WASHINGTON, March 4 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) A medical report describing the death in Texas of a 3-year-old adopted Russian boy as “accidental” raises valid questions about just how Max Shatto died and how authorities reached their conclusions, US child health experts said on Monday.
“The institutionalized children, like in Romania, and the Russian children, if they’re older and have been institutionalized longer, you have a higher percentage of self-injury,” said Ron Federici, a pediatric neuropsychologist and director of Virginia-based Neuropsychological & Family Therapy Associates who specializes in adoption trauma medicine.
“But when they’re two, three years old – it’s unlikely at that age,” he said.
Federici said he has been called as a psychological expert in multiple cases involving the deaths of Russian children in the United States.
“In all of them the defense is RAD (reactive attachment disorder), self-injury, self-mutilation behavior… These kids have a complex pattern of developmental failures because they haven’t gone through normal developmental stages, but is it possible they can injure themselves to the point of death? No,” he said.
Federici’s comments echoed expressions of skepticism and outrage coming from Russia, where thousands of people marched in Moscow on Saturday to demand better treatment for Russian orphans and officials charged the real cause of Max’s death earlier this year had still not been illuminated.
At least 19 Russian children adopted by US parents since the collapse of the Soviet Union have died as a result of abuse or negligence. While that number is relatively small, such cases have received extensive media coverage in Russia, which late last year banned further adoptions by US couples.
Max Shatto, also known by his Russian name, Maxim Kuzmin, was adopted along with his younger brother by Alan and Laura Shatto of Gardendale, Texas in November.
Ambulance workers who were called to the home on the afternoon of January 21 found the older boy unresponsive and transported him to an area hospital where he died a short time later.
At a news conference Friday in Odessa, Texas, Ector County District Attorney Bobby Bland announced a report certified by four medical examiners following an autopsy of the boy concluded his death was “accidental” and resulted from trauma “consistent with self-injury.”
But Jane Aronson, a pediatrician and adoption medicine specialist who is also the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Worldwide Orphans Foundation, said she too was skeptical of the conclusions from Texas authorities.
“Self-injury is not a large component of behavior in children as young as three,” Aronson told RIA Novosti.
“Older children yes, but we need to look into the forensics in this case,” she said. “This is a child who likely did have attachment issues and behavioral issues, but the amount of force that’s necessary to cause death would not occur.”
The issue of institutionalized children who act out emotional suffering by injuring themselves physically has been raised repeatedly by adoptive parents whose children were harmed, sometimes fatally.
According to Federici and other experts in international adoption, it is a behavior that has been documented more frequently in children from Russia and former East Bloc European nations, where rates of fetal alcohol syndrome and exposure to drugs are higher than in some other regions.
“Maybe the kid was careless or reckless – we know coming from an institutional setting they have more aggressive behavior. But not of the level of severity to cause a death? No way,” Federici said.
An attorney hired to represent the Shatto family however said in the short time since his adoption in November, the parents had taken Max to the doctor several times because of alarming behavior.
“He was suffering from some behavior problems, he would bang his head against things, hit things, cry all night, do a lot of things which have been found to be not uncommon in children from institutions,” said the attorney, Michael Brown.
That recent medical documentation, said Bland, played a role in helping investigators determine whether the death was accidental.
“I feel completely confident in the doctors’ findings here,” he said.
Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the National Council For Adoption, a nonprofit adoption advocacy group, concurred, saying abnormal behavior was not uncommon among children adopted from state institutions where basic developmental and emotional needs were not met.
“They engage in behaviors to satisfy something inside them, even if it doesn’t make sense to us,” Johnson said.
“It’s why you see them rocking back and forth, slapping their faces, clapping or swinging their hands in the air. Taken to the extreme, they mutilate or harm themselves.”
Authorities in Texas said the investigation into Max’s death was still in progress. Officials in Russia meanwhile have demanded that they be privy to all information gathered in the probe.