Madonna allowed to adopt second child

13 June 2009
Malawi’s Supreme Court rules singer an adopt 3-year-old girl in light of her charitable donations

For anyone who wants to adopt a child in Malawi without the legally required 18 months of residency, here is a tip from pop star Madonna: donate money to orphanages to expedite the process.

Madonna’s financial contributions to Malawian orphanages have persuaded a court to declare her a “resident” of the country, allowing her to adopt another African child, but sparking accusations that her wealth is buying her an exemption from the law.

The pop star was ecstatic at the ruling by Malawi’s highest court Friday, but Malawian rights groups are worried the ruling could open the floodgates to foreign adoptions from their AIDS-ravaged country.

The court ruled that Madonna could be considered a “resident” of the country because of her charity work in Malawian orphanages, allowing her to bypass – for a second time – the normal requirement that she live in the country for 18 months before adopting a child.

The ruling sets the stage for the celebrity singer to adopt 3-year-old Chifundo “Mercy” James, whose mother is dead, but whose biological father has claimed the right to keep her. “I am ecstatic,” Madonna said in a statement from New York Friday. “My family and I look forward to sharing our lives with her.”

The three-judge panel said the court must consider Madonna’s financial support for orphanages in Malawi when interpreting the residency rule. “In this global village, a man can have more than one place at which he resides,” said Chief Justice Lovemore Munlo, reading the court’s decision.

“In this case, Madonna was in Malawi not by chance, but by intention. She is looking after several orphans whose welfare depends on her. She can therefore not be described as a sojourner.”

For three-year-old Chifundo, the only options were the potential “destitution” of an orphanage or the love of Madonna, the judge said. He also pointed to the pop star’s “latest income tax returns” as proof of her “financial stability.”

Undule Mwakasungura, chairman of the Human Rights Consultative Committee, a coalition of Malawian groups that opposed the Madonna adoptions, said he was surprised and disappointed the court allowed Madonna to be considered a resident of Malawi.

“It means that anyone can come here tomorrow and give money to an orphanage and then say that they want two or three children from that orphanage,” he said.

“As long as you’re supporting some projects in Malawi, even if you’re not a resident, you’ll be entitled to any child that you want. As long as you have money, you can bypass the rules, and that’s what Madonna has done.”

Africa is already one of the fastest-growing sources of international adoptions by Canadians. The latest Madonna saga is likely to stimulate more interest in Africa by prospective parents in Canada, experts say.

“Next week, we will probably get a number of calls from people wondering whether they can do this,” said Roberta Galbraith, executive director of a Manitoba-based adoption agency, Canadian Advocate for the Adoption of Children.

Her agency has helped many Canadians adopt children from Ethiopia, where film star Angelina Jolie adopted a daughter in 2005. The latest statistics show that Ethiopia has become the second-biggest foreign source of adoptions by Canadians, behind China.

“There’s a celebrity factor associated with Africa, and I don’t think that’s necessarily good,” Ms. Galbraith said. “Before Angelina Jolie and Madonna, did anyone think of those countries? Some people even have the mentality of going in to ‘rescue’ children. We have to be really careful with that. You have to think of the child.”

Because of the AIDS epidemic, an estimated 560,000 children in Malawi have lost at least one of their parents. But many Malawians object to the notion that these children would benefit if they were sent abroad to wealthier parents, far from their home culture. If poverty is the justification for adoption, almost the entire country could be adopted, they say.

Madonna, who adopted 13-month-old David Banda from Malawi in 2006, lost a lower court ruling in April when she first tried to adopt Chifundo. But she appealed to the country’s highest court and Friday won the appeal.

Chifundo’s biological father, James Kabewa, was unhappy with the ruling. “No one wants to listen to me,” he told the Reuter news agency. “I have protested this all along…. I want my child back, but I don’t know what to do now.”

Maxwell Matewere, executive director of a children’s rights group called Eye of the Child, said he was disturbed by the court’s ruling. There was no evidence that the government had looked for local families who might be willing to adopt Chifundo, and the court had failed to consider this point, he said.

“They should be able to show that adoption is the last resort,” he said. “Exporting these children is not the best solution.”

The court ruling will discourage local families from adopting, while making it easier for foreigners to adopt Malawi’s children, Mr. Matewere said. “Orphanages could look at it as a business, and it could encourage child-trafficking. The demand could be very high. There could be a process of auctioneering.”