LILONGWE, Malawi -- Madonna's efforts to adopt twoyoungsters from Malawi have put her in the media spotlight. But sheisn't alone: a growing number of Americans are bringing homechildren from Africa as countries like China and Russia cut back onadoptions by foreigners.
The increase -- particularly in Ethiopia -- comes as the AIDSepidemic ravaging the continent leaves more orphans in impoverishedcountries without relatives to care for them.
Americans adopted 1,725 Ethiopian children in the 12-monthperiod ending Sept. 30, 2008, about 70 percent of all U.S.adoptions from Africa, according to the State Department. The yearbefore, 1,255 Ethiopian children were adopted by Americans.
While experts don't attribute Africa's growing popularity amongadoptive parents to a celebrity factor, they do say high-profileadoptions by the likes of Madonna and Angelina Jolie have raisedawareness of the availability of orphans on the continent.
"One of the good things about the Madonna adoption or AngelinaJolie, those adoptions brought the need to the attention ofEuropeans or Americans," said Thomas DiFilipo, president of theJoint Council on International Children's Services. "And itbrought the possibility (of adopting in Africa) to people'sattention."
Wes Stout, 41, who with his wife, Kristin, 37, has adopted twochildren from Ethiopia, agrees.
"I give some of the popularity of Ethiopia to her celebrityinfluence," he said of Jolie, whose daughter, Zahara, was adoptedfrom the north African country in 2005, the same year the Stoutsadopted their daughter, 3-year-old Kylia.
At that time, the Stouts' wait was less than a year. When theybrought their son, 9-month-old Solomon, home six weeks ago, it wasafter an adoption process that took two years.
And, "while in the end the need is great, for most people whoadopt, they are not just adopting to save a life," he said. "Theyare adopting to start a family and that's an important point."
Rich foreigners have been adopting children from poorer nationsfor decades. Mia Farrow, now the mother of 14, began adoptingchildren from Asia in 1973, with an orphan from the Vietnam War. Inaddition to her daughter Zahara, Jolie adopted her sons Maddox andPax from Cambodia and Vietnam.
But critics have slammed Madonna's efforts to adopt a secondchild from Malawi this week, accusing her of acting like a rich"bully" and using her money and status to fast-track the adoptionprocess. On Tuesday, Madonna insisted she was following standardprocedures.
Many adoption agencies and child rights activists also argue itis preferable for children to be taken care of by relatives ortheir communities, with foreign adoptions allowed only as a lastresort.
Others say that isn't always realistic. "Ideally more localadoptions would be best, but people aren't coming forward and iflife is better out there then they should take it," said ZoeCohen, a private adoption consultant in South Africa.
And while adoptions from Africa have risen, the continent stillaccounts for only about 14 percent of overseas adoptions byAmericans. According to the State Department, 2,399 visas wereissued to African children adopted by Americans last year, out of17,438 adoptions from abroad.
Adoptions overseas have plummeted overall in the U.S., dropping12 percent last year to the lowest level since 1999. That's due todevelopments in China, Russia, Guatemala and other longtime sourcesof orphans that have reduced the number of foreign adoptions.
China accounted for the biggest decline, dropping out of the topspot last year. It was replaced by Guatemala, which almostcertainly will lose that status in 2009 because of a freeze on newadoptions imposed because of fraud allegations.
Elsewhere in the West, adoptions from Africa have grown, notablyin France, where the continent accounted for nearly a third of the3,271 overseas adoptions last year. By comparison, only a handfulof African children were adopted in Britain in 2007, the last yearstatistics were available. Most youngsters came from Ethiopia andNigeria -- seven from Ethiopia and six from Nigeria.
Orphans usually are taken in by their extended families inAfrica, but AIDS and other diseases have taken a toll on those whomight have traditionally provided support. In villages across thecontinent, frail elderly grandmothers do their best to care forchildren, but many end up in orphanages or on the streets.
The United Nations estimates 18 million African children willhave lost a parent to AIDS by 2010.
Simon Chisale, the Malawian official handling Madonna'sadoptions, said outsiders are being considered as adoptive parentsbecause traditional family structures have broken down.
"Times have changed," he said. "It used to be simpler but nowit is more difficult. People have the heart (to look after theirextended families) but the means are not there."
Malawi, with a population of 12 million, is among the poorestcountries in the world, with rampant disease and hunger, aggravatedby periodic droughts and crop failure. The U.N. says 1 millionMalawian children have lost one or both parents, about half of themto AIDS.
In the face of such problems, experts say few African countriesare going to turn down help from well-meaning rich foreigners.Madonna's Raising Malawi charity, for example, is buildingwell-equipped schools.
DiFilipo, whose agency works to help shape adoption policy,warns that adoptions by foreigners can have unintendedconsequences. For instance, wealthy foreigners often make donationsto the orphanages where they find their children, leadingorphanages to look for foreign placements because they needdonations.
But, DiFilipo said, the solution is not to stop foreignadoptions but to strengthen laws and education. He cited Malawi asan example.
Malawian regulations now require prospective parents to beresident in the country for 18 to 24 months, during which timewelfare officials assess their suitability -- a rule that was bentwhen Madonna was allowed to take her adopted son, David, to Londonin 2006 before his adoption was finalized.
A draft children's law, expected to be enacted later this year,seeks to address shortcomings in the current legislation, includingsetting limits on how many children an individual can adopt fromMalawi and the interval between each adoption.
A clear legal framework making adoption relatively easy is oneof the reasons cited for the adoption boom in Ethiopia, where thereare 800,000 AIDS orphans. Ethiopia also allows unmarried women toadopt children.
Chisale said there has been a slight increase in interest inadopting children from Malawi, mainly among the many internationalaid workers there.
He could not provide numbers and was reluctant to attribute thisto attention drawn by Madonna's case, but couldn't deny theenormous influence the star has had.
"Madonna has put Malawi on the map," he said.