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News / Northwest

Former state Rep. Matt Shea helped rescue 62 orphans from Ukrainian city; some are questioning Shea’s actions, the children’s future

By Eli Francovich, The Spokesman-Review
Published: March 17, 2022, 7:47am

KAZIMIERZ DOLNY, Poland — As bombs fell in Mariupol, an eastern Ukrainian city ravaged by Russian bombing, Spokane pastor and former legislator Matt Shea helped launch a rescue mission for 62 orphans. In a video and post to Facebook on March 8, Shea said he could hear machine guns firing in the background as he talked to his “prospective daughters.”

Shea traveled to Poland and Ukraine and helped shepherd those children, along with two caretakers, more than 800 miles by bus through the war-torn country. Now those kids are staying at a hotel run by the Association of Polish Journalists in Kazimierz Dolny, a small scenic town in east-central Poland.

Shea, who did not respond to several requests for comment, is staying with those children and initially refused on Sunday to allow Polish volunteers or doctors to see them, according to two local volunteers. That raised concerns among some in Poland and the situation is now being monitored by the U.S. State Department, according to an email provided to The Spokesman-Review.

“We still don’t know why he’s here,” said Joanna Stefańska, a Polish cancer therapist who has been helping Ukrainian refugees flooding into Poland.

Since that initial refusal, however, Shea did allow a group that included the town’s mayor to check on the children later on Sunday. Separately, an American doctor representing a health nonprofit, MedGlobal, also checked on the children. Both groups reported that the children appear to be well cared for.

Stefańska and Weonika Ziarnicka first grew concerned after Shea’s initial refusal on Sunday.

The two women run a foundation that funds various children’s initiatives and events in Kazmierz Dolny. They started hearing complaints from other Polish volunteers that an American pastor by the name of Matt Shea was not allowing Polish volunteers or doctors to visit the Ukrainian children.

Ziarnicka, who also works in the town’s mayoral office, said the mayor asked her to check the hotel and children. On Sunday, she visited the hotel accompanied by local police. Shea was angry that she brought police, she said. And when she asked to speak to the legal guardians of the children, he refused.

“The conversation wasn’t very pleasant, to be honest,” she said

Ziarnicka, who returned later with the mayor and was able to visit the children, also said that as far as she can tell the children are healthy and well taken care of. The children are in idyllic setting. Kazmierz Dolny is a quiet town along the Vistula River and the narrow cobblestone road leading to the hotel is shaded and peaceful.

However, her concern is what happens to them next.

That worry only deepened when she researched Shea’s past. In particular she was alarmed by his “Biblical Basis for War” manifesto which describes the Christian god as a “warrior,” details the composition and strategies of a “Holy Army” and condemns abortion and same-sex marriage. Shea is a former state representative from Spokane Valley who was kicked out of the state Republican caucus after investigators determined that his role in the armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016 amounted to “an act of domestic terrorism against the United States.”

“After reading his manifesto, what will happen to the children in the few weeks, months or years times?” asked Ziarnicka. “Why does he need these children for? What are they going to do in the United States?”

Shea has denied the allegations of having plans to whisk the children to the United States or bring them harm, calling the criticism Russian propaganda. He’s addressed the controversy on a Polish church YouTube channel “Against the Tide TV” which was founded by the far-right Polish pastor Pawel Chojecki. Shea has appeared on the show in the past.

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“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 during a March 10 broadcast. “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.”

The rumors, Shea said on the program, have discouraged other Ukrainian orphanages from sending children to Poland.

During that same March 10 program, Shea said that one-third of the children were nearly adopted in the United States and are now only waiting on approval from the Ukrainian courts. Shea said he’s working with a nonprofit group called Loving Families and Homes for Orphans, which he described during that same broadcast as an “organization that hosts Ukrainian orphans in America with Ukrainian families with the intent that ultimately that ends in adoption.”

Subsequently Shea said the children would not leave Poland.

The nonprofit group registered with the Texas Secretary of State in July 2018 with three members: Nadezhda and Alexsey Kostenko, of Fort Worth, and Irina Sipko of Spokane. Phone calls placed to Nadezhda Kostenko and Sipko, on phone numbers available through tax filings or the website of the organization, which appeared to be inoperable Wednesday afternoon, went straight to voicemail.

An emailed request for comment to the account of the organization was not immediately returned Wednesday.

In its 2018 filing, the charity says its purpose “to host, serve and minister physical, mental, spiritual and social care to the orphans worldwide with the ultimate goal of restoration and family.”

In August 2019, Sipko donated $100 to Shea’s campaign for state House of Representatives, according to financial filings with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. Later that fall, the report was released accusing the lawmaker of domestic terrorism. Shea did not file for re-election in spring 2020.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has ordered that no orphans are to leave Poland until the war is over, according to a State Department news release. Ukrainian children may travel to neighboring European countries from Ukraine with their legal guardian if other criteria are met, which includes approval from the local military-civilian administration.

Whether or not the children from Mariupol received that clearance is not clear and efforts to reach the orphanage’s director were unsuccessful. The orphanage is near the city’s center.

John Kahler, a Chicago pediatrician who works for the health nonprofit MedGlobal, has been working with the orphans the past few days and met Shea for the first time Tuesday. According to Kahler, everything seemed legitimate to him and Shea told him he had paperwork from the Ukrainian and Polish governments, although Kahler said he didn’t see that paperwork.

“The kids are all well taken care of,” he said.

The concerns raised by the volunteers are being reviewed by the U.S. State Department Office of Children’s Issues, according to an email provided to The Spokesman-Review.

Stefańska, the Polish therapist, said the State Department told her Shea himself had started the adoption process for two Ukrainian orphans.

“We would like to look into this further and notify others who may be able to take action,” wrote Stefanie Eye, a senior adoption oversight officer with the State Department. “We will also alert the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw.”

Eye wrote that the State Department has been monitoring concerns about private individuals and organizations trying to bring children to the United States outside of the adoption process, whether that’s for hosting or other short-term stays as a result of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

“We deeply appreciate you bringing this to our attention,” Eye wrote. “We share your concerns about the safety of the children.”

Nearly 2 million Ukrainians have fled the country since the war started. The United Nations estimates that more than 700,000 children have become refugees, heightening concerns about child trafficking. In response to those concerns the Polish government raised the minimum sentence for human trafficking from three to 10 years, and the maximum prison sentence for sex trafficking of children from 10 to 25 years.

Both Stefańska and Ziarnicka are thankful the children were rescued from Mariupol. But, they don’t trust Shea’s motives and wonder why he’s isolated the children, particularly from Polish volunteers who have been feeding and housing the roughly 1,000 refugees who have temporarily relocated to Kazimierz Dolny. Meanwhile the Polish government is paying for the housing and food for the 62 orphans, Ziarnicka said.

Considering the upheaval and concerns about trafficking Stefańska urges volunteers to be direct.

“The only thing you can do now is to be clear,” she said. “Clear with your motives. Your intentions. Your documents.”

Spokesman-Review reporter Eli Francovich is in Eastern Europe to cover stories with ties to Spokane. Francovich’s articles will appear throughout the week. His trip was paid for largely by Spokesman-Review readers who have donated to the Community Journalism Fund and through the newspaper’s Northwest Passages event series.