Interview: Max Shatto's Mother Tells Her Side Of Story
In a few short months, Laura Shatto says she experienced some of the best and worst feelings a person ever could. In late 2012, she and her husband completed the lengthy and costly process of intercountry adoption. They had become the parents of two young Russian boys, Maksim and Kirill, whom they renamed Max and Kristopher.
Come mid-February, Shatto was facing what she says felt like the wrath of an entire country. Max, 3, had died under unclear circumstances at the Shattos' Texas home and Russian officials were quick to accuse her of murder. The case made international headlines and became larger than itself in the crosshairs of U.S.-Russian politics.
In March, Max's death was ruled accidental. Despite Russian objections, no charges have been filed against Shatto. In one of her first accounts to the press, Shatto shared her own side of the story with RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash. The interview was conducted in May but held for legal reasons.
RFE/RL: There have been descriptions from various officials quoted in the press and in Max's autopsy report, but can you tell us in your own words what happened on the day that your son died?
Laura Shatto: [Max and Kris] were outside playing and the unfortunate part of that was that I had to run in to the restroom. That was literally the first time I took my eyes off them. It was kind of an emergency. They were fine -- they were playing in the yard with the dogs [and] neither one of them was on any [play] equipment whatsoever. When I came back outside, Max was laying on the ground by the swing set.
Now, what you have to understand here is that this was not uncommon for Max. What I thought might have happened was that he had [fallen] off something and had knocked the wind out of himself. So I had my hands under his armpits and around his chest and I shook him a little bit. Well, that didn't work. I tried to do a bit of the Heimlich [maneuver] just in case he had choked. I tucked his legs in between my knees and I held him so I could brace his neck to look in his eyes -- because he wasn't breathing.
Now, understand, this was taking place in seconds. I ran with him into the house. I realized that we had some type of problem, but I did not know what the problem was. He had overalls on. I pulled his overall bib down, I pulled his shirt up. I was trying to listen for a heartbeat. I called 911 and started CPR compressions at that point. They were directing me how they wanted me to do it for a 3-year-old. Because we'd been told that Max might have a heart defect, I thought he'd had a heart attack.
When we got to the hospital, Kris and I were told to wait in the waiting room. I prayed the entire way to the hospital, I prayed the entire time I was sitting in the waiting room -- please God, help my son. Finally the police detective told me that Max had died. Oh my gosh, I can't...I cannot even begin to describe that level of pain. This was my child. This was my baby. (Crying.)
This was an accident. What they were able to figure out is that Max probably climbed up on the slide, got to that top rung, something caught his attention, he flipped, he hit the crossbar on his lower abdomen, hit the glider, and then hit the ground. The fact that I could not save my son to this day just haunts me. But I did not do anything to cause his death.
RFE/RL: Russian officials were first to publicize Max's death and appeared to know very specific details about his physical condition before they were made available to others. How do you think the Russians found out what they did?
Shatto: We're still working on the investigation of that, but from what we know from the gentlemen from the [Russian Consulate in Houston, Texas, and the Russian Embassy in Washington] who came out [to our house] was that a [Child Protective Services, CPS] social worker basically gave them her opinion of what had happened as if it were fact -- which I find not only incredibly unprofessional, but she put both of our countries in a horrible position.
She had to have known the reaction that Russia would have over this, because it's their right to be concerned about their children that are placed in the United States. But in reality what she did was make fools of two different countries from her lies that she told. The Russians had a right to come and visit the children at any time. That was part of our adoption agreement.
I know that [the Russian diplomats] came [to my house], they visited Kris, they saw that there was not a mark on Kris whatsoever, they talked to my husband at length, and then they went and talked to this person at CPS. Then, from what I understand, based on what she told them and possibly what one of the investigators at the medical examiner's office told them, that's what these [diplomats] reported to their higher-ups -- [Children's Rights Commissioner] Pavel Astakhov was one of them, [the Russian Foreign Ministry's Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law] Konstantin Dolgov was another one. Then they report this and Russia, in terms of their government, completely freaks out about it [and] reports it to the international press.
(Editor's note: Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for Texas CPS, told RFE/RL in an e-mail, "We communicated regularly with the Russian Consulate [in Houston] about the case and [the social worker in question] was part of that communication." Crimmins said the social worker had resigned in mid-March. Attempts to reach the social worker via publicly listed phone numbers were unsuccessful. The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.)
RFE/RL: Russian officials were quick to accuse you of murder and also cast doubt on the local medical examiner's conclusion that Max's death was accidental. What is your reaction to Russia's response to this ordeal?
Shatto: Oh, I was floored. I was absolutely floored. When you don't even spank your children and you're accused of beating them to death -- you can only imagine the kind of reaction [I had]. I didn't know what to think. Here I'd had this entire country sicced on me for no reason. I found their reaction to be unprofessional and rather hysterical and they've put themselves, I believe, in a horrible position, because they're not going to want to back down, they're not going to want to issue apologies, and yet the entire world knows that they're wrong. I assume that they were working with what they felt they had.
Now, what would be the proper thing to do in this case? Issue apologies to my husband and me. But I have a feeling they may be stubborn enough to keep trying to play it out. Even to this day we have nothing but love for the Russian people. The way that we're trying to look at this is not of Russia as a whole.
'I'm His Mother'
RFE/RL: In light of Max's death, Russian authorities have called for the return of your other child, Max's half-brother, Kristopher, to his Russian birth mother. Your thoughts?
Shatto: Their mother's a drunk who had her children taken away from her, who never contacted the orphanage to even so much as check on them. But yet, when she sees a way to get into the media -- whether it was her own thing or being used as a propaganda puppet, I don't know, but I do know this: She said that she wanted to scratch my eyes out and I am saying: "Bring it on, sister! Because what you did to my baby does not even bear thinking about. And no, you'll never get Kris back, because I'm his mother. Period. I don't care who his egg donor was. I'm his mother."
RFE/RL: Your lawyer has told RFE/RL that you had very little knowledge about the severity of Max's psychological and physical problems when you adopted him. Why was that?
Shatto: On our first trip -- we have pictures of this -- Max had gashes on his face [and] bruises on his head. We asked about this then and we were told, "Well, he's in a room with 20 other children and only one caregiver." On our second trip, Max again looked like he had been beaten up. We were told again, "He's in a room with 20 other children and only one caregiver." On our third trip, he had bruises all over him. So they had to have known about his condition. But I believe that they hid it from us so that Max would be adopted.
We were told from the orphanage that he had a possible heart defect and that he had had colds while in the orphanage. That was the only information given to us about his medical condition. So had we been informed about Max's emotional-behavioral condition, he would have seen a specialized doctor the week that he came home. We were thinking for the longest time that this was an adjustment issue, because we'd been trained that some of these children have severe adjustment issues.
He was so self-destructive in his behavior that we were so afraid he was going to do something to himself. He would have these episodes -- he would throw himself on the ground, he would bang his head into the floor, he would bang his head into the bathtub, the walls. He would try to gouge his eyes out. We had several situations where he had actually had hemorrhages in his eyes from trying to gouge his eyes out. To keep him from trying to gouge at himself we would keep his nails real short. At night we would put gloves on his hands. We installed cameras in the room with night vision so that we could see what was going on in the event that Max had an episode during the night. He was actually still being evaluated, so there was not an official diagnosis yet. We were asking for therapy. We just didn't have enough time.
Allegations Of Abuse
RFE/RL: Max's autopsy report recounts an interview with investigators in which you claim that Max was sexually abused in Russia before you brought him to the United States. What were you referring to?
Shatto: We had a host person in Russia who was very advanced in age and we noticed through the course of June to October -- in our three trips [in the adoption process] -- that there had been several changes in her personality. We had mentioned to our adoption agency that we thought she might be showing signs of dementia. Her name was Lyudmila. I do not recall her last name.
[The adoption agency] required that we stay at her house [as we were waiting for the final adoption documents] and her job was to help us learn about Russian culture and to help us facilitate our bonding with the boys. She kept wanting to have the boys alone and we kept saying no, because they're our children [and] they're our responsibility.
One night we were eating dinner and she wanted to watch the boys in the living room. My husband told me just to sit down and eat dinner in the kitchen. Well, she had pulled a chair in front of the television where her back was kind of to the kitchen area. She had Max in her lap. She didn't see me when I walked up behind her and at that point I could see that she was watching the television, she was very slack-jawed, she had her hands on my son's penis and was working it up and down, and my child was frozen into a rigid statue.
I took my child out of her arms. That's still a hard one for me. I just.... What we went through after that was hell. Max had been bleeding from his penis and we did not understand where the blood was coming from and she did not want us to take him to a doctor. A little later I wanted to ask her about it and she said, "Laura, it would be terrible if something went missing and you were to spend your life in a Russian prison." So how would you take that? We're stuck in a foreign country with a woman you just caught sexually abusing your child, you cannot contact anybody because then she's going to claim that you stole something. The only thing we wanted at that point was to be out of Russia.
(Editor's Note: Jennifer Lanter, a spokeswoman for the Gladney Center for Adoption, which worked with the Shattos, told RFE/RL that she could not discuss the details of the case without the family's consent. She said, "Lyudmila is not an employee of Gladney and she never has been. In Russian adoptions, families can either choose to stay with a Russian homestay family or stay in a hotel. Either choice allows the family to be with their child at all times.")
RFE/RL: As you know, Russian officials have cited this case as justification for the country's recently instituted ban on adoptions by U.S. parents. What is your reaction?
Shatto: I would say they're experts in propaganda. I'm sorry, but it really makes them look stupid. They want to use Max's death to justify a ban that was really the result of a pissing contest with the United States government over the Magnitsky Act. That's their business. They do not have a right to bring my child into this.
If anything good can come out of Max's passing, I would want it to be this: I would want to bring attention to the severe underfunding of the Russian orphanage system. The orphanages are falling apart. All of the play equipment at [Max's] orphanage had little plaques on them that showed that they had been built and donated by American families. The children were playing in tall grass and they had covered pavilions, but the pavilions had holes and boards sticking up, which, in an orphanage of very young children, which this [was], causes unsafe situations for the small children to play in.
The orphanage personnel we were very impressed by. They were very professional. But they are severely understaffed. If Pavel Astakhov and Konstantin Dolgov are truly concerned about the welfare of Russian orphanages, they will see to it that the staffing is doubled so that there are at least two caregivers to each group at all times, that the orphanages have the food they need to feed these children, and that the children have all of the love and attention they need. If these children have more attention, it is quite possible that the behavior disorders in these orphanages will be less. These children deserve a chance. I don't believe they will get what they need until President [Vladimir] Putin takes these two individuals out of their office and puts in people who care more about the children and less, really, about making a fool of Russia.
RFE/RL: With the death of your child and the intense media scrutiny, how has this affected your family, including 2-year-old Kris? How has this changed you?
Shatto: [My husband] Alan and Kris and I are putting our family back together. Kris is thriving. Do we necessarily trust authority anymore? No. Do we necessarily realize that what one person can do can mess up your entire life if they're in a position of authority? Yes. Especially if they bring the media into it, because one of the things we found out about the media [is that] the media's not necessarily interested in the truth. They're interested in ratings, but not necessarily in the truth. That's the reason why we waited so long to talk to anyone.