Adopting abroad: Madonna & Child

She went to Africa and chose a baby to mother. So why did the star come home without him?
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The child has been chosen. The private jet is ready to fly him from a life of poverty to one of great comfort. But Madonna is back home from Malawi this weekend without David Banda, the 13-month-old boy she is already calling her son.

Not even a multi-millionaire pop star can short-circuit immigration law. While her fame and money may have speeded up the process in Malawi, British and American officials are less easily impressed. Despite being given custody of the boy, Madonna had to leave Africa without him in the early hours of Friday because an official said that his passport was "still being processed".

She had the right to take him away, thanks to an interim adoption order, but getting him into Britain without a passport would have been impossible. David is expected to join her in London soon. But Madonna cannot raise him as her own in either of the two countries she calls home until officials there say so. That could take two years. And the adoption may yet be delayed in Malawi by children's rights campaigners who will seek a court injunction against it tomorrow, insisting: "You cannot buy a child as if you are buying a house."

There has been outrage at the apparent sight of Madonna flying in, choosing a child and trying to take him away on a whim, but adoption experts here say appearances are deceptive. "I am confident we are not seeing the whole story," said David Holmes of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering.

The American singer and her British husband, Guy Ritchie, appear to be adopting David through the English system. If so they must already have been through the same invasive, emotionally demanding approval process as any other couple. "It is only after you have been approved for adoption here and your papers have been approved over there that you are invited to travel out," said Mr Holmes. Money cannot oil the wheels of the adoption or immigration processes in this country. "There is no way in English law that would work," said Mr Holmes. "The rules are incredibly strict."

That strictness is one reason why the number of children being adopted to this country from abroad is startlingly low - 313 last year, with fewer than five from Africa. The other is that the process can easily take three years and cost £20,000 per child - while improvements to the system here have made it much simpler to adopt British children.

Whoever you are, adopting a foreign child means first getting approval in the country where you spend most of your time. For Madonna this seems to be Britain. She has a £9m mansion in Wiltshire and a £6m townhouse in Marylebone. She also has a home in Beverly Hills and has recently been on a world tour, but while Madonna was being photographed carrying baby David on her back in Africa last week, the paparazzi were snapping her children playing in the street in London.

Going for adoption means an inquisition: lots of awkward and invasive questions about your background and attitudes, beliefs, relationships, health and wealth, and reasons for choosing the foreign country. This Home Study, as social workers call it, must have been one of the most exotic ever. Madonna is worth £248m. Getting it has involved taking her clothes off, simulating sex and upsetting the church at frequent intervals, as well as singing and acting (often badly). Now 48, she has a nine-year-old daughter, Lourdes, by her former fitness instructor Carlos Leon, who was with the child last week while her mother was in Africa. Madonna is now married to Ritchie, director of the violent British gangster film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, who is 10 years younger than she is. They have a six-year-old son Rocco, who was also photographed with Mr Leon last week.

Madonna is the most famous devotee of kabbalah, a modern update of an ancient Jewish mystical creed. Her faith is said to have created tension between the couple. So has the process of getting this baby, not least because Ritchie knows how difficult adoption can be. His mother, Lady Amber Leighton, gave up a baby boy when she was a teenager and kept it secret for a long time. But then he is also said to have made secret trips to Africa to make arrangements. Only the couple and their social worker know the truth.

Whoever has unprecedented access to this stellar pair will have written careful (and presumably envious) notes on the state of the home, or homes (one of which is a stately home). Police checks will have been made, referees interrogated, a report written and sent to the local adoption panel. It all takes about eight months and is so gruelling that most applicants who get this far are approved.

The next step is to choose a country. Malawi is on a designated list held by the Home Office, which means any adoption there is recognised here automatically. But that does not mean there is not a jungle of red tape to cut through before the child comes "home".

Lucy McCarraher has adopted two girls from orphanages in Russia. Victoria in now seven and Julia four. Bringing them to live in Norfolk took Lucy and her husband Richard about five years and cost £40,000, of which nearly half went to the Russian government as fees. "You have to be pretty tenacious," said Lucy. "It is immensely stressful. Nothing happens for weeks on end and there is nothing you can do about it. Then you suddenly get word that unless certain documents are sent by courier to Russia by the end of the day the deal is off." Lucy was helped by a specialist agency and the small network of people who have done this themselves. "They know the right person at the ministry to ring. You couldn't do it without them."

Unless you had a staff like Madonna's, used to negotiating with foreign governments to set up world tours. It must also help if you have something to offer. Thanks to her involvement in her charity Raising Malawi, the world now knows that 14 per cent of that country's population has HIV/Aids and 900,000 orphans need help. The government usually insists that no foreigner can adopt one until they have lived in the country for 18 months. But not this time.

Madonna chose David - or Davie as he is also known - after playing with him at the Home of Hope orphanage in Mchinji, near the border with Zambia. His mother Marita died shortly after giving birth last year. His father, a potato farmer called Yohane Banda, was reported as saying he was happy for his son to be taken abroad and has been told he will visit Malawi regularly to "know his roots". But the boy's uncle, Pofera Banda, said: "We have seen other parents at the mission who had had their children adopted [but they are] still living in poverty. They have not seen their children. All they see is pictures sent to them. We don't want that to happen to this family."

Madonna has always known about symbolism. She has made a fortune out of it, from bondage stage clothes and conical breasts to kissing a black Christ in a video. So it must be assumed that she knew what messages she was sending out by dancing around the orphanage in her crisp white linen clothes with the boy tied to her back in the style of a Malawian mother. It was the familiar image of the wealthy Westerner as rescuer, plucking the sweet child from poverty. But it also angered and appalled people in Africa and elsewhere who are tired of seeing the continent portrayed as a victim, or an orphan who must be taught how to live.

In Malawi the leading children's rights group Eye of the Child is seeking a legal brake on in the adoption, at least until a new law can be introduced to protect children being adopted overseas. "Today it is a celebrity adopting a child," said the group's Maxwell Madewere. "Tomorrow it may be a trafficker seeking to adopt."

A judge granted an interim adoption order on Thursday, but Madonna had a reality check hours later. She and Ritchie reportedly boarded their plane with David only to be told by the pilot that his papers were not in order. Another report said he had no passport.

The jet eventually took off at two in the morning without David, who is believed to be spending the weekend at the luxury lodge Madonna rented during her nine-day stay in Malawi. If and when he does fly on to join her, the process will be far from over. Malawi social workers must prepare a report on the couple, with the help of counterparts here. They will pay special attention to how he is coping with the culture shock of going from an impoverished orphanage to a bewildering world of privilege. His young age will help him. The inevitable media attention will not.

There will be a second court hearing, within two years, but even that will not be the end. Once the adoption has been approved, the entry clearance officer at the nearest British embassy will report to London, taking more time. British officials must be sure that the couple have been approved, the adoption is in the best interests of the child, and nobody is making a profit. Only then can they give him a permanent status.

Madonna will cope. Her organisation is capable of working as inscrutably as any government. For most of her nine-day stay in Malawi, a spokeswoman said she was not there to adopt a child at all. Then she issued a statement on behalf of the couple that called David "their son". But as Lucy McCarraher and anyone who has ever been through the slow, torturous process of adopting overseas knows, there is still a a lot of waiting and hoping to be done before that is really true. Even for Madonna.

How to adopt a child from overseas

1: Investigation

Your home life, relationships, health and wealth are looked at in depth by a social worker. Police checks are made. Personal referees are also interviewed at length.

2: Approval

Interview panels approve 94 per cent of applications that come before them. To get this far requires great commitment, and takes about eight months.

3: Choose a country

If it has signed up to the Hague Convention or is on the Home Office list (such as Malawi), the adoption will be recognised here automatically.

4: Choose a child

Go through the national ministry. Satisfying local legal conditions may mean spending a demanding amount of time or money in the country.

5: Convince the UK embassy

You must prove who the child is, and why he or she is available.

They may be interviewed, and their mental and physical well-being checked.

6: Permission is granted

Eventually. The time and cost vary by country, but the process can easily take three years and cost tens of thousands of pounds.

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