How do you adopt a child in the developing world?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 11 2006 6:51 PM

Madonna and Child, African Edition

How do you adopt a child in the developing world?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

A village chief in Malawi confirmed on Wednesday that Madonna has adopted a local baby from an orphanage. A few days ago, gossip pages in the United Kingdom reported that husband Guy Ritchie's family was "very concerned Madonna wants an African baby as a celebrity status symbol, like Angelina Jolie." (Jolie has adopted children from Cambodia and Ethiopia.) How do you adopt a child in Africa?

Work it out with the local government. Some African countries make this easier than others. Ethiopia, where Jolie adopted Zahara Marley, has a fairly straightforward system that doesn't even require travel to the continent. To adopt in Ethiopia, you usually have to be married and heterosexual. If you're single, you must be at least 25 years old. American applicants must work with one of seven licensed agencies and have to submit an extensive dossier that includes letters of reference and a written statement translated into Amharic.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate


Ethiopia was the seventh most popular source for overseas adoptions in 2005, according to a list compiled by the State Department. (China, Russia, Guatemala, and South Korea have topped the charts for the last decade, supplying about three-quarters of the 23,000 babies brought into the United States.) By comparison, adoptions from Malawi are very, very rare—only seven visas have been issued to adopted Malawian babies since 2001.

Those low numbers reflect the fact that only residents of Malawi can adopt a child there, and each adoption must be preceded by a two-year period of foster care. The Malawian government bent the rules for Madonna due to her celebrity status and because she's pledged several million dollars in aid for the country's orphans. The Malawian authorities presented Madonna with 12 orphan boys and let her pick the one she wanted. Though she's being allowed to take the child home without first residing in the country, the government will still require the foster care "trial period" before they make the adoption official.

Once you've worked out an adoption with a local government, you have to clear it back in your home country. In the United States, you can apply for a visa only if your adopted child is under 16 years old and an orphan. (Under certain circumstances the age limit goes up to 18.) A child's parents don't have to be dead or missing to be declared an "orphan"; a single parent can designate his child an orphan in writing if he or she doesn't have enough money to care for her.

The United States requires its own dossier, which includes a "home study" of the adoptive parents. For the home study, a social worker interviews the applicants and surveys their living conditions. All adoptive parents must also undergo fingerprinting and background checks. Meanwhile, the orphan must receive medical clearance from a U.S.-approved physician. Several conditions could affect her chances of getting a visa, like syphilis, active tuberculosis, insanity, or "sexual deviation."

Bonus Explainer: What about adopting babies from continents other than Africa? The Explainer checked the requirements at a few off-the-beaten-path destinations. Iran allows adoption only by Iranian citizens, and Muslim and Christian babies must be placed with parents of the same religion. Other Muslim countries, like Syria, forbid adoption of Muslim children altogether. (You can try to adopt a Christian kid from Syria, but it's not easy.) Don't try Venezuela, either—they won't accept American parents until the United States finishes implementing the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 22 2014 8:07 AM Why Haven’t the Philadelphia Eagles Ever Won a Super Bowl?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.