preliminary autopsy results suggested
not a homicide, but an accidental
death, “probably the consequence of a
fall from playground equipment in his
yard,” the report said.
The investigators interviewed the
Shattos and their pediatrician and
reviewed the coroner’s report and
medical records. “These are self-injury
bruises, not abuse,” Sheriff Mark
Donaldson of Ector County recalled the
detectives saying. “We got a whole
different situation here.”
On March 1, Bobby Bland, the district
attorney, announced that four
pathologists had reviewed the autopsy
report and determined that Max’s death
was accidental. Two weeks later, he
said a grand jury had concluded that
there was no evidence the Shattos had
committed any crime.
In his final autopsy report, the medical
examiner determined that the cause of
death was a tear in the small bowel
mesentery, a mesh of blood vessels that
carry blood to the small intestines,
caused by a blow to the abdomen.
“Most likely the child fell off
playground equipment, or on
playground equipment, or was hit by
playground equipment,” said Mr.
Bland, who said that Max may have
fallen off the slide onto the handle of
the glider or may have been struck by
it.
Dr. Timothy D. Kane, the chief of
pediatric surgery at Children’s National
Medical Center in Washington, said he
saw a handful of such cases a year.
“We see it quite often in car accidents
and blunt trauma,” he said.