This is… worrisome.
Former Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, the far-right Republican who was found by a House-commissioned investigation to have planned and participated in domestic terrorism, is in a small town in Poland with more than 60 Ukrainian children, trying to facilitate their adoption in America.
Shea has said his group helped rescue 62 children and their two adult caregivers from an orphanage in Mariupol, the city in southeastern Ukraine that has been bombarded by Russian forces.
But international agencies say, with the chaos and confusion of war, now is not an appropriate time for international adoptions from Ukraine. And Shea’s presence, and the lack of information surrounding the American group he’s with, has raised concerns among some residents of Kazimierz Dolny, the small Polish town where the children are staying at a hotel-guesthouse.
“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, said of Shea. “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, who rarely speaks to mainstream media, did not respond to requests for comment.
Speaking on a Polish television show, “Idź Pod Prąd,” Shea said he was working with a Texas group called Loving Families and Homes for Orphans (he also called the group Loving Homes and Families for Orphans).
“It is a hosting organization that hosts Ukrainian orphans in America with Ukrainian families with the intent that ultimately that ends in adoption,” Shea said on the show. “It’s been doing this hosting program for several years.”
Loving Families and Homes for Orphans appears to have a website, but it is nonfunctional.
The group, based in Fort Worth, registered with the Texas secretary of state in 2018. No such group is registered as an adoption agency with the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. The group is also not registered with the Intercountry Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity, the group that oversees American agencies involved in international adoption.
A nonprofit group called Loving Families and Homes for Orphans was registered in Florida just one month ago. It lists its purpose as: “To provide loving and caring homes and families for the orphans from other countries for a short time period.”
The group was registered by Irina N. Sipko of Palm Coast, Florida. Sipko did not return requests for comment.
Artur Pomianowski, the mayor of Kazimierz Dolny, said in a post on Facebook that he’d visited the children and they are safe and being well cared-for. He also said the “case is being investigated and clarified by the relevant authorities” and that the kids would not leave Kazimierz Dolny without consent of the authorities.
“I do not know what Matt Shea and his friends are doing here around children,” Pomianowski said 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.”
In a statement posted to Facebook by Dom Dziennikarza, the journalists’ guesthouse where the children are staying, Loving Families and Homes for Orphans says it is a Christian organization based in Texas and that Sipko is the director.
“We are in direct contact with the governments of Ukraine and the United States, supported by the highest levels of politicians, international and local church leaders as well as dozens of companies from Ukraine, the USA and Poland,” the statement says.
The U.S. State Department did not directly respond when asked if they’d been in contact with Loving Families, but a spokesperson warned: “Only accredited Adoption Service Providers are authorized to facilitate intercountry adoptions of children to the United States.”
It can be extremely difficult in wartime to determine whether children who appear to be orphans truly are eligible for adoption, the State Department said.
“It is not uncommon in dangerous situations for parents to send their children out of the area, for safety reasons, or for families to become separated during an emergency,” the State Department spokesperson said. “Even when a child’s parents have died, children are often cared for by other relatives. Also, many children living in orphanages in Ukraine are not orphans.”
The National Council for Adoption said 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.”
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees and UNICEF put out a joint statement calling for temporary and foster care for children but saying “Adoption should not occur during or immediately after emergencies.”
Shea, who represented Spokane Valley in the state House for 12 years, opted not to seek reelection in 2020, after the House-commissioned report found he had planned and participated in domestic terrorism against the United States with his involvement in a trio of standoffs against the government.
That report alleged that Shea assisted “in the planning and preparation” of the 2016 armed takeover at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon. It also examined Shea’s travel to the 2014 armed standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, and a 2015 conflict in Bonner County, Idaho.
Following the report, Shea was suspended by the House Republican caucus, and urged to resign, although they declined to expel him from the Legislature.
Shea, who wants to create a 51st state in Eastern Washington, once distributed a four-page outline called “Biblical Basis for War” and has long been linked to Christian extremist movements. Shea’s wife, Viktoriya, was born in Ukraine.
Shea, a lawyer, also became pastor of Covenant Church of Spokane in 2020. But he was “let go” after less than a year, the church’s prior pastor told The Spokesman-Review. He then started his own congregation, On Fire Ministries, where he is senior pastor.
On the Polish television show, which was broadcast last week, Shea appears with Polish pastor Pawel Chojecki, a right-wing commentator who’s spoken disparagingly about Catholics, and whom Shea has previously conducted interviews with.
Shea, identified as a pastor and “former congressman,” says on the show that his group was asked to help get the children out of Ukraine. As he answers each question, he checks off an item on the papers in front of him.
Shea’s interviewer asks about “haters” who allege that he engaged in domestic terrorism and that his organization has “no legal basis for caring for children.”
“The interaction that I’ve had with terrorists is fighting against them in Iraq and Bosnia,” says Shea, an Army veteran. “What is very upsetting is that elements here in Poland, using Russian-style propaganda, have brought in politics and religion into a humanitarian issue.”
Shea says that among the children who arrived in Poland in early March, there are three groups.
The first group, Shea said, was in the process of being adopted by Ukrainian families in America, but had not gotten the approval of Ukrainian courts, “and now that’s not possible due to the war.”
The second group, he said, had been hosted in America, but were at an earlier stage in the process. And the third group had not begun the adoption process, he said.
“We want to make sure that we establish, essentially, normalcy in their lives,” Shea said. “We have been working with the Ukrainian government, we have been working with the American government, this entire process.”
Ziarnicka, the mayoral aide, said she first went to check on the children after she was contacted by a group of local volunteers who were concerned about the situation.
When she talked with Shea, she said he “got really angry,” refused to tell her his last name and asked to see her ID.
“I said ‘You are American on Polish ground, why should I show you my document?’” Ziarnicka said. “I just want to talk to people who have the legal right to these children.”
Shea told her that he’d spoken with the mayor, Ziarnicka said, and that everything was OK.
“And I know it’s not true because the mayor is the one that asked me to go,” she said.
Another local volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous because she was targeted and harassed when she previously spoke publicly about the situation, said they tried to find documentation supporting the claims of Shea’s group, 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.
When Ziarnicka eventually found Shea’s last name, from some of the local volunteers, she Googled him and grew more concerned reading about his past.
She said Shea accused her of being anti-American, anti-Protestant and a “Russian troll.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but things are getting really ugly,” she said.