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Madonna’s failed adoption attempt shows Bulgaria has a lot to learn from Malawi about upholding children’s rights

from: svobodnablogaria.com

Yesterday the unthinkable happened - someone said ‘no’ to Madonna. A court in Malawi rejected her application to adopt three-year-old Chifundo (Mercy) James. I cannot but applaud the bravery of the judge who made that decision and the arguments she used:

“It is necessary that we look beyond the petitioner … and consider the consequences of opening the doors too wide.” “By removing the very safeguard that is supposed to protect our children, the courts … could actually facilitate trafficking of children by some unscrupulous individuals.”

Now Madonna couldn’t possibly be trafficking a child, could she? Of course not, she’s too rich to be a trafficker. What the judge has so aptly responded to is the fact that Madonna wants to take a Malawian child away under circumstances that contradict Malawian law, which stipulates that anyone who wishes to adopt a child from that country should have been resident in the country for at least 18 months.

Whatever person Madonna is, or isn’t, she is someone who has clearly not spent 18 months in Malawi. She already had the law bent for her in that country when she adopted little David Banda about three years ago.

What the judge is saying has no deep symbolic meaning. A second adoption by Madonna in a coutry which is not on the map of the intercountry adoption industry would increase its popularity as an intercountry adoption destination and channel huge demand by families (particularly American families) wishing to adopt and even using the Madonna ‘double precedent’ in order to obtain permission to adopt without having spent 18 months there. This, as the judge fears, would mean opening the doors too wide. And once they are opened too wide, it is very difficult to close them.

Okay, but what’s trafficking got to do with this? Well, when you’re talking about a very poor country where children are its only remaining precious commodity, where there is an ‘unacceptable’ obstacle to adoption such as the 18-month residency requirement, it doesn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to work out how some people will sense a business opportunity and find an easier way for children to reach their loving ‘forever families’, as they like to call themselves in the US. I am not talking about ‘bad’ trafficking where children are supposedly used in organ harvesting or other nasty things. I am talking about illegal means of making children available for intercountry adoption, driven by demand in developed countries. This is bad enough and this is criminal enough.This process is known as ‘baby laundering’ or ‘turning children into paper orphans’ to ease the process of their itnercountry adoption.

But even the legal surface of the iceberg that is intercountry adoption is questionable and has negative effects both in the countries of origin and in the receiving countries:

In the countries of origin the strong demand for intercountry adoptions stimulates supply. This, quite literally, even in recently joined EU member states like Bulgaria, means that more effort is being made by those who benefit from intercountry adoptions to increase the choice of babies and little children in institutions, or as the industry likes to call them, ‘orphanages’.

The more choice there is, the more children will be adopted internationally but also more children will be ending up in institutions and not being adopted.

In the receiving countries, on the other hand, intercountry adoption has negative effect on the children who need adoptive families because many adoptive parents prefer to adopt internationally. This is due to the belief by many that babies coming from other countries are more likely to be healthy babies, as opposed, for example, to the babies of American, mainly black, drug addict mothers whose babies are beileved to be disabled by their mothers’ drug habits. These black American babies lose the competition for finding a ‘forever family’ in the US to the ‘improted’ babies. As a result of that, they often end up themselves internationally adopted… in Canada.

A myth has gained huge popularity and is used as an excuse for the wide practice of intercountry adoptions in Bulgaria, and I am sure in other countries - that adoptive families from other countries will only adopt the severely disabled, the ones that have no chance of being adopted domestically. The reality is that adoptive families all over the word, whenever given a choice, are looking for HEALTHY, BLUE-EYED BABY GIRLS. Whenever they have a chance of choosing, they will go for those options. Which means that the fewer safeguards exist, the easier it will be for HEALTHY, BLUE-EYED BABY GIRLS to be adopted internationally and for the rest to spend the rest of their lives moving from one children’s home to the other, and, as it happens now in Bulgaria with disabled children and adults, to end their miserable devalued and degraded lives in the most humiliating surroundings of such an institution.

Remember - the chain starts with those nice people coming from thousands of miles away wanting to help a child by adopting them and with those greedy, corrupt individuals that will do anything to find them the baby they want. As an article on intercountry adoptions in Foreign Policy last December put it “Remove cash from the adoption chain, and, outside of China, the number of healthy babies needing Western homes all but disappears.”

Thomas DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, representing more than 200 international adoption organisations is quoted in the same article in Foreign Policy as saying “If we have the greatest laws and the greatest regulations but are still sending $20,000 anywhere—well, you can bypass any system with enough cash.”

Yes, you can indeed. And not only that, in coutries like Bulgaria you can get those, whose job by law it is to protect the best interests of children, to protect your own best interest.

The Foreign Policy article also says: “Unless adoption agencies are held to account, more young children will be wrongfully taken from their families.”

On the background of the above arguments, and considering the fact that the judge who did not allow Madonna’s second adoption did so being fully aware that representatives of the government of Malawi have spoken in defense of the adoption (little wonder - Madonna poured millions of dollars into the counry’s oprhanages), how does a country like Bulgaria fare? A country, which, notwithstanding its low number of children, for a couple of years up to 2003 managed to become the country with the highest rates of intercountry adoptions in the world.*

Bulgaria was criticised for the overuse of intercountry adoption by the European Commission and was told on a number of occassions that it has to reform its child welfare system. At the same time, Bulgaria ratified the Hague Convention regulating intercountry adoptions and had to start applying it in 2003. All this, despite severe opposition and pressure in the opposite direction, resulted in changes in the rules, which made the intercountry adoption of children somewhat better regulated. This directly resulted in a decrease in the number of intercountry adoptions - a fact that immensely frustrated the intercountry adoption industry and all those who made money out of it both in Bulgaria and in the receiving countries.

Five years later things seem to be going back to where they were before the ratification of the Hague convention and before the European Commission’s criticisms. On 19 March an international conference on intercountry adoptions took place in Sofia, Bulgaria. The conference was co-organised by the Ministry of Justice and the Association of accredited intercountry adoption agencies. There was very little information about the event, but apparently, children’s rights organisations were not present (and I am not even sure if the State Agency for Child Protection had any representatives - there was nothing about this conference on its website, which definitely means that none of its senior representatives has taken part in it). This must have left the field clear for the right type of discussion - unburdened by paraphernalia like children’s rights, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, or Bulgaria’s own Child Protection Act.

‘Brilliant’ results were reported at the conference - the number of intercountry adoptions is going up again. The information about the conference published by the English language weekly Sofia Echo shows a steep upward trend: “Compared to 2007 when there were 81 approvals from the Justice Minister for children’s adoptions, in 2008 there were 169.”** (By the way, the author of the article explains the official legislative position in Bulgaria that intercountry adoption should be a measure of last resort as a ‘patriotic concept’! If he ever bothers to read a relevant document on the rights of the child, he will be surprised to find out that international law in this area is premised on the same ‘patriotic concept’).

From the same article it transpires that the most senior civil servant in charge of intercountry adoptions in Bulgaria is… a tax lawyer. No wonder children’s rights are not her cup of tea. But to leave the management of such a sensitive and controversial area of children’s rights, which has such a negative effect on the child welfare system as a whole to a tax lawyer, to exclude children’s organisations and other stakeholders from the debate not only defies common sense, it shows the real importance, or the lack of it in this case, children’s rights have for the Bulgarian government.

Bulgarian ministers very much like to visit other countries - maybe next time they should pay a visit to Malawi. But instead of seeing their counterparts, perhaps they could go to judge Esmie Chondo and ask her to tell them about children’s rights.

PS: I have no illusion that the Madonnas of this world are able to achieve whatever they pursue at whatever price and I reasonably suspect that a higher court may overturn the decision of judge Chondo. That doesn’t reduce my respect for the current decision at all and demonstrates to be that children’s rights are not a western civilization concept, as many find convenient to believe.


*Selman, P, Trends in Intercountry Adoption: An alysis of Data from 20 Receiving Countries, 1998–2004, Journal of Population Research, 2006.

**”A question of goodwill”, Fri, Mar 27 2009 by Petar Kostadinov, the Sofia Echo.

Categories: Children's rights - Tags: Children's rights, intercountry adoption, Madonna, Malawi