The Big Question: Is it exploitation to adopt children from the developing world?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this question now?

Madonna, the American celebrity with a talent for re-inventing herself, was reported yesterday to have flown by private jet to Malawi, the southern African country ravaged by Aids, and adopted an orphan. Malawi government officials were quoted as saying that the 48-year-old singer had chosen a one-year-old boy from among 12 children specially picked out prior to her arrival.

The pop star, worth an estimated £248m, was in Malawi to visit the Raising Malawi centre in a village 30 miles outside the capital, Lilongwe, which she is supporting. The centre provides food and schooling for Aids orphans. The story was later denied by a spokeswoman for Madonna who described it as "completely inaccurate". That did not stop it making the front pages of yesterday's newspapers and reopening the debate on international adoption.

How many children are being adopted from abroad?

Not as many as it seems. Several celebrities have gone to the ends of the earth to find a child, attracting publicity in their wake, which has given a distorted impression of the amount of activity. Meg Ryan adopted a baby girl in China last January, and Ewan Macgregor and his wife, Eve Mavrakis, adopted a four-year-old girl from Mongolia earlier this year. Angelina Jolie, adopted four-year-old Maddox from Cambodia and one-year-old Zahara from Ethiopia.

But, in the UK, just 313 children, in total, were adopted from countries overseas last year, less than 10 per cent of the 3,800 adopted at home. Many thousands more are awaiting adoption in the UK, with foster parents and in children's homes, but cannot find parents willing to take them.

Is it right for a white, wealthy woman to adopt a poor black baby?

Some people object to the practice of wealthy westerners landing in a destitute country, selecting one child and departing again, smugly congratulating themselves on their charitable act. They say it is tokenism, which is divisive, distracts attention from the real problems and makes finding real solutions harder. Others argue that to help one is better than to help none.

Whether white parents should be allowed to adopt black children is one of the most emotive issues in child care and has inflamed passions for decades. In this country, adoption agencies say it is best to place a child in a family of the same ethnic background because they can provide the child with a role model and are best placed to teach them about their ethnic heritage and culture.

But there is a shortage of black and Asian parents willing to adopt. Most social workers accept that it is better for a child to be placed with a loving family, of whatever colour, than to languish in care. But some have argued that too little effort has been made to recruit black families - and only a ban on transracial adoption will galvanise the relevant agencies.

Why adopt from abroad?

Different couples have different motives. In some, it is an act of charity that, as reported in Madonna's case (until her spokesperson's denial), seals their link with the country. It is a way of helping a suffering people. Media coverage of the harrowing conditions in Romanian orphanages more than a decade ago broke hearts and opened wallets, kicking off the international adoption bonanza. It is estimated 30,000 Romanian orphans were adopted abroad in the 10 years to 2005.

Other couples are driven by the desire for a baby, and babies are in short supply in the west. The average age of the children available for adoption in the UK is four years and two months. By the time they get to this age they will likely have experienced the breakdown of their natural family and been through several foster families. They may be emotionally damaged or physically disabled - not the innocent, unformed babies of whom parents dream.

Are babies for adoption easier to find in other countries?

Yes. Half of the 300 adopted by UK parents each year are from China, where the one-child-per-family policy has resulted in orphanages filled with abandoned children, mostly girls. In the poorer countries of Asia and Africa, many families struggle to feed their children, and some accept that the best chance for their children is to find a better-off family. In sub-Saharan Africa, there are millions of children who have been orphaned by Aids.

Does this increase the risk of child trafficking?

Some countries, including Malawi, ban adoptions by non-residents (government officials claimed they had waived this requirement in Madonna's case). In Romania, a key source of children for Western couples since the fall of communism in 1990, adoption by foreigners was banned in 2005. The EU insisted on the reform as part of Romania's bid to join the EU.

The problem arose from a 1997 law that allowed foreign adoption agencies working in Romania to earn points by investing in regional services which could then be used to "buy" babies. Specialists said it amounted to a "baby trafficking charter". In 2000, more than 3,000 babies were sent abroad at a cost of up to $55,000 (£30,000) a child.

Are there controls on international adoption?

If Madonna were to adopt, she would find it easier in the US, the country of her birth rather than the UK, the country of her husband, Guy Ritchie's, birth. Couples from this country must go through the same rigorous assessment of their background, relationship and financial status as they would do to adopt in the UK, with one key difference - for an international adoption they must pay the full cost.

On top of this, there are legal costs, travel and accommodation and, often, "voluntary" donations to the organisation supplying the child. In China, these donations average $3,000 (£1,500). The total cost of adopting a child from abroad thus runs into thousands of pounds.

Should adoption from abroad be banned?

No, say the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. Many children have benefited enormously from overseas adoption and it would be wrong to condemn it. But there are thousands of children in the UK who are in local authority care and need adopting now, to give them the security of their own family and a safe stable home.

Adopting an older child in the UK may be challenging, especially if they have come from an abusive background. But adopting a child from overseas presents a different set of challenges which require equally sensitive handling.

For prospective adopters, the decision concerns the needs of their individual families. For the adoption agencies, the priority is always the needs of the child. They want reassurance that any child brought to this country from overseas will have, in addition to a loving home, support to develop their ethnic identity.

Are foreign adoptions unfair on the children?

Yes...

* Prospective western adopters are motivated by a desire for a baby, not to relieve suffering

* Removing one child to a better life in the West does nothing for those who are left behind

* A white parent cannot provide an adequate role model for a black child

No...

* Those lucky enough to be adopted have their lives transformed for the better, and it is better to help one than none

* With sensitive parenting, it is possible to give a child of any background a sense of its ethnic identity

* Parents who adopt abroad should not be stigmatised for wanting a baby rather than an older child

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