The far-right former Washington state legislator Matt Shea is in a small town in Poland with a bunch of children that he says are orphan refugees from Ukraine. The local Poles are wary, and some basic questions have gone unanswered.
Wait… what? Well, exactly. Here’s what we’re wondering about this strange situation, and the best answers we have so far.
You’re talking about that Matt Shea?
Yes, you may be familiar with him through our reporting here at TPM: Shea was a longtime far-right legislator in the Washington House of Representatives until 2020, when he opted not to run for reelection after a report concluded that he’d engaged in domestic terrorism — the result of his involvement in the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife refuge.
Shea, who the report found had been involved in several armed stand-offs, is also known for his support of a separatist 51st state movement, and for authoring a document, “Biblical Basis for War,” that included steps for killing non-believers (Shea is Christian).
So in short: Sounds like the kind of guy we’d want shuttling purported orphans across international boundaries in the middle of a war.
Who are these kids?
This isn’t clear. We do have some information, based on claims from Shea and those on his team, the accounts of locals who’ve rung alarm bells, and several reports from American outlets. But the picture is still hazy.
Shea wrote last week that he’d taken a team to rescue 62 children from an orphanage in Mariupol, which has been under heavy Russian attack for several days, and transported them to Poland.
In an interview on a Polish television show last week flagged by the Seattle Times, which reported on the situation Wednesday, Shea described three categories of kids in the group: Those whose adoption by American families was interrupted by the war, those who had been hosted in America but were at an earlier stage in the adoption process, and those who had not begun the adoption process.
But the former legislator’s assurances haven’t satisfied locals, who apparently have been demanding answers about the American and his gaggle of purported refugee orphans.
So, amid the scrutiny, the group Shea is working with, Loving Home and Families for Orphans (LFHO), published a statement that was posted online by the guest house where Shea and the kids are staying.
The statement — which counts 63 kids in the group, not 62 — says the childrens’ orphanage was destroyed by Russian bombing.
Is Shea working with a reputable organization?
That’s also not totally clear right now. The Seattle Times reported that a non-profit with the name Loving Families and Homes for Orphans had been registered in Florida just last month. It was registered in Texas in 2018, according to the report, but not as an adoption agency, nor is it registered with the organization overseeing American agencies involved with international adoption.
On the Polish television show, Shea described LFHO as a hosting organization with the intent of facilitating the adoption of Ukrainian orphans in America. He attacked “elements here in Poland” who were spreading “lies and rumors” about the group.
One Chicago pediatrician who’d seen the children in recent days told the Spokane Spokesman-Review, “The kids are all well taken care of.”
How did this story come to light?
According to Range, an Inland Northwest news outlet, Shea’s arrival with dozens of children in the small Polish town of Kazimeirz Dolny raised questions — and then concerns — with locals, who appealed to local authorities and then national authorities in both Poland and the United States.
Polish Americans like the lawyer Marta Milan, quoted in the Range piece, starting flagging the story to news outlets. The Seattle Times and Spokesman-Review reported on the situation followed by several others.
Authorities in Kazimierz Dolny reacted with some alarm to the news, and to their discussions with Shea. Weronika Ziarnicka, an aide to the town’s mayor, told the Times that she went to check on the kids after hearing from a group of local volunteers. She said Shea “got really angry,” refused to tell her his last name, and said he’d spoken with the mayor and that everything was okay.
“And I know it’s not true because the mayor is the one that asked me to go,” she told the Times.
A Polish reporter, Katarzyna Lazzeri, told Range that “one of the American volunteers informed local authorities that they wanted to take children soon to the United States of America,” but Shea separately denied this, saying, “Neither we nor our partners have any intention of taking the children to the US.” One Polish report flagged by Range said the matter had been referred to a family court.
The Spokesman-Review quoted an email from a State Department official confirming that she’d flagged the situation to the U.S. embassy in Warsaw.
Is Shea leveraging his far-right contacts?
That’s another significant, unanswered question. Both the Times and Range noted Shea’s recent interview appearance with Paweł Chojecki, a right-wing Polish pastor who’s disparaged Catholics in the past.
Range reported that he leads a small far-right political party in Poland, and that he’d pushed conspiracy theories about COVID-19 for months. Shea has done interviews with Chojecki at least as far back as 2018, Range noted, and the far-right Pole appears to be an important contact for Shea in the area.