The controversy surrounding the attempt by Madonna to adopt a second child from an orphanage in Malawi brings to light the confusing situation in international adoption. On Friday, a judge in that nation rejected the singer's adoption request on the grounds that waiving an 18-month residency requirement would set a dangerous precedent. Madonna was granted such an exemption when she adopted a Malawian boy in 2006.
This is just another example of how the intricacies of each country's legal system, cultural mores and poverty level intersect with the guidelines of The Hague treaty on intercountry adoptions.
The result has been a decline in the number of orphans from developing countries being adopted by Americans. While adoptions become harder, the number of orphans grows, especially in Africa because of the tragedy of the AIDS crisis. Malawi has an estimated 1 million orphans, and untold numbers of orphans languish in other African countries as well as in Romania, Russia, China and Latin America.
In addition to the systemic impediments, there is a rising attitude of nationalism, which holds that children born in a country "belong" to that country and should not be adopted by foreigners. This stance is a form of modern-day slavery, which in effect holds individuals hostage to nebulous ideas of culture and race. The needs of human infants and children are universal and have no relationship to what country, racial group or political system one is born into. These orphaned children do not have a voice and are therefore used as political, financial and cultural pawns.
Research led by Charles H. Zeanah Jr. of Tulane University and Charles A. Nelson III of Harvard University and Children's Hospital in Boston and published in 2007 found that institutionalization of children results in serious adverse affects on IQ. Each day spent in an orphanage compromises the individual's long-term quality of life and exposes him or her to disease, malnutrition and severe neglect.
There is no legitimate rationale for keeping a child in an orphanage when a viable alternative exists, and yet the wait times for adoptive parents have been growing in many countries -- with adoptions from China, for example, now taking up to three years to complete. Among the Chinese regulations is one that an adoptive parent cannot have a body mass index above a certain level. Perhaps a new study could compare those raised in orphanages with those raised by overweight people, just to make sure the priorities are correct.
The concerns about Madonna's latest adoption request seem to focus on such superficial aspects as what she was wearing when she toured the orphanage, her wealth, her race and her celebrity. What difference could these things make when weighed against the reality of the life the little girl she sought to adopt might face if left in the orphanage?
The questions that should be asked -- "Does a viable alternative to the orphanage exist for this little girl in Malawi, and does it exist now? Is there someone there who is willing and able to give her the love and care that is needed by all children?" -- are subsumed by ridiculous snarking about clothes and statements about what Madonna "should" do instead of adopting this child.
Meanwhile, a flesh-and-blood child waits for someone to come to his or her senses and consider her legitimate and immediate needs.
In discussing the findings of the study by Zeanah and Nelson, Seth Pollak of the University of Wisconsin noted, "The evidence seems to say that for humans, we need a lot of responsive care-giving, an adult who recognizes our distinct cry and knows when we're hungry or in pain."
Notwithstanding the fact that it has taken centuries of human evolution and a multi-university study to come to such a no-brainer conclusion, it is heartening that the need for love and care is now being acknowledged as the preeminent issue when making decisions about what is best for an individual child.
The vast numbers of orphans suggest that adoption will only be the answer for a small minority of individuals, and for those individuals it is a blessing. But it is clear that the institutionalization of children must end and a new system must take its place. And that will happen only by honest discussion of the true realities of life lived by a child in an orphanage today.