ODESSA, Texas – The death of a 3-year-old adopted Russian boy has been ruled an accident by West Texas authorities, but officials said Friday they are still investigating a case that has become a flashpoint in the debate over international adoption.
Four doctors reviewed the autopsy report and agreed that Max Shatto’s death on Jan. 21 was not intentional, Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson and District Attorney Bobby Bland said. Preliminary autopsy results had indicated Max had bruises on several parts of his body, but Bland said Friday that those bruises appeared to be self-inflicted. He also said no drugs were found in Max’s system.
“I had four doctors agree that this is the result of an accident,” he said. “We have to take that as fact.”
Alan and Laura Shatto adopted Max, born Maxim Kuzmin, and his half-brother, 2-year-old Kristopher, from an orphanage in western Russia last fall. Laura Shatto told authorities she found Max unresponsive outside their Gardendale, Texas, home while he was playing with his younger brother. The boy was pronounced dead at a hospital a short time later.
Russian authorities have blamed the boy’s death on his adoptive parents and used the case to justify a recently enacted ban on all American adoptions of Russian children. Russia’s Investigative Committee has said it has opened its own investigation. It’s unclear whether the committee could charge the Shatto family or force their prosecution.
Alexander K. Zakharov, the Russian consul general in Houston, said he wanted to see an official report from authorities before commenting on Friday’s announcement.
The investigation into the boy’s death continues, Bland said. Once investigators complete their work, Bland will meet with them and decide whether to pursue charges such as negligent supervision or injury to a child by omission. He did not say when such a decision would be made.
The Shatto family’s attorney, Michael J. Brown, said that Max’s death being ruled an accident “is not a surprise to me at all.” Three doctors from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office in Fort Worth, which completed the autopsy, and another doctor agreed on the finding.
Brown said Max suffered from behavioural issues and occasionally butted his head on objects or other people, which is how he got bruised. He also noted that Max was taking doctor-prescribed medication to treat hyperactivity but that his parents don’t believe the medication played a role in the child’s death.
Donaldson, the sheriff, has said that Laura Shatto told investigators that she went inside to use the bathroom, and when she came back outside, she found Max near playground equipment outside the family’s home.
No one answered the phone at the Shatto home Friday, and a sign had been posted on the driveway: “No Comment.”
The Russian government passed its ban on international adoptions in December in retaliation for a new U.S. law targeting alleged Russian human-rights violators. The ban also reflects lingering resentment over the perceived mistreatment of some of the 60,000 children Americans have adopted during the last two decades. At least 20 of those children have died, and reports of abuse have garnered attention in Russia.
Chuck Johnson, CEO of the Virginia-based National Council for Adoption, said an agreement ratified last year would have prevented the conditions that led to many deaths and abuse cases. One change in particular would have required all adoptions to go through agencies licensed in Russia.
“The deaths were terribly tragic, horrible,” Johnson said in a Feb. 19 interview. “But the frustrating thing has been that those cases have become the face of inter-country adoption, and they shouldn’t be.”
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said Friday it found no violations at the Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth, the agency that processed the Shattos’ adoption. The state’s Child Protective Services division is proceeding with a separate investigation into allegations that Max was subject to physical abuse and neglect, but has not determined whether those allegations are true.
Russian state media have featured the boys’ biological mother, Yulia Kuzmina, who lost custody over negligence and serious drinking problems. In a tightly choreographed Feb. 21 interview on state television, Kuzmina insisted Russian custody officials seized her children unfairly and said she wanted to be reunited with her other son, born Kirill Kuzmin. She said she had given up drinking, found a job and pledged to fight to get the boy back.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has said it is necessary “to temper emotions” over the case, and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has called for “sensational exploitations of human tragedy to end and for professional work between our two countries to grow, on this issue and many others.”
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Dallas contributed to this report.