Three weeks after the far-right former state legislator Matt Shea arrived in Poland with dozens of Ukrainian orphans, including several he is attempting to adopt, authorities in multiple countries are pumping the brakes, grinding Shea’s plans to a halt — at least for now.
“The children will not leave Poland, unless Ukrainian authorities decides to do so,” Artur Pomianowski, the mayor of the small Polish town where Shea and the children are now staying, told TPM.
Shea, who served in the Washington state legislature from 2009 to 2021, is best known for allegations that he’s been involved in domestic terrorism, his advocacy for the separatist 51st state “Liberty” movement, and a document he authored outlining steps for killing non-believers during a hypothetical religious war.
But he’s also a potential adoptive father: Shea’s wife is Ukrainian, and in recent weeks the far-right figure has acknowledged his family’s effort to adopt four children from Ukraine — an effort that was interrupted by Russia’s sudden invasion of the country.
So Shea and a team of Americans traveled to Poland, linked up with a local right-wing evangelical pastor, and launched a “rescue action” that resulted in buses full of Ukrainian children crossing the border and ending up at a Polish hotel — and plenty of concern from Polish locals worried about child trafficking.
To hear Shea describe it, the operation to aid the orphans of Mariupol, a city in Ukraine’s east that’s been subject to weeks of heavy Russian attack, was a religious quest of Biblical proportions.
“We flew and drove 72 hours, with about four hours of sleep, to bring those orphans home,” Shea said in a sermon in Poland shortly after the kids arrived. “And now the next step is to bring them home to the Father.”
The extent of Shea’s actual involvement is less clear: In a video posted online by the congregation he founded, On Fire Ministries, Shea said that he met up with the children after they had been evacuated to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine just over an hour from the border with Poland. The Polish pastor Shea is working with, Paweł Chojecki, runs a right-wing media outlet that said the children “met their American rescuers after a 16-hour long train journey.”
Within days of Shea, his team and the kids arriving in Poland, locals had grown concerned about the children, leading local authorities to get involved.
Pomianowski, the mayor of the Polish town of Kazimierz Dolny, set off alarms stateside when he told The Seattle Times that Shea and his team “have given us some contradictory information and, for that reason, it is difficult for us to trust them.”
Shea, who has not returned TPM’s requests for comment, wrote on Facebook Saturday that “The State Department has indicated that those people in the final stages of adoption (defined here as approved by the US and Ukraine but not Ukrainian Court) should be finalized as soon as possible so those families can be reunited.”
But the group Shea is working with, Loving Families and Homes for Orphans, is not an official “adoption service provider,” as he’s acknowledged several times. Instead, it’s a hosting organization, which set up private trips for potential adoptees to meet their potential families in other countries.
A State Department spokesperson, asked to comment on Shea’s Facebook post, told TPM, “The Department doesn’t have a role in hosting programs, which are coordinated by private organizations with the permission of the Ukrainian authorities.”
“The Ukrainian government has confirmed that it is not approving children to participate in host programs at this time,” the spokesperson said. “Instead, the Ukrainian government is taking measures to ensure the safety of children in neighboring countries. The Ukrainian government has informed us that it has moved many of the children in its care to Poland for safety and, where necessary, medical treatment.”
The spokesperson also referred to a statement from the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy (translated here) that said as much — in much more forceful language.
“Recently the mass media and social networks have been filled with notices about the willingness of foreigners to adopt a child from Ukraine and with appeals that Ukrainian children need to be adopted abroad,” the statement read. “The Ministry of Social Policy emphasizes that under current conditions intercountry adoption is impossible and that disseminating such inaccurate information contains signs of fraud and violations of the rights of the child.”
“The National Social Service is not currently considering cases and is not providing consent and/or permits for the adoption of children by foreigners or by citizens of Ukraine who reside beyond its borders,” the statement read, adding that without proper verification, “there is a great risk that the child could fall into the hands of fraudsters, persons who would not ensure the child’s rights and best interests, or human traffickers.”
The situation recalls that of Laura Silsby, an Idaho woman who was arrested in 2010 while attempting to take 33 children from earthquake-struck Haiti into the Dominican Republic without proper permission, said Kathryn Joyce, an investigative reporter at Salon and the author of a book on the modern evangelical adoption movement, The Child Catchers.
“These aren’t people who should be engaging in these vigilante rescue missions,” Joyce said.
Even if Shea, his team and the prospective adoptive families they say they represent have the best intentions, Joyce said, there’s an inherent risk involved in moving kids across borders in the middle of a crisis.
“What often ends up happening later on is the decision ends up having sort of been made in the moment,” she said.
Pomianowski, the mayor of the Polish town, told TPM of the Ukrainian children: “We do not know how long are they going to stay in Kazimierz Dolny.”