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Save the Children - Head to head: Madonna adoption



Head to head: Madonna adoption

Pop star Madonna is in Malawi awaiting the result of a court bid to adopt an orphan, four-year-old Chifundo "Mercy" James. Her case has sparked a wider debate over inter-country adoption.

Should parents in affluent countries be encouraged to adopt children from different cultures in the developing world?

Sarah Jacobs, Save the Children
Save the Children believes aid is better than adoption

Sarah Jacobs is the Africa spokeswoman for the charity Save the Children.

No doubt Madonna is looking to adopt Mercy with the best of intentions.

But such a high-profile adoption risks sending out the wrong message to families around the world.

And far from helping, it could make the situation worse for some of the world's poorest children.

The fact is that the vast majority of children living in orphanages aren't orphans. Most have at least one parent.

And those that don't almost always have extended family that could give them the loving home they need - with the right support.

In most cases it is poverty, and the ensuing hunger and lack of opportunity, that forces parents to give their children up in the hope of giving them a better future. A hope that usually proves a damaging myth.

The problem

No child should have to grow up in an orphanage. They can be dangerous and unregulated places where children are subject to abuse and neglect.

The answer is not to whisk children away to a new life thousands of miles from where they were born

International adoption is trumpeted as a solution, yet the world remains unaware that it can actually fuel the problem.

International adoption has become big business in some countries. Orphanage workers go out into communities to recruit children, luring parents to give up their youngsters with promises of education and three meals a day.

These children, taken from the protection of their families, can be left vulnerable to unscrupulous adoption agencies, who profit from the sale of children without ensuring the child is eligible for adoption, or adequately vetting the adoptive parents.

Releasing children from these conditions should be a global priority. But the answer is not to whisk children away to a new life thousands of miles from where they were born, unless as a very last resort.

'The answer'

The answer is far simpler. Families need help to get themselves out of poverty, so they can feed, educate and protect their children in a loving, family environment.


This is the message that needs to be heard around the world - a message to which high-profile celebrities like Madonna could give enormous weight.

Investment is needed, and needed now. World leaders at the G20 must prioritise developing countries at this week's summit to ensure the global financial crisis doesn't push more parents into abandoning their children.

Families in the affluent world wanting to make a real difference to the lives of orphans can support aid agencies, such as Save the Children, that are working on the ground to get children out of institutions and support their families so they can live safely and well at home.

Celebrities are trend-setters and influence decision-makers.

By promoting the message that children are best looked after by their own families or in their own communities, they can change the lives of not just one, but thousands of orphans across the globe.


Julia Fleming works for the Overseas Adoption Support and Information Service (Oasis), a voluntary support group for people in the UK who wish to adopt a child from overseas.

Oasis looks forward to the day when no child needs inter-country adoption (ICA).

The day when no orphanages exist and those who cannot live with birth families are cared for adequately in their birth countries.

Until then, it is desirable that those children who need a second chance (and whose governments have decided that ICA is in the child's best interests) be welcomed by families in other countries.

Many readers would expect Oasis to rally to the defence of all adopters.

However, as an extremely knowledgeable organisation who have been involved in ICA for decades, we are more aware than most that there are ethical problems in some countries and with some placing agencies.

'Sweeping generalisations'

Save the Children's sweeping generalisations are unacceptable, though.

It is wrong to condemn all ICA because of one case.

Here in the UK, all children being adopted from abroad are afforded the same status as UK children.

That means that any parent wishing to adopt from overseas is assessed in exactly the same way as a family planning to adopt from the UK.

They undergo the same training and in no way is the procedure less time consuming or "easier."

Madonna's case could never happen here. A recently divorced mother of three would never be approved in the UK to adopt domestically or internationally.

Parenthood impulse

Save the Children states that families wanting to make a real difference to the lives of orphans "can support aid agencies... that are working on the ground to get children out of institutions and support their families".

But adoption and charity are not synonymous. They arise from completely different impulses.

Families adopt because they wish to experience parenthood, or in some cases, because they have loved being parents so much that they want to do it all over again.

People don't adopt because they feel sorry for children.

Anyone expressing such a desire to a social worker would not be approved as a prospective adopter.

That said, many ICA adopters are generous supporters of charities working within their children's birth countries.

But no charity can care for all children. Not all children can be reunited with birth families or placed in local foster families.

There will always be cases of children who need new families.

2009 Apr 1