Madonna and her brood are in Malawi this week, awaiting a judge’s ruling on her planned adoption of 4-year-old Chifundo “Mercy” James. James would be her second child from Malawi; she and then-husband Guy Ritchie adopted a boy in 2006. On the heels of that event, Daniel Engber explained how to go about adopting a child in Africa.
A village chief in Malawi confirmed on Wednesday that Madonna has adopted a local baby from an orphanage. A few days ago, gossip pages in the United Kingdom reported that husband Guy Ritchie’s family was “very concerned Madonna wants an African baby as a celebrity status symbol, like Angelina Jolie.” (Jolie has adopted children from Cambodia and Ethiopia.) How do you adopt a child in Africa?
Work it out with the local government. Some African countries make this easier than others. Ethiopia, where Jolie adopted Zahara Marley, has a fairly straightforward system that doesn’t even require travel to the continent. To adopt in Ethiopia, you usually have to be married and heterosexual. If you’re single, you must be at least 25 years old. American applicants must work with one of seven licensed agencies and have to submit an extensive dossier that includes letters of reference and a written statement translated into Amharic.
Ethiopia was the seventh most popular source for overseas adoptions in 2005, according to a list compiled by the State Department. (China, Russia, Guatemala, and South Korea have topped the charts for the last decade, supplying about three-quarters of the 23,000 babies brought into the United States.) By comparison, adoptions from Malawi are very, very rare—only seven visas have been issued to adopted Malawian babies since 2001.
Those low numbers reflect the fact that only residents of Malawi can adopt a child there, and each adoption must be preceded by a two-year period of foster care. The Malawian government bent the rules for Madonna due to her celebrity status and because she’s pledged several million dollars in aid for the country’s orphans. The Malawian authorities presented Madonna with 12 orphan boys and let her pick the one she wanted. Though she’s being allowed to take the child home without first residing in the country, the government will still require the foster care “trial period” before they make the adoption official.
Once you’ve worked out an adoption with a local government, you have to clear it back in your home country. In the United States, you can apply for a visa only if your adopted child is under 16 years old and an orphan. (Under certain circumstances the age limit goes up to 18.) A child’s parents don’t have to be dead or missing to be declared an “orphan“; a single parent can designate his child an orphan in writing if he or she doesn’t have enough money to care for her.
The United States requires its own dossier, which includes a “home study” of the adoptive parents. For the home study, a social worker interviews the applicants and surveys their living conditions. All adoptive parents must also undergo fingerprinting and background checks. Meanwhile, the orphan must receive medical clearance from a U.S.-approved physician. Several conditions could affect her chances of getting a visa, like syphilis, active tuberculosis, insanity, or “sexual deviation.”
Bonus Explainer: What about adopting babies from continents other than Africa? The Explainer checked the requirements at a few off-the-beaten-path destinations. Iran allows adoption only by Iranian citizens, and Muslim and Christian babies must be placed with parents of the same religion. Other Muslim countries, like Syria, forbid adoption of Muslim children altogether. (You can try to adopt a Christian kid from Syria, but it’s not easy.) Don’t try Venezuela, either—they won’t accept American parents until the United States finishes implementing the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.
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