Americans have rushed to rescue Ukrainian orphans. One mission led to a child trafficking probe

Children at a special needs orphanage in Vinnytsia haven't left Ukraine yet. Mark Davis of Abundance International said for now, it is safer to stay in that part of the country than to try to cross the border.

(CNN)When Russian bombs started dropping on Ukraine in late February, a country singer half a world away in Nashville says he felt the panic of a parent whose child is in danger.

The 9-year-old boy who Scooter Brown and his wife, Vicki, had started the process of adopting was among those hiding in the basement of an orphanage in central Ukraine as three Russian missiles soared overhead and slammed into a Ukrainian military base about 60 miles away.
After that episode, the Browns took matters into their own hands.
Brown, a burly and bearded former Marine who fought on the front lines of Iraq in 2003 and whose namesake band has produced songs with titles such as "Guitars, Guns, and Whiskey" and "Wine Drunk," convinced a "special forces buddy" to join him overseas. They worked with a small Nashville organization run by another military veteran in an attempt to rescue the Browns' future adoptee and a handful of other kids; Brown's wife arrived later to provide additional support.
Scooter and Vicki Brown hosted 9-year-old "Little B" over the Christmas holidays last year.
What followed was an erratic chain of events that started with Brown and his friend setting up a fortress of computer screens and whiteboards in a Polish hotel. From there, they said they fed associates the details they needed to pick up passports from a Kyiv apartment and to make a harrowing rescue of a woman connected with the orphanage who was trapped in a bunker.
"You couldn't write a movie script about all the things that have happened," Brown told CNN.
But the mission ended in disaster and confusion. Not only did the Browns return to Tennessee without the children, their rescue attempt led to an international child trafficking investigation that the couple said is baseless.
Ever since Russia's invasion of Ukraine -- an adoption hotspot for US families -- a litany of stories about often well-intentioned Americans seeking to rescue Ukrainian orphans and whisk them to safety have cropped up. But experts on adoption, nonprofit workers and child safety advocates told CNN they worry about how these kinds of stories will end.
A number of such missions have been detailed, even celebrated, in news reports. A pastor and a group of churchgoers reportedly flew to Poland with the hope of temporarily bringing children back to Missouri. Two Pennsylvania men -- a businessman and a Catholic priest -- went to Ukraine where they would shuttle 22 Ukrainian orphans over the border into neighboring Lithuania with the original plan, now on hold, of taking some of them to temporary safe harbor in Pittsburgh. A 55-year-old mom traveled to Ukraine -- at one point hunkering down in a Lviv-area mall during a rocket attack that rattled the building -- to be near the teenager she intends to adopt and bring back to Kentucky. And a former Washington state lawmaker with far-right ties who was involved in a dramatic rescue of more than 60 kids from an orphanage in ravaged Mariupol later became the focus of scrutiny after the children wound up in Poland and he butted heads with a Polish volunteer who questioned his motives. Now a Polish prosecutor may launch an investigation into the matter.
"It's what I call the Rambo reaction, which is to go in and get 'em out," said Nigel Cantwell, a child protection policy consultant in Switzerland who often works with UNICEF. "And that is, to me, an enormous concern in child protection."
Refugees from Ukraine line up to get on buses to other destinations in Poland, outside the train station in Przemysl, near the Ukrainian-Polish border in southeastern Poland on March 16, 2022.
Americans who take extreme measures to get orphans out of harm's way and into the United States say many of these kids lack parental advocates and are eager to join a family in a stable setting, even if just temporarily.
"We just want the kids to be here with us in a home and a family surrounded by people that they know and love," said upstate New York resident Melissa Nowicki, who had hosted -- and is now trying to adopt -- an 11-year-old boy who was among the more than 60 orphans the Washington state lawmaker, Matt Shea, helped evacuate in March. Shea, a pastor who is trying to adopt four of the kids himself, did not return emails or calls from CNN seeking comment, but on a rightwing Christian podcast, he blasted local newspaper reports about the matter as "fake news" -- even though he did not reply to their requests for comment -- and accused the reporters of bias.
A whistleblower holding an envelope.
Do you have information to share about this story? We offer several ways to reach our journalists securely.
In any case, independent missions to move orphans out of the country could set a precedent that makes it easier for other kids to become unaccounted for, and ultimately exploited or even trafficked, experts warn. Numbers are in short supply, but reports are already coming in of children going missing after they cross the border, said a spokesperson with Save the Children, a humanitarian organization that assists kids during conflicts and other emergencies.
Some groups heading into the danger zone don't have proven track records of being able to care for children or operate in combat areas, experts say. What's more, most kids living in Ukrainian orphanages have parents or family who are still their legal guardians, according to the US Department of State, so sending anyone abroad in haste during times of turmoil runs the risk of separating kids from their immediate or extended families. The State Department added that the Ukrainian government does not approve of Ukrainian children traveling to the US for temporary travel at this time.
"The dust has got to settle," said Mark Davis, who runs a nonprofit called Abundance International that works with many of the orphanages in Ukraine. "You can't just grab a child and take them home."