Birth mother’s woes complicate case of Russian adoptee’s death

Russia’s efforts to depict the United States as a dangerous and even fatal place for children took a surprising turn Friday after the birth mother of a 3-year-old who died in Texas was thrown off a Russian train for getting into a violent, drunken argument with her boyfriend.

On Thursday, Moscow authorities had described 23-year-old Yulia Kuzmina, whose son Max Kuzmin had been adopted by a Texas couple and renamed Max Shatto, as a repentant, reformed alcoholic. She had remade her life, they said, and wanted Max’s 2-year-old brother, adopted by the same family and now named Kristopher Shatto, returned from the United States before he, too, died.

Max died in January, and Texas authorities are still investigating the cause. But since Monday, Russian officials have used the child’s death to rail against the United States, accusing adoptive Americans of abuse and murder and denouncing the U.S. State Department and Texas authorities for preventing Russia from following up on the welfare of the children.

In one emotional speech after another, Kremlin officials and politicians have repeated that 20 adopted Russian children have died in the United States over the past 20 years — out of 60,000 who have been adopted. One lawmaker equated allowing a Russian child to be adopted in the United States to “certain death.”

Figures are not isolated for adopted children, but in general children have a greater likelihood of dying in Russia than in the United States, according to World Health Organization statistics. An analysis of raw statistics from the organization’s Global Burden of Disease database shows that about 11 out of 100,000 children younger than 15 die of injuries each year in the United States. In Russia, it is about 23.

When Russia banned American adoptions in December, it permitted them to continue in France, Italy and Spain, where the comparable rate of death by injury is between 1 and 2 children in 100,000.

The rate of death by injury to children in Russia may be even higher than the WHO numbers indicate, said Chris Mikton, a technical officer in the organization’s prevention of violence unit. “It’s likely that in Russia, the data is less reliable,” he said.

On Thursday, Yelena Mizulina, a member of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, told reporters that 900 children adopted by Russian families had died from 2009 to 2011, though she said the causes were unclear and she did not cite the source of her figures. She was criticizing police for failing to investigate most deaths. Russians adopted about 24,000 children during those years, according to Education Ministry statistics.

Governments and nongovernmental organizations do not tend to differentiate between adopted children and others when tracking child welfare, and most do not keep tabs on children after they have been adopted to foreign countries.

But Russian children adopted abroad retain their Russian citizenship, and the government there has kept track of those who have died, including a 21-month-old adopted by a Northern Virginia couple who died after his father left him in a hot car in July 2008. In what many observers considered to be a political move, Russia named the anti-U.S. adoption bill after the toddler.

Russia in general has higher rates than the United States for homicide, suicide, traffic fatalities and drowning, said William Alex Pridemore, a criminologist at Indiana University who specializes in Russia. “If it’s much higher among adults then you’re going to see it trickle down to children,” he said, adding that alcohol plays a large role in fatal injuries in Russia. “When you have very high rates of drinking among adults, you get a higher rate of car accidents, neglect, and parents not paying attention when they should be.”

The two Kuzmin children had been adopted last year from an orphanage in Pskov, where they had been taken because their mother was an alcoholic who neglected them, according to official reports. Neighbors told Russian reporters that the mother drank heavily throughout her pregnancies.

Russia's president cracks down on dissent.

Earlier this week, Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s children’s ombudsman, said Kuzmina had written to him pleading for the return of the 2-year-old she had named Kirill. And Friday, the State Duma overwhelmingly passed an appeal to the U.S. Congress, asking for the child’s return to assure his “security.”

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul pushed back on Friday against the Russian rhetoric, posting an emphatic message on his blog. He was concerned, he said, about the rush to judgment in Russia, which was ignoring the U.S. legal principle of innocence until proven guilty.

“I am troubled by how my people and my country are being portrayed by some in the Russian press,” he wrote, adding, “It is time for sensational exploitations of human tragedy to end and for professional work between our two countries to grow, on this issue and many others.”

Also Friday, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin urged Russians to “temper emotions” over the boy’s death. The harsh statements by officials and lawmakers were driven by the “zero tolerance” of Russians to the deaths of children adopted by Americans, Dmitry Peskov said on independent Rain TV.

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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