World of Grief and Doubt After an Adoptee’s Death
By RACHEL L. SWARNS and DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
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.”
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.
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.
“Some external force, a seat belt or a fall on some blunt object, such as on a bike handle or a broom handle, that can pin the mesentery against a hard structure like the spine and tear the blood vessel,” Dr. Kane explained. “The result can be life threatening.”
But doubts lingered. On April 23, Texas child protective services officials closed their case, saying they found no evidence of neglect in Max’s death. But they said they were unable to determine whether the Shattos had abused him.
In Russia, Dr. Natalia A. Vishnevskaya, a pediatrician who runs the orphanage where Max and his brother once lived, charged that Mrs. Shatto had lied about Max’s self-injurious behavior. “I have the impression that she is trying to justify her negligence toward these two children,” she said in an interview. Friends and relatives have urged the Shattos to move on, to sell their house and return to Louisiana, where they can rebuild their lives in a place unencumbered by painful memories.
“They’ve made her out to be a child killer; they’ve tarnished her name,” said Michelle Cavett, a family friend. “How is she going to pull her life back together?”
These days, Mrs. Shatto rarely leaves the house with Kris, terrified that someone will call her a terrible name in front of him or that a Russian official will kidnap him. She cannot bear to step into the backyard without her husband, even though he removed the blue slide and the glider. She has been trying to cast aside the “what if” questions, but they still torment her.
Sometimes she talks angrily about the orphanage officials in Russia, whom she accuses of hiding Max’s condition. Sometimes she speaks bitterly of the child welfare officials who split up her family during the investigation. She fears that their inconclusive finding, which left open the possibility that she and her husband had physically abused Max, may have effectively ended her teaching career.
But she often reserves her harshest criticism for herself, wondering whether Max would still be alive if she had stayed in the backyard that afternoon and worrying about how she will ever tell her surviving son what happened to his brother.
The Shattos have yet to explain Max’s absence. And they say Kris has not asked.
At the orphanage in Russia, he grew accustomed to seeing children come and go. For a time, the Shattos found comfort in the fact that he did not seem to remember his brother, his violent episodes or his death. It meant, they thought, that there was more time for healing, more time to find the right words to explain.
But in life, they have learned, there is no willing the memories gone. When Mrs. Shatto shared some photographs of Max with a visitor one day, Kris quickly clambered onto his mother’s lap to take a look.
He stared at the family photo from the Shattos’ first visit to Russia, the day he and his big brother met the couple who would become their parents.
Then he pointed with a tiny finger.
“Max!” Kris said delightedly. “Max!”