If there’s anything you can count on right-wing extremists for, it’s to try turn any human disaster into an ideological and moneymaking opportunity—and making everything much, much worse in the process. Thus we have Matt Shea in Poland, trying to spirit his “prospective daughters” and 60 others from a Ukraine orphanage out of the country and into the waiting hands of … someone. Presumably what Shea calls “Christian Americans.”
Shea—the ex-Republican legislator from Washington state who fantasizes about creating a breakaway “Christian” state—has been making a nuisance of himself in the Polish borderlands after leading a band of children from a Ukrainian orphanage over the border to safety and then pledging their adoptions—even though he is not working with or for any accredited adoption agency, nor are such international adoptions even possible amid the current turmoil. Along the way, he’s inadvertently shining a light on the creepy and disturbing world of Christian evangelical global adoptions and their ethics, or lack thereof.
According to The Seattle Times’ David Gutman, Shea showed up last week with a busload of 62 Ukrainian children and their two adult overseers in the Polish town of Kazimierz Dolny about 150 kilometers from the Ukraine border, having rescued them from the besieged city of Mariupol. The problem is that the organization he claims to be representing and working with, Texas-based Loving Families and Homes for Orphans, is not registered anywhere as an accredited adoption agency—and Shea is responding angrily to officials attempting to figure out just what he intends to do with the children.
“I asked him many times, ‘What are you going to do with these children?’ and he told me that it’s not my business,'” Weronika Ziarnicka, an aide to the mayor of Kazimierz Dolny, told Gutman. “I got the feeling in my gut that something’s wrong with this guy; he didn’t want to tell me his last name.”
Shea described Loving Families and Homes for Orphans as “a hosting organization that hosts Ukrainian orphans in America with Ukrainian families with the intent that ultimately that ends in adoption,” when he was interviewed on the Polish television show Idź Pod Prąd. “It’s been doing this hosting program for several years,” he claimed.
Yet as Gutman notes, the organization—whose website is defunct—is neither listed in Texas as a state-certified adoption agency nor is it registered with the Intercountry Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity, which oversees American agencies involved in international adoption.
Shea posted a video of his activities in Ukraine and Poland to Facebook, showing him and other volunteers loading up the children in vans and driving across the border to Poland. The children are currently being housed at a hotel run by the Association of Polish Journalists in Kazimierz Dolny, a small town noted for its scenery about two hours’ drive from the border.
In the text of the post, he refers to the children as “our prospective daughters,” saying “we took in a team” to perform the rescue, and thanks “our fantastic Polish friends.”
Shea’s arrival on the scene began raising all kinds of red flags with the officials and workers in Poland overseeing the handling of Ukrainian refugees. Ziarnicka said she first went to check on the children on behalf of her boss, Mayor Artur Pomianowski, when a group of local volunteers concerned about the situation brought Shea to her attention.
She visited the hotel accompanied by local police, which angered Shea. When she asked to speak to the children’s legal guardians, he refused. “The conversation wasn’t very pleasant, to be honest,” she said.
“He got really angry” and refused to give his last name while demanding to see her own identification, she said. “I said ‘You are American on Polish ground, why should I show you my document?’ I just want to talk to people who have the legal right to these children.”
Shea claimed that he had already cleared everything with the mayor. “And I know it’s not true because the mayor is the one that asked me to go,” she said.
Another local volunteer told Gutman that they tried to find documentation supporting Shea’s claims about the Loving Families and Homes for Orphans organization, but found none.
“Whenever anyone wants to speak with Ukrainian supervisors or spend time with the kids, they need to have permission from those Americans, which is really weird,” she said.
Pomianowski reported on Facebook that he’d visited the children and is satisfied that they are safe, but added that the “case is being investigated and clarified by the relevant authorities” and that the children would not leave the town without officials’ approval.
“I do not know what Matt Shea and his friends are doing here around children,” Pomianowski told Gutman in an email. “Mr. Shea and his friends have given us some contradictory information and, for that reason, it is difficult for us to trust them.”
Luke Baumgarten dove into the story and reported for Range Media that Shea was working closely with a far-right Polish pastor named Paweł Chojecki. A minor YouTube celebrity, Chojecki has connections to Polish fascists and has been working with Shea since at last 2018.
As Daniel Walters reports at The Inlander, moreover, Shea and Chojecki appear to have first met in 2018 when both men were featured speakers at the national John Birch Society convention in Appleton, Wisconsin. Walters also figured out exactly what kind of organization Loving Homes and Families for Orphans is:
When the Inlander went behind the code of the broken website, it was clear that Loving Homes and Families for Orphans wasn't actually an adoption agency at all. It was a hosting organization, a little like Kids Save. Orphans fly in from foreign countries, get to know potential adoptive parents, and then fly back home—a little bit like having a foreign exchange student. As Munch confirmed, if the host families wanted to adopt the children, however, they wouldn't actually do that through Loving Homes and Families—they'd have to go through an actual adoption agency, and conduct an arduous process that can take months, even years. According to Munch, about a third of the orphans were in some stage of that formal adoption process.
Shea’s reasons for connecting with the orphanage in Mariupol are simple: He was in the process of attempting to adopt four girls—his “prospective daughters”—from that orphanage when the war broke out.
However, rumors circulated in Kazimierz Dolny that an unknown group of Americans were planning to take the children back to America as quickly as possible. Whatever Shea’s real motives might have been, the whole operation had the look of human trafficking.
A reporter for Polish news station TVN24, Katarzyna Lazzeri, connected the rumor to Shea’s entourage and began peppering him with questions, and found all of his answers fell short: "After they came, one of the American volunteers informed local authorities that they wanted to take children soon to the United States of America [to Ukrainian families living in the USA],” she told Baumgarten.
“First, [that is] against Polish law,” she said. “Second, we asked the pastor Matthew Shea to show any documents that would confirm he has a right to do it. He only gave the name of the foundation but with no contact information or even signature. For me, the big question is whether this organization has a license that gives it the right to conduct adoption processes."
On March 10, he appeared on a broadcast of a panel discussion of the adoption program with Chojecki on Idź Pod Prąd and defended it aggressively, dismissing his critics as engaging in “Russian-style propaganda.”
“There are lies and rumors that somehow we want to sell these children. The most outrageous, I think, was that we wanted to sell them for organ harvesting or something like this,” he said. “This is Russian-style propaganda and only Russian-style propaganda could turn a rescue mission of orphans to a resort-style facility that has basketball hoops and a soccer field. We’re even coordinating horse therapy, which is for trauma. It also has medical care, psychological care. Only Russian-style propaganda could turn something that good into something that bad.”
Shea’s continued refusals to operate in good faith caught the attention of Polish officials, so now the U.S. State Department is monitoring the situation, according to The Spokesman-Review.
“We still don’t know why he’s here,” said Joanna Stefańska, a Polish cancer therapist who has working with the Ukrainian refugees.
The National Council for Adoption warned that this is not the time for U.S. citizens to be considering adoption from Ukraine, as many families fleeing the war become separated.
“It is paramount that the identities of these children and their families be clearly established, and their social, legal, and familial status is fully verified by governmental authorities,” the council said. “For most of these children, we cannot do that at this time.”
Similarly, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and UNICEF put out a joint statement noting: “Adoption should not occur during or immediately after emergencies.” It did, however, urge finding temporary placements and housing.
“In many circumstances, what Shea is trying to do would be referred to as child trafficking,” observed behavioral scientist Caroline Orr Bueno, who tracks organizations like Shea’s. “Even if every single one of these kids are actually eligible for adoption (unlikely), Shea should not be allowed to go anywhere near them nor have anything to do with the adoption process.”
Shea’s reputation from his years as a legislator from Washington state’s Spokane Valley, of course, precedes him. Even before he was condemned in a nonpartisan investigation for having participated in domestic terrorism, leading to his unceremonious departure from his seat and his state House GOP leadership role, Shea had a national reputation as an elected extremist: Leading the earliest known attempt—in 2015—to invade a state Capitol building with armed “Patriots” in Olympia; penning an infamous “warfare” manual for his would-be secessionist “Christian” state; defending his ties to extremists by citing a white nationalist website.
Since departing the legislature, Shea has been primarily focused on the Spokane Valley evangelical/Dominionist church where he is the pastor. And it is in that realm that the whole episode takes on a dubious odor.
Beginning around 2006-2007, evangelical Christian leaders began encouraging their flocks to expand their adoption outreach as a way of focusing on children in need, giving the churches an opportunity to rebrand in a positive light. Over the ensuing decade, child adoption became a positive obsession among evangelicals as churches created adoption ministries, valorizing adoptive parents and encouraging others to join in.
In 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention, the second-largest denomination in the United States, passed a resolution directing all members to consider whether God was calling on them to adopt. A coalition group, the Christian Alliance for Orphans, grew to encompass more than a hundred evangelical nonprofits and denominational groups united around “orphan care.” In 2010 Bethany Christian Services, the largest adoption agency in the country, reported a 26% jump in the number of adoptions, largely due to the mobilization of Christians newly interested in adopting.
The adoption mania among evangelical churches, empowered by Christian adoption networks, bred a culture where parents declared themselves “serial adopters” as orphan fever swept through churches. Some families adopt as many as five or six new children. Ministries would direct parents to Christian agencies, host conferences, promote overseas mission trips, and give interest-free loans and grants to adoptive parents. Adoption agencies such as All God’s Children, Bethany Christian Services, and America World Adoption would fund humanitarian projects, donate to orphanages, and handle the paperwork.
Foreign governments exercise varying degrees of oversight. Trafficking and corruption have plagued adoptions in places like Ethiopia and Kyrgyzstan, where Christian agencies were implicated in unethical and/or illegal behavior. Orphanages often cut exclusive deals to supply adoption agencies. They also take in local children who need temporary sanctuary and schooling.
There have also been widespread abuses of the private adoption system, with children sometimes advertised as orphans when in fact their birth parents were alive and well. In other cases, birth parents have complained that adoption was misrepresented to them as a sort of sponsorship or education opportunity.
As Rafal Pankowski of the Polish extremist-monitoring organization Never Again told Walters that anyone falling within Paweł Chojecki’s sphere of influence was likely to encounter problems.
"He's been on our radar for some time," Pankowski says. "He is a leader of the group in Poland that stands out. It's just so different from all the other groups on the far-right in Poland." Chojecki, he says, is especially hateful toward Catholics and the Vatican, practicing a brand of Christian nationalism very close to Shea’s.
"Poor children," Pankowski says, referring to the children under Shea’s oversight. "I pity the children for what happens in Ukraine but I would also pity them if they fall into the hands of a sect … It is a kind of sect we're talking about."