The Texas Town at the Center of Russia's Adoption Drama

"What Russia says about the whole thing, that's a whole different ball game. I understand they think these things get covered up, get thrown under the rug, and nobody investigates, but this is not investigating a Russian kid. This is investigating a Texas kid that has died. And we're going to do the best job we can."

Much Misinformation

Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) is also involved in the case. In a statement, it said the Shatto family "has no prior involvement with CPS." Spokesman Paul Zimmerman says the agency received allegations of "physical abuse and neglectful supervision" of Max Shatto around the time of his death. He declined to say who had made the allegations.

As the facts in the case remain unclear, local officials have expressed concern at statements from Moscow apparently prejudging the outcome of an investigation that only now may be launching into high gear.

Standefer, the medical examiner, says she would "love to know" where the Russians are getting their alleged information about Max Shatto's autopsy, which has included claims that the child suffered damage to his internal organs and that he was drugged.

"I'd love to know, because it has caused us all kinds of issues. I don't know whether it's propaganda or if it's just something that they're just coming up with out of the blue, or it's something to cause issues between [our countries], I really can't tell you," she says. "When we started reading all of the rhetoric, it was just like, 'Where are they getting their information?' It was ludicrous, and it still is. It's really sad and scary."

Shatto 'Really Happy' After Adoption

Meanwhile, details are also beginning to emerge about Laura Shatto and her adoption of Max, born Maksim Kuzmin, and his biological half-brother, 2-year-old Kristopher, born Kirill, from an orphanage in Pskov, Russia.

Shatto, who is in her mid-40s, formerly taught economics at Midland High School, about 30 kilometers outside of Gardendale. School Principal Jeff Horner said she left her position in June 2012 "on good terms" after working there for more than five years. He said that Shatto had made it known that she was trying to adopt children in Russia.

Arin Thomas, a recent graduate from the school, provided one of the few accounts of Shatto to have surfaced. "She showed us the files of her adoption," said Thomas, who was a student in Shatto's class in 2011. "She was really happy and showed us pictures of her sons. She was one of those teachers who got really close to you and shared her personal stories."

According to Thomas, Shatto left during the 2011-12 school year to visit her prospective children in Russia, a standard step in the adoption process. Shatto told her students that she was planning to quit teaching to take care of her children instead of leaving them in day care, Thomas says.

The Shatto family adopted through the Texas-based Gladney Center in late 2012. The agency says that it was legally bound to neither confirm nor deny the report.

Thomas also says Shatto brought her adopted sons on a visit to the school in late 2012. "She was nice, funny, and very friendly. I don't think she did what they say she did," she says.

Concerns For Kristopher

In Gardendale, three neighbors say the Shattos, like other families in the community, kept to themselves. However, they all say they were surprised to learn that the family had children and say they never saw them.

Gary Luna, the owner of a stable down the road from the Shattos, says he once fed the family's horses but knew little about them. "I just hope it works out alright," he says. "If they did something wrong, hang their ass. If they didn't, then the Russians -- hang their asses."

Luna is far from the only area resident following the case, which has dominated local headlines and radio and television reports.

At Gardendale Grocery, one of the town's two convenience stores, locals wonder what will become of Kristopher, the Shattos' second child. Zimmerman, from Texas CPS, says Kristopher Shatto is "safe" and "in the home" and is being visited periodically by case workers.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow and Donaldson, the county sheriff, have specified that the boy is in the care of his father. They did not elaborate.

Russian officials have called for Kristopher Shatto to be returned to Russia. Yulia Kuzmina, the biological mother of Max and Kristopher, issued a televised appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 21 for help in reuniting her with her son.

Hours after the interview, Kuzmina, who originally lost custody of her children due to negligence and excessive drinking, was removed from a train for drunken and unruly behavior, Russian media reported.



This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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Richard Solash is a reporter with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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