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Madonna evokes plight of orphans

MADONNA'S efforts to adopt two youngsters from Malawi have attracted the paparazzi. But she isn't alone: westerners are increasingly seeking to bring home children from Africa as traditional sources like China and Russia cut back on adoptions by foreigners.

The rising number of adoptions from Africa - particularly by Americans in Ethiopia - comes as the AIDS epidemic ravaging the continent leaves more orphans in impoverished countries and surviving relatives are unable to care for them.

Americans adopted 1,725 Ethiopian children in the 12-month period ending October 31, 2007, about 70 percent of all US adoptions from Africa, according to the US State Department. The year before, 1,255 Ethiopian children were adopted by Americans.

Thomas DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, does not attribute the increase to a celebrity factor, but says some high-profile adoptions by celebrities have raised awareness of the availability of orphans.

"One of the good things about the Madonna adoption or Angelina Jolie, those adoptions brought the need to the attention of Europeans or Americans," he said. "And it brought the possibility to people's attention."

Rich foreigners have been adopting children from poorer nations for decades. Mia Farrow, now the mother of 14 kids, adopted an orphan from the Vietnam War in 1973. Jolie adopted her sons Maddox and Pax from Cambodia and Vietnam and her daughter Zahara from Ethiopia.

But critics have slammed Madonna's efforts to adopt a second child from Malawi, accusing her of acting like a rich "bully" and using her money and status to fast-track the adoption process. Madonna insisted she was following standard procedures.

Many adoption agencies and child rights activists argue it is preferable for children to be taken care of by relatives or in their communities, with foreign adoptions allowed only as a last resort. Others say that isn't always realistic.

"Ideally more local adoptions would be best, but people aren't coming forward and if life is better out there then they should take it," said Zoe Cohen, a private adoption consultant in South Africa.

Adoption experts say the rise in adoptions from Africa is due to moves by China, Russia, Guatemala and some other longtime sources of orphans to rein in foreign adoptions.

According to the State Department, 2,399 visas were issued to African children adopted by Americans last year, out of 17,438 adoptions from abroad.


China, which for a decade was the leading source for international adoptions, accounted for the biggest decline and dropped out of the top spot. It was replaced by Guatemala, which almost certainly will lose that status in 2009 because of a corruption-related moratorium on new adoptions.

Orphans usually are absorbed into extended families in Africa, but AIDS and other diseases have affected many of those who might have traditionally provided support. In many villages across the continent, frail, elderly grandmothers do their best to care for children but often youngsters end up in orphanages or on the streets.

The United Nations estimates 18 million African children will have lost a parent to AIDS by 2010.

Simon Chisale, the Malawian welfare official who has been handling Madonna's adoption cases, said outsiders are being considered as adoptive parents because traditional family structures have broken down.

"Times have changed," he said. "It used to be simpler but now it is more difficult. People have the heart (to look after their extended families) but the means are not there."

Malawi, with a population of 12 million, is among the poorest countries in the world, with rampant disease and hunger, aggravated by periodic droughts and crop failure.

The UN says 1 million Malawian children have lost one or both parents and estimates about half of those were because of AIDS.

In the face of such problems, experts say few African countries are going to turn down help from well-meaning rich foreigners. Madonna's Raising Malawi charity, for example, is building well-equipped schools.

Malawian regulations now stipulate only that prospective parents undergo an 18- to 24-month assessment period in the country, a rule that was bent when Madonna was allowed to take her adopted son, David, to London in 2006 before his adoption was finalized.

Chisale, the Malawian welfare official, said there has been a slight increase in interest in adopting children from his country, mainly among Malawi's many international aid workers.

He could not provide numbers and was reluctant to attribute this to attention drawn by Madonna's case but couldn't deny the enormous influence the star has had.

"Madonna has put Malawi on the map," he said.


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