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CELEBRITIES/ Are international adoptions the best way to help children?

June Thu 18, 2009

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On Friday, Madonna won a Malawi higher court appeal to adopt a three-year-old girl, the second child she is adopting from that country. The child's father, James Kambewa, is disputing the adoption, claiming his poverty is impeding justice. A lower court had earlier denied the adoption, citing that Madonna had failed a residency requirement.

 

Madonna's first adoption was also controversial, both because of a father's claim to the child and because residency requirements specify that an adopting family has to live in the country for at least 18 months, a rule which was waived by the court eventually in both cases. Madonna issued this statement of her intention: "After learning that there were over one million orphans in Malawi, it was my wish to open up our home and help one child escape an extreme life of hardship, poverty and in many cases death, as well as expand our family." She has also contributed millions of dollars to a charity she established to assist Malawi orphans.

 

Madonna is the most recent of celebrity parents adopting internationally. Josephine Baker preceded them with her "rainbow tribe" family in the 1950s. Mia Farrow adopted ten children in the 80s and 90s from foreign countries, the first a war orphan from Vietnam. Recently Meg Ryan adopted a little girl from China; single actress Mary-Louise Parker has a baby from Africa; and Ewan McGregor and wife Eve brought a four-year-old girl home from Mongolia. The most famous adoptive couple are Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, with children from Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Vietnam. For Robin Givhan at the Washington Post, such high-profile adoptions can make the children seem like "exotic souvenirs". But to their credit, many of these stars are involved in global causes. Farrow has been an advocate for UNICEF and more recently lobbies for peace in Darfur. Angelina Jolie is a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency and has given $3 million to that organization.

 

In a recent Foreign Policy article ("The Lie We Love"), E.J. Graff discusses the exploitive side of international adoptions. There is a growing demand in the U.S. now for adoption, with potential parents ready to pay up to $35,000 per child. There is also "evidence that babies in many countries are being systematically bought, coerced, and stolen away from their birth families", so much so that some of these countries have halted adoptions, at least on a temporary basis. International adoptions were originally a stopgap humanitarian measure for war-torn areas, but the current phenomenon is "demand-driven", according to Kelley McCreery Bunkers, a former consultant with UNICEF Guatemala.

 

In 2007, operators of the French Zoe's Ark adoption agency were charged with fraud after attempting to bring orphans from Sudan for adoption to European families who had prepaid thousands of dollars. The children were mostly from Chad, were not in immediate need, and had living relatives. Chad and Darfur do not allow adoptions, as children are traditionally brought into the homes of relatives after the death of their parents.

 

The SOS Children's Villages Canada released a statement on Madonna's impending adoption expressing the same caution: "We believe the best place for the world's 145 million orphans is in family-based care, in-country. Ideally, they could be cared for by their extended family, in their own cultural context. When this is impossible, organizations like ours work around the world to provide them with this loving, culturally appropriate home environment. SOS Children's Villages aims to prevent children from becoming orphaned or abandoned in the first place. Parents faced with crises or poverty often lack the resources and ability to care for their children. Our family-strengthening programs seek to empower families."

 

Less well-known is the fact that director Steven Spielberg and his wife have adopted two local African-American boys. They are involved with the effort to find families for the tens of thousands of children in the Los Angeles foster care system. Half a million children in the U.S. are currently in foster care, 20% of whom are waiting to be adopted; a disproportionate one-third are black. The plight of children in the foster care system is dire, as many are abused and neglected while their caregivers collect state money, and it typically takes three to five years to permanently place a child with a family. One-third to one-half of those who are released from foster care at age 18 will become homeless within two years. Many are concerned that adoption is increasingly driven by the desire of affluent couples to build their families, rather than primarily by the need for abandoned or orphaned children to have a family to belong to.



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