The Adoption Paradox: No Easy Answer On What’s Best for Orphans

6 years ago by in 2013

By Maria Young

Author’s Note: International adoptions have long been a way for American parents to build their families. But since such adoptions began in earnest in the early 1990s, they have been fraught with problems and controversies rooted in cultural differences and fueled by a lucrative industry that doesn’t always represent the best side of humanity. After a series of high profile, troubled adoptions of Russian children by Americans, the Russian government enacted a ban on all US adoptions, a move that stunned and outraged many in this country. Below is a compilation of stories that shows the high hopes and the crushing disappointments that have become part of the US –Russian adoption story.

Russia’s Parentless Population and America’s Solution Puts Former Cold War Adversaries At Odds Once Again

WASHINGTON, May 2 – Medical examiners in Texas announced in early March the mysterious death of a young Russian boy adopted last year by American parents was ruled an accident.

Max Shatto was 3 years old when he died in January, 2012.

Max Shatto was adopted and brought to American in November 2012, and died in January 2013. (Photo Courtesy: Russian Investigative Committee)

“I had four doctors agree that this is the result of an accident. We have to take that as fact,” Ector County District Attorney Bobby Bland said at a March news conference with Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson, referring to the Jan. 21 death of Max Shatto, also known by his Russian name, Maxim Kuzmin.

But that answer did little to comfort alarmed Russian officials skeptical of the information from a former Cold War enemy. This grim case has pitted officials from the boy’s homeland against investigators from his new country.

Now, months later, Max’s death underscores the deep divide between two very different cultures struggling to agree on what is best for vulnerable children in desperate need of homes and families.


The death came just weeks after Russia enacted a law that prevents Americans from adopting Russian children, and for some Russians, it is a grim example that speaks to the very heart of the controversial ban.

The ban was put in place in part because of concerns about other deaths of adopted Russian children in America. It moved quickly through the Russian Parliament and was signed into law with almost unanimous support from Russian lawmakers, and polls of the Russian public found widespread support.

In this country, the move outraged lmaria-russia adoptions graphicawmakers in the United States and stranded hundreds of American families in the process of adopting children from Russia.

“We’re pretty heartbroken, honestly,” said Donna Thomas shortly after the ban was signed into law. She and her husband Robert are in the process of adopting a five-year-old girl from Russia, and five months later, still don’t know if they’ll ever be allowed to bring her home.

“To us, she’s already our daughter,” said Thomas.


Official figures from the Russian Federation put the number of children in orphanages at roughly 150,000. But unofficial estimates from groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch include children in mental institutions, baby houses, foster homes and living on the streets, and estimate the figure at about 700,000.

By all accounts, the system is overwhelmed and rarely offers adequate care for children with specific medical needs.

The majority of children in institutional care in Russia have at least one living parent. Most of these children have been taken from parents who abused or severely neglected them, and many of them are suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome or exposure to drugs in-vitro.

“I don’t see how one of those members of (Russian) Parliament can look at those children and say ‘

This is what’s best for you, you could have had a home and a family and now that’s not going to happen,’” said Bill Deutsch.

He and his wife, Valerie, were in the process of adopting two children from Russia, but have since made the wrenching decision to pursue adoptions from a different country.

“The Russian government has been very insistent that they need to place Russian children with Russian families, and I understand that,” he said. “But this little boy was literally left on the steps of the orphanage 13 years ago, and nobody’s stepped up yet. The thought that somebody’s going to magically come forward now, it just isn’t realistic.”

Russian officials point out, being adopted by an American family can also be a death sentence.


More than 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by Americans since the early 1990s, and the death of Max Shatto brings the total number of known fatalities to 20.

Russian officials have said they suspect many more children have been abused in the United States, but have met with little cooperation from US authorities in their efforts to track cases of possible abuse and neglect.

The lack of information and cooperation, they say, leaves them in a quandary: If the situation is wonderful for many but tragic for some, what is best for “all?” What about the one poor Russian kid in every 3,000 who ends up dead in America?

“It feels like ‘Russian roulette’ for kids,” said Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.

Speaking during an interview conducted at the Russian embassy in Washington earlier this year, the envoy lamented an unwillingness among many in the United States even to listen to Russia’s case for halting U.S. adoptions, evidence of a polarizing dynamic he said speaks to deeper dysfunctions in the relationship between the two countries.

“Each and every life of a kid is so valuable in its own right,” Kislyak said. “Our problem was to see to it that each and every kid that goes to the US is happily adopted there. And it’s not the case.”

He paused and repeated himself emphatically: “It is not the case.”

Kislyak acknowledges that Russia has a long way to go in improving the level of care for children in institutions. But when it comes to international adoption, to sending a vulnerable child to another country, there is a higher standard of care, he said.


Previous deaths of Russian children in America have garnered some media attention, but that may be primarily because child deaths often warrant news coverage, whether those children are Russian adoptees or not.

The Shatto case, coming as it did in the weeks following the controversial ban, seemed to shore up the Russian perspective. But in the days before the medical report, inflammatory comments from officials of the Russian Federation have relied on unclear sources and medical conclusions to place the blame for Max’s death on his adoptive mother, and that has fueled indignation in the U.S.

Orphan Death: The Media Frenzy

This Storify is a collection of news stories and social media elements from all over the world about the Max Shatto case. It shows the broad impact of this young boy's death, and the wildly controversial analysis about who is responsible and where the blame should be placed.


Mama Bear to the World


Andrea Robert plays with her son, Reece, who is 10 and very active. (Photo Credit: Maria Young)

Gaithersburg, Md., — The day after Andrea Roberts’ first son was born in April of 2002, the neonatologist stopped by her hospital room for a quick and casual discussion. Minutes later, Roberts was sobbing uncontrollably.

“There was no, ‘let’s sit down and talk.’ She just said, ‘You know, we think your child has Down syndrome,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, he looks just like my husband,’” Roberts remembered.

But little Reece did have Down syndrome, a birth defect caused by the presence of an extra chromosome and characterized by physical features and a wide range of cognitive disabilities.

With that gut-wrenching diagnosis, Robert’s life took a sharp turn that would bring her great sorrow followed by a depth of joy she finds hard to explain. Over the course of the next decade it would also take her on a journey around the world, and launch her on a mission to save thousands of other Reece’s who need families of their own.

It was quite a switch for a former sales executive who was pulling down six figures by the time she was 26, and – as the oldest of five – never really wanted to have her own children.

“Talk about a 180,” she said with a laugh.

First, she had to get to know her own son.

“I had this fear that he was never going to walk, never going to sit up by himself, never going to be independent, and that just wasn’t the case. He was just unbelievable, and it was like going over the rainbow to realize just what a gift he was, all the things he could do,” Roberts said, marveling again at the turn.

It didn’t take long to make the evolution from corporate worker to something she had never been in touch with: her inner bear.

“I was afraid people were going to mock him, make fun of him, and that made me very protective, because that’s not O.K.. And it was a fierce thing, a very mama bear feeling,” she said.


Andrea Roberts works on her computer, and stays in touch with the hundreds of “Reece’s Rainbow families” she has helped since she launched her mission in 2006. (Photo Credit: Maria Young)

Andrea Roberts is a fireball of energy who seems to thrive on the chaos of a home bustling with young boys. She is up and down no less than a dozen times in half an hour to open the door for neighborhood kids, get a drink, snuggle with her son. With all that energy, she found that despite the unexpected joys of motherhood she was restless, and began volunteering at the hospital where she had delivered Reece, working with new parents of Down syndrome babies.

“I got to the point that I was like, ‘Well, why would I want a baby who doesn’t have Down syndrome?’” she said.

She and her husband discussed ways to expand their small family, and considered adopting a special needs child. But in 2004, a second son, Owen, was born and Andrea turned her attention and what spare time she could find to volunteering with Life 2 Orphans, a charity that provides humanitarian aid to orphans overseas.

Through her volunteer work with Life 2 Orphans, she was shocked to learn what happens to orphans with special needs in other countries, including those with Down syndrome.

She describes young children kept in adult mental institutions and disabled orphans kept in cribs and fed a barely-sustainable subsistence.

“They are left in orphanages at birth, and sent to adult mental institutions at four, and they are left to rot, really. I mean, they’re just hidden away, with no physical therapy, no feeding therapy, no educational effort, just nothing. And that was not OK.”


The Roberts’ home is bustling with activity from morning to night, but Reece, left, his brother Owen, center, and their mom Andrea, managed to slow down long enough for a quick family photo. (Photo Credit: Maria Young)

Roberts got mad. And then, she got busy, busier than she had ever been, channeling her anger into the 2006 launch of a fundraising organization she calls Reece’s Rainbow to help special needs children in other countries find parents in America who can provide for their physical and emotional needs.

She had become Mama Bear, not just to her biological sons, but to thousands of forgotten sons and daughters in places like the Ukraine, Bulgaria, China, Latin America and Russia. Mama Bear to the whole world.

“I think Reece’s Rainbow got started because I was going to be damned if anybody was going to treat these kids like that. It’s just wrong. And it’s not OK,” she said.

“I think what Andrea is very, very good at is being a connector. She can get resources from people who have them to people who need them, and she doesn’t see any child as unadoptable,” said Kelly Grove, who in January completed the adoptions of two young girls with Down syndrome that she found on the Reece’s Rainbow website.

The older of the two girls, Elise, was in a mental institution with hundreds of other disabled children in the Novosivirsk region of Russia, where no child with special needs had ever been adopted.

“You take this kiddo, who has these profound, profound disabilities, who lives clear across the world in a country where it costs $50,000 to adopt, where it requires three long trips before you’re approved, and she lives in an institution with her head shaved and she’s covered in sores, and Andrea says, ‘I think we can place that child.’ And that’s Andrea’s gift, the hope and belief that every child is adoptable,” said Grove.

There is also a practical approach that is crucial to families considering adoption.

“There’s not many families that just have $50,000 laying around,” said Cindy Boyer, who is in the process of adopting a 2-year-old girl with a cleft lip that she found on Reece’s Rainbow.

It has been nearly seven years since Reece’s Rainbow was launched, and in that time, Andrea has found families for 1,000 special needs children who’ve been adopted by parents in almost every state in America.

Now she is on a new mission: to eliminate the need for Reece’s Rainbow. That means opening hearts and finding a home for every special needs child in every country in the world.

But first, she has to fix dinner for Reece.

He says something hard to understand and she smiles.

“You want chicken nuggets and French fries from McDonald’s for dinner?” she asks, and he grunts happily when she agrees.

“He speaks Reecian,” she explains, and laughs. It is a special language indeed.

Heartstrings on the Other Side of the World

Woodbridge, Va. – Dianna Wallen met 9-year-old Maxim in a Russian orphanage back in 2007. It was an annual two-week mission trip, one of roughly half a dozen she had taken. She wasn’t planning to fall in love, and wasn’t looking to adopt, but there he was, smaller than the other children, and looking at her in a way that melted her heart.

“It just seemed like he drew me in,” she remembers. “We knew he had something medically wrong, we didn’t know what.but he looked like the size of a five year old.”

It would take a few years to introduce him to her other two sons and her husband, Mil. And it would take longer, still before they realized Maxim was eligible for adoption and began gathering the necessary papers. They also began gathering photos and memories, flying to Russia to visit as often as they could.

“We have all the paperwork done. It’s been submitted many times to the Russian Ministry of Education of the city where we’re adopting him from, and it was rejected for one reason or another,” says Mil.

Looking back, they feel incredibly naïve.

There were no adoption agencies working in Maxim’s region, so they pursued a more complicated independent adoption, and sensed they were getting the proverbial run-around.

Finally, it seemed, everything was in order. And then, the Russian Duma passed a law banning adoptions of Russian orphans by Americans.

“We couldn’t believe it,” says Dianna.

They are hoping their case will be allowed to proceed, and that they will be grandfathered in despite a stipulation in the new law that prohibits independent adoptions. But they also recognize that their case, while unique, is one of hundreds of other stalled adoption cases that have left vulnerable young children and the families who want them frantically hoping for a break.

The Wallens have started a petition on, and are gathering signatures – more than 55,000 at last count – to send to the Ministry of Education in Russia.

“We miss Maxim terribly every day. Our son is now stuck on the other side of the world because of this new law,” the petition reads. “These children have already been abandoned by their parents once – we can’t break their fragile hearts a second time. No child should have to think they’ve been abandoned twice.”

The Wallens talk with Max by Skype every day, and visit him frequently. They look forward to the day when they can all be together, but have no idea when that might be.

Click below to watch a video of Max growing up far from the parents he wants to come home to.

Maria Young

National Correspondent at RIA Global News
Award-winning journalist with a background in network television news and online media. Experienced as a web producer and digital video editor. Strong writing skills with solid news judgment and understanding of emerging media technologies. Able to quickly turn a list of facts into a compelling story. Wife to a pretty great guy and stepmom to two pretty cool kids. Surrogate parent to two annoying felines.