WARSAW, Poland — Two women, one from Ukraine and one from Poland, will temporarily share legal custody of the 63 Ukrainian orphans who are staying in Poland with controversial former Spokane Valley state Rep. Matt Shea.
On Friday, a family court in Pulawy, Poland, ruled that the Ukrainian orphanage director would share custody of the children with Sylwia Woszczyk-Trojanowska, the head of family and social services in the small Polish town where the children are staying. Additionally, the children will not be allowed to leave the town except for medical emergencies, according to Volodmymyr Gulyk, the Ukrainian consul in Lublin, Poland.
“They are safe, and they are protected, and they have guardians,” Gulyk said in an interview. “The Ukrainian government is primarily responsible for their wellbeing.”
Gulyk emphasized that the children remain under the supervision and control of the Ukrainian government’s representative, the orphanage director, and that the consulate has checked on the children several times. The appointment of a Polish guardian helps satisfy Polish legal requirements while the children stay in the country, he said.
“Ukraine does not give up their kids,” he said, adding that all adoptions are on pause until the war with Russian ends.
The controversy started in March when Shea, a pastor with On Fire Ministries in Spokane, traveled to Poland and Ukraine to help bring 62 Ukrainian orphans from Mariupol, a besieged Ukrainian port city, to Poland.
Russian bombing of Mariupol has reduced much of the city to rubble. About 5,000 people, including about 210 children, have been killed in the war in Mariupol, according to a spokesman for Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko, as reported by the New York Times on Monday. The newspaper also reported that the mayor’s office said that 40 percent of buildings in the city have been destroyed.
Shea was volunteering with the hosting organization Loving Families and Homes for Orphans, which is based in Texas although its director lives in Spokane. Shea posted on Facebook about rescuing the children, who include four Ukrainian children he’s in the process of adopting.
Shea, who is married to Ukrainian-born Viktoriya Vinnikova, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Gulyk said that the Ukrainian consulate doesn’t have any concerns about the children at this moment, although media inquiries from the United States have “provoked” additional follow up visits.
There are about 200 Ukrainian orphans who have left the country, he said.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s office in Lublin, the capital city of the region, is considering investigating Shea’s actions. They will decide whether to open an investigation within 30 days, according to Agnieszka K?pka, the press spokesman of the District Prosecutor’s Office in Lublin.
“Now we are checking the facts,” she said in a phone call.
Polish volunteers alleged that Shea prevented them from seeing the children and that he was combative and aggressive when initially asked to speak to the children’s legal guardian. When they discovered his activities and associations with far-right groups and his writings in a manifesto called “Biblical Basis for War,” which espouses violence in the name of religion, they grew more concerned. Additionally, Shea faced an investigation by the Washington House of Representatives that found he planned and participated in acts of domestic terrorism, including his role in the 2016 armed seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
In interviews Shea conducted with several church-aligned podcasts and television shows, he was inconsistent in his stated motives, saying at one point they planned to facilitate adoptions but then later saying that was never the intention. He has criticized as “Russian-style propaganda” any questions raised in concern of his efforts to assist orphans out of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, a New York state woman who was in the process of adopting one of the children who is with Shea has urged, along with other prospective U.S. adoptive parents and lawmakers, for the State Department to let those children travel to the United States before their adoptions are completed. The State Department said in a statement the Ukrainian government has jurisdiction over Ukrainian children and has “expressed concern about moving children out of Europe at this point.”
The children were brought from Ukraine to Poland and are staying in a hotel owned by the Association of Polish Journalists.
The Association has been linked with far-right rhetoric in the past. In September 2021, the Association screened a film questioning whether Poles were involved in the massacre of 350 Jews in Jedwabne, Poland in 1941. The film also argues that Jews conspired with the Soviet Union to invade Poland.
For many years following World War II, the murder of Jews was blamed solely on Nazi occupiers. The 2000 book “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland” by Jan Gross, a Princeton history professor emeritus, brought new attention to atrocities committed against Jews by Poles.