In Texas, autopsy says adoptee’s death accidental; Russians disagree, march in protest

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP - Demonstrators carry Russian flags and a huge poster reading "March in Defense of Children" during a massive anti-U.S. adoption rally in Moscow.

MOSCOW — Russian officials remained suspicious Saturday about the circumstances surrounding the death in Texas of an adopted 3-year-old despite an autopsy report that determined he died accidentally.

Max Shatto, who was born Maxim Kuzmin in Russia, died Jan. 21 from a torn artery in the abdomen, officials said at a news conference Friday in Odessa, Tex. Four pathologists — three employed by the county medical examiner and one independent — agreed the death was an accident, Ector County District Attorney Bobby Bland told reporters.

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Two weeks ago, Russian officials informed the public here about his death, saying Max had been abused and given psychiatric drugs. No evidence was presented, but that description quickly became an emotional element of anti-American rhetoric and colored the explosive question of adoptions.

“The bruises disappeared, the drugs vanished, the adoptive parents have been cleared, the authorities backtracked,” Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s ombudsman for children, wrote on his Twitter account Saturday. “The 3-year-old boy fell victim to big politics.”

Politics have been swirling around the issue of orphans since December, when Russia imposed a ban on adoptions by Americans, accusing U.S. parents of widespread mistreatment.

In the past 20 years, Americans have adopted about 60,000 children, and 20 have reportedly died. Russia does not report figures on how many die in adoptive homes in Russia, but reports suggest that figure is much higher than in the United States.

The ban has polarized the country. In January, more than 50,000 people marched through Moscow to protest the ban, saying orphans were being denied the opportunity to live a decent life. Saturday, about 17,000 marched in favor of the ban, asserting Russian children would be safer in their native country and arguing that the ban should be extended to all foreign adoptions. Anger arose over the Texas autopsy.

“This is a slap in the face to our country and our people,” Irina Berset, coordinator of the Russian Mothers organization, said at the rally.

She said Max’s 2-year-old brother, also adopted by Alan and Laura Shatto of Gardendale, Tex., should be immediately returned to Russia. Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told Rain TV that the authorities were already working to accomplish that, although he cautioned that the adoption was legal and might be difficult to reverse.

Max, who was adopted from the Pskov region of northwestern Russia, had a behavioral disorder characterized by self-inflicted injuries, the Texas district attorney said, which explained bruises on his body. He said no drugs were found in the child’s body despite assertions in Russia that Max was given Risperdal, a drug used to treat adult schizophrenics and sometimes given to children with autistic disorders.

Max had been playing in the yard of the Shatto home when his mother found him unresponsive and called an ambulance. He was declared dead at the hospital.

Although the death was ruled accidental, caused by a blow, Bland said an investigation would continue to determine whether any negligence was involved.

Saturday’s march in Moscow, full of young and old protesters, colorful banners, balloons and portraits of adopted children, was supported by the government, an affiliation that nearly always evokes accusations that participants are paid. This one was no different. Critics said they had seen online ads offering payments of $10 to $20 to join the march, although no marchers owned up to being paid.

Patriotic fervor ran high.

“A Russian child must never go there as a piece of human merchandise,” Vladimir Ovsyannikov, a nationalist member of the lower house of parliament, told the marchers. “We will do everything in our power to make ‘Mother Russia’ a proud-sounding phrase.”

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