Child abuse 'monster' gets 35-70 years

Date: 2005-11-18

David Conti
TRIBUNE-REVIEW

When Matthew Alan Mancuso applied to adopt a child from Russia, the case worker who checked his background called him a "caring, loving man" and a "highly moral individual."

On Thursday, the retired engineer from Plum was called "perverse" and "dangerous" and "monster."

Mancuso, 47, whose sexual exploitation of his adopted daughter made international headlines, learned yesterday in Allegheny County court that he likely will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Common Pleas Judge Donna Jo McDaniel imposed a 35- to 70-year sentence -- which will begin after he completes a 15 1/2-year federal sentence for possessing and distributing child porn -- for rapes and other sexual abuse that began the night he adopted the 5-year-old girl from a Russian orphanage in 1998.

"I've been doing this for 20 years, and I must say this is one of the most heinous cases of child abuse I have ever presided over," McDaniel said. "I believe your abuse was premeditated. You chose to adopt this girl only so you could sexually abuse her."

As adoption advocates around the country celebrated the stiff sentence, many still pondered how such a predator could get his hands on a child.

"There have been more than 49,000 adoptions of Russian children by American families since 1992, and this is the only instance like this we're aware of. But it should never happen," said Thomas Atwood, president of the National Council for Adoption in Alexandria, Va. "It's hard to answer how it happened. One perspective is there's no fail-safe way to prevent child abuse."

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. yesterday promised his office would "review" the circumstances surrounding Mancuso's adoption of the girl, who is now 12 and living with a new adoptive mother out of state. Zappala did not elaborate on how that review will proceed.

"The first order of business was to make sure Mr. Mancuso spent the rest of his life behind bars," he said. "That's been accomplished. I have always been troubled as to how this defendant came to be in custody of this child."

It started with what's called a "home study," which was completed in 1997 by Nancy Simpronio, then director of the Pittsburgh-based Family Adoption Center.

Mancuso hired the center to do the study, which is required by state law for all adoptions. After interviewing him, seeing his home, checking his tax returns, medical condition and criminal background -- he had no previous arrests -- Simpronio recommended Mancuso be approved.

"Mr. Mancuso is very capable, willing and well-prepared to provide a stable and loving home," she wrote in the home study.

Simpronio left her job several years ago and could not be reached for comment. Rick Baird, the president of Adagio Health, which took over the Family Adoption Center, called Mancuso a "monster" who "figured out how to beat the system."

"Everything was done according to state guidelines," Baird said. "He did not exhibit any symptoms of this behavior before."

The adoption was coordinated by a New Jersey woman, Jeannene Smith, who at the time was working with the Indiana-based Families Thru International Adoption.

Keith Wallace, the executive director of that group, said he fired Smith before the adoption was completed in 1998. She in turn formed a group called Reaching Out Thru International Adoption, which Wallace said handled the adoption and was supposed to check on the girl.

Debbie Spivack, the executive director of Smith's group, did not return a call for comment. Smith could not be reached.

Assistant District Attorney Laura Ditka said the abuse began the night Mancuso adopted the girl and continued until his arrest during an Internet porn sting in 2003. Investigators said the abuse -- which he often photographed for distribution in cyberspace -- took place in his home and during annual trips to Florida.

The victim became known as "Disney World Girl" on Internet discussion sites when Toronto authorities in April released photographs of locations where she had been abused -- including shots of a hotel near Disney World in Orlando, Fla. She was digitally removed from the photos as police were trying to determine where they were taken and who she was.

They later learned that Mancuso was already in federal prison on child porn charges.

Atwood, of the National Council for Adoption, said the Mancuso case spurred officials in Russia to start working with the American adoption community to implement reforms. They are calling for stricter screening of potential parents, more visits to homes after adoption and an end to "independent adoptions" by non-accredited agencies.

"It's important to note that Mr. Mancuso is not the face of American adoptions," he said. "It's also heartening that Russian officials and the American community are now working together."

David Conti can be reached at dconti@tribweb.com or 412-320-7981.

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