By Kathy Lally and Tara Bahrampour, Published: February 19 | Updated: Wednesday, February 20, 12:12 AM
MOSCOW — Reports that a 3-year-old adopted Russian child died in Texas last month set off a furor here Tuesday, with Russian officials declaring that the boy had been abused, although U.S. authorities said the death is still under investigation.
The child, Max Shatto, was born in northwestern Russia and lived in the same orphanage in the city of Pskov as Chase Harrison, who was adopted by a Northern Virginia couple and died at the age of 21 months after his father left him in a hot car in July 2008.
Russia’s Dima Yakovlev law, which bans American adoptions and was enacted in December, is named after Chase and uses his birth identity.
Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s children’s ombudsman and a fervent opponent of foreign adoptions, told reporters Monday evening that the Texas child, known here as Maxim Kuzmin, had been beaten and given psychiatric drugs. Konstantin Dolgov, the Foreign Ministry’s human rights officer, said he had died Jan. 21 “after being cruelly treated.”
Neither offered evidence, but their remarks were quickly reported as fact on Russian television, which described the death as a killing and fired up the embers of simmering anti-Americanism here.
By Tuesday morning, Russia’s top investigatory agency was demanding a role in the inquiry, the governor of Pskov was insisting that the U.S. family return Max’s 2-year-old brother to Russia and a legislator was calling for a stop to the last few American adoptions underway. The Supreme Court, however, said the 50 or so adoptions approved by courts would proceed.
“Protect our children” and “U.S. kills children” were the top trending hashtags on Twitter here.
“There have been very strong assertions made from Moscow,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “We are going to wait until the investigation is complete.”
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow responded Tuesday afternoon, tweeting that the “State Department and local authorities have been working closely with the Russian Consulate in Houston for weeks” and cautioning that it “is important to wait for results of law enforcement investigation before drawing conclusions.”
But conclusions had already been drawn in an atmosphere where demonizing the United States and exalting Russian nationalism comes with certain political payoffs.
“A savage crime has been committed in America once again,” Pskov Gov. Andrei Turchak said in a statement. He suspended adoptions of any kind in Pskov and said efforts were being made to return Maxim’s younger brother, Kirill, to the city, where families were now ready to provide him a home.
“Kirill cannot stay in the U.S. any longer,” Turchak said. “The child will simply change hands. It will traumatize the child even more. He is not a dog or a car.”
On Russian television Tuesday night, Astakhov softened his earlier statements, now suggesting that Max had been left alone on a playground and sometimes at home.
The children’s parents were identified as Alan and Laura Shatto of Gardendale, Tex., a small community outside Midland, close to the southeastern tip of New Mexico. A voicemail message at their telephone number said they had no comment.
Shirley Standefer, chief investigator with the medical examiner’s office in Ector County, who also saw Max’s body on the day he died, said his torso, legs and arms were covered in bruises of various sizes. “He had them pretty much all over him,” she said, adding that “these were different color bruises, in different stages of healing.”
She said it was impossible to tell what had caused them: “It could be just him being a kid, running around and bumping into things.”
Child Protective Services in Texas is investigating whether physical abuse or neglect occurred, agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins said, adding that the sheriff’s office is also conducting a criminal investigation. Crimmins said the younger brother was being monitored.
Sondra Woolf, an investigator for the Ector medical examiner, said she was called to the emergency room at the Medical Center Hospital in Odessa late on the afternoon of Jan. 21 to probe Max’s death. She saw the Shattos. “I’m sure that they were grieving, as most parents would, appropriately,” she said.
The autopsy, she said, will take six to 12 weeks.
About 60,000 Russian children had been adopted by Americans before the ban took effect Jan. 1. Twenty of them, including Max, have reportedly died.
Russia, however, is not an easy place for children. With families generally unwilling or unable to adopt, thousands live in orphanages. About 2,000 children are killed every year in this country of 143 million.
On Tuesday, in a meeting with judges, Astakhov said that more than 89,000 children in Russia were treated violently in 2012 and that 2,100 had died. Russia has the third-highest teenage suicide rate in the world, more than three times that of the United States, and every day about about five Russians younger than 20 kill themselves.
Bahrampour reported from Washington.