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Madonna’s Adoption Critics: Worth a Closer Look

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Madonna’s decision to adopt a second child in Malawi has met with some criticism predominantly from one outspoken organization, Save the Children.  One cannot help but wonder what the true motives of Save the Children are when the solutions that Save the Children offers are self-serving, highly simplistic and sometimes simply false.   In my opinion, Save the Children is using Madonna’s adoption as a platform to push its brand of humanitarian assistance and economic aid which some outspoken critics have described at worst as a “con game” and at best as simply “not delivering” and which are discussed further on.

Dominic Nutt, spokesman for Save the Children UK, who was interviewed by CNN’s Kiran Chetry, last Monday on “American Morning” made several statements which deserve particular attention because these statements were either misleading or misguided.  I would like to respond to several of them.  Mr. Nutt stated:  “Well, our biggest concern is that we believe that in the most — in the majority of cases, orphans, so-called orphans, in fact [are] not orphans — they have at least one parent living — and even those that don’t, have a wider family that can look after them.  And we believe that children in poverty should be best looked after by their own people in their own environment.  And that people like Madonna and organizations like Save the Children are best off helping those families by building schools and supporting them to look after these so-called orphans and not transporting them to live across the world in mansions, in pop stars’ mansions, that sort of thing.”  As an attorney and adoption advocate for the last decade, the multitude of weaknesses and falsities expressed  by  Mr. Nutt’s argument against adoption need to be carefully scrutinized.

Let’s begin with Mr. Nutt’s statement, “Well, our biggest concern is that we believe that in the most — in the majority of cases, orphans, so-called orphans, in fact [are] not orphans — they have at least one parent living — and even those that don’t, have a wider family that can look after them.”  For those who are not well versed in laws related to orphan status one could easily be misled into thinking that the child Madonna plans to adopt is not in fact an orphan.   It appears that Mr. Nutt is simply ignorant of laws surrounding the definition of ”orphan” or he or the organization he speaks for, Save the Children , are seeking to redefine  orphan status and require that “real” orphans have two deceased parents.   U.S. law and I would dare say the laws of most, if not all, nations in the world do not require both parents to be deceased before a child is considered a “real” orphan.  Under U.S. immigration law, an orphan is a foreign child who does not have any parents because of the death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents.  An orphan can also be defined as a child with a sole or surviving parent who is unable to provide for the child’s basic needs, consistent with the local standards of the foreign sending country, and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption.  Mr. Nutt would do well to get his fact straight on the definition of an orphan.

Mr. Nutt goes on to state: “…and we believe that children in poverty should be best looked after by their own people in their own environment.  And that people like Madonna and organizations like Save the Children are best off helping those families by building schools and supporting them to look after these so-called orphans and not transporting them to live across the world in mansions, in pop stars’ mansions, that sort of thing.”   This position besides beingy self-serving  also belies the brutal realities that many orphaned children face in Africa and around the world.  Of course, few would argue that children should be given the opportunity to remain in their countries and be cared for by their people; however, that is all too often not a possibility for these children.  Every child deserves a loving, stable, permanent home.  That is a basic tenet of human rights and of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Children, an international treaty designed to protect the best interests of children as its title states.  Unfortunately, the international development community including private volunteer organizations such as Save the Children have been ineffective in making a difference and in a country such as Malawi in which 25% of the population is infected with HIV-AIDS with an estimated 1 million  plus orphaned children exists, to take such a stance on international adoption is simply ludicrous.  It would appear from Mr. Nutt’s statements that  Save the Children believes that the best interests of a child would be growing up in an orphanage rather than in a loving home with a loving family that a child can call his or her own.  Of course, international adoption should be a last resort if a child’s family is unable or unwilling to care for the child.  Once that is established, then adoption can be a solution for that particular child.  International adoption should not be taken lightly by the prospective adoptive parent(s) or the adoption officials in the child’s home country but Mr. Nutt’s broad and incredibly simplistic argument simply washes over the emergency situation that exists in Malawi and other countries with respect to orphaned children.

Michael Maren in his eye-opening book, The Road to Hell, discusses Save the Children’s sponsorship program:

“The organization pioneered this fundraising technique with Appalachian children in the 1930s. It has since been adopted by dozens of other charities around the world. (World Vision, Children Incorporated, Childreach, Plan International, and others use sponsorship.) As a way to raise money it is unparalleled. Sponsorship links the donor directly to a needy sad-eyed target of the charity’s work, rather than to a faceless fund-raiser at the end of a solicitation letter. The charity’s bureaucracy becomes invisible. The sponsor feels connected to an actual person and will believe that his or her money, or most of it, will be going to help that child.

But sponsorship is a con game. And as in any con game, the mark, in this case the sponsor is duped into believing the improbable because his or her judgment is clouded by the possibility of getting something valuable on the cheap. Anyone thinking clearly about the miserable poverty of the children in these ads would have to conclude that twenty dollars a month, sixty-five cents a day, is not by itself enough to substantially alter the oppressive environments they inhabit — especially since much of that money has to be used to pay for more TV ads, cover the costs of the charity’s bureaucracy, and maintain the links between Save’s more than 100,000 individual sponsors and their children. What sponsors are really buying, is, as stated in Save’s brochures, a sense of well-being and “deep satisfaction.” That’s a real bargain at $20 a month, but it doesn’t leave much for the children. The pitch that is so appealing to donors, seems absurd when one is in the field confronting the challenges of economic development. And it puts Save in a bind: If they ignore some of the sponsored children, they can do more effective work for the others. If they try to do something for everyone, they run the risk of accomplishing nothing at all. Its commitment to sponsors clashes with its promise to the children.”

Michael Maren’s chapter on Save the Children goes on to discuss a meeting he had with Shelby Miller who is a recognized authority in the field of early childhood development.  For six years she had been a program officer for the Ford Foundation, supervising grants made to Save the Children. Maren reports: “Miller’s anger with Save the Children is not over the duping of sponsors. It comes from two types of damage she sees the organization doing in the field of childhood development. First, at a time when funds are in short supply, Save is spending money to create the illusion that it’s helping. And secondly, Save is spreading the idea that it’s easy and cheap to change the lives of children. ‘We know how to help kids,” Miller said. “We do. The models and methods are there. The fact is that i[t} cost[s] $4,000-5,000 a year for a preschool intervention. The research has been done. With very few exceptions, Save isn’t delivering. Their approach to development work is totally scattershot. The problem with Save is that they’re wasting resources and goodwill, and they’re doing it in the name of children.’”

Mr. Nutt  during his CNN interview states:  “But we know from our case studies in working in Liberian orphanages that in many cases, these children are [picked] off the Internet, without much research going on, and sometimes it doesn’t work out, and the children can be sent back to their own country. And all that has happened is that that child’s life has been messed around with.”  As someone who has worked with adoptions in Liberia and represented clients in problem cases involving Liberian adoptions, I can certainly speak to this issue.   Mr. Nutt’s assessment is correct about  families adoption children “without much research going on.”  This is not just the fault of families failing to do their research.  Unfortunately, many Christian and other volunteer organizations that are neither licensed as child placement agencies nor directed by credentialed professionals provide adoption facilitation services that often end in disaster for both the children and the adoptive parents.  Their lack of expertise, their failure to educate and  counsel these adoptive families on the realities of adopting children from abroad often result in hardships for the families and the adopted children.  Some of the organizations that are facilitating these adoptions lack expertise at best, employ sub standard and negligent adoption practices, and at worst engage in fraud and misrepresentation about the children, their backgrounds, their family and health status.  Parents seeking to adopt these children are too often exploited by these  “humanitarian” organizations.  There is no question that there is work to be done in international adoption; however, the realities that exist for many of these children living in orphanages in Africa are beyond comprehension.  Adoption, when done properly, is a wonderful solution for many orphaned children.   Mr. Nutt presents a neat and clean picture of building schools and assisting these children in their home countries which belies a reality that is much different.  One can look at the situation with the school Oprah Winfrey has founded, funded with millions of dollars, and worked tirelessly to build which has now had another alleged sexual abuse scandal of some of its students.  If one sees this happening in an environment so well funded and undoubtedly well staffed as that of Oprah’s school, one needs a modicum of imagination to understand the harsh realities faced by many children in grossly underfunded, understaffed orphanages throughout Africa.   Sadly, I am aware of situations occurring in some orphanages that are so horrific that it is difficult to imagine such atrocities occurring in the midst of children and sometimes at the hands of children.   These children deserve better than that.  The plight of the children who live in these environments must be resolved as quickly as possible and by as many means as possible. 

Mr. Nutt indicated, “Now, look … something like 10 million children a year die across the world because of poverty before the age of 5. You cannot possibly help all those children by moving them.”  They must make sure there is no family network to support them, and if they don’t help that child, that child is in peril. The life of that child is in peril. Otherwise … you are better off supporting that child in its own environment.’  Firstly, I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that adoption will help all these children  – it is a solution for some.  Adoption is but one cog in the wheel of temporary solutions for a world plagued by poverty, human rights abuses, exploitation of women and dying children.  Secondly, once again, Save the Children adds a further condition to a child who is eligible for adoption, i.e., “the life of the child is in peril.”   What is peril?  Must an orphaned child be on the verge of death to be eligible for adoption?  How about suffering from sexual abuse?  Just what is “peril”?  The child may not be dying but the atrocities that occur will surely kill the child’s soul.   Save the Children is not shedding light on the often deplorable orphanage conditions these children must endure.  Save the Children is doing a great disservice to the plight of so many orphaned children not only in their public relations battle against international adoption but in their own work.

An article appeared in Vanity Fair in July 2007 by Nina Munk, Jeffrey Sachs’s $200 Billion Dream in which she states: “…if you spend enough time with Sachs, as I have, you may come around to his point of view:  if the history of international development is a history of failure, it is because too many people in the field are complacent, or incompetent, or not accountable.” 

I can certainly relate to Mr. Sach’s point of view from firsthand experience.  During my visit to Liberia at the end of 2007, in the two weeks I was there, I never once ran into another white person in the streets except when I was being splashed by mud as they sped by their white Range Rovers hurrying off to some place which I soon discovered may be the local casino on Mamba Point in Monrovia where at just about any time of the day one could find dozens and dozens of White Range Rovers with insignias of various governmental and NGO’s parked outside – it was quite a sight.

Mr. Nutt of Save the Children would better serve the children he and his organization professes to care about by openly discussing the plight of  many of the children of these African nations and his NGO’s projects that need support rather than attempting, if ever so solicitously, to criticize the adoption plans of Madonna. 

Save the Children’s efficacy, honesty, and motives are certainly in need of serious evaluation but unfortunately rarely undergo the scrutiny necessary to uncover their true nature.  Save the Children, like UNICEF, is brilliant when it comes to public relations.  They often use celebrities to represent their work by  inviting them to Africa or other underdeveloped nations, unfold carefully orchestrated projects, expose these celebrities to conditions that indeed will shake the soul of any human being and then parade their humanitarian successes before the celebrity who then becomes their spokesperson going on interviews and touting the amazing good works of the organization.  Sadly, all too often these celebrities are not privy to the realities of these organizations and their shortcomings and all too often, their “con” as Michael Maren so succinctly summarizes the reality of the business of poverty.

Anyone who wants to know more about the  charity business that organizations such as Save the Children are in – after all the “sponsorship” program is a lucrative project  – would do well to read The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity by Michael Maren.
A very enlightening excerpt from the book about Save the Children and its sponsorship program can be found at


Hopefully Madonna’s adoption of her son, David, and possibly a second child, Mercy James, will provide the impetus needed to encourage Malawi to consider adoption as an avenue for more of its orphaned children, and change its laws and policies concerning residency requirements which make Malawi overly restrictive for the vast majority of parents who would otherwise knock on its doors to adopt children.  I, and many others, wish Madonna and her children all the very best that life can offer:  love, family, and hope.

Author:  Candace O’Brien, Esquire