Madonna's Overseas Adoption Challenges Not Uncommon

Recent news that music icon Madonna was denied her request to adopt a second child from the African country of Malawi sparked a larger discussion about overseas adoptions. Tracey Neale, a former TV news anchor who adopted twins from Ethiopia, and Deborah George, a radio producer and mother of an adopted daughter from Sierra Leone, discuss the difficulties of adopting children from overseas.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today we want to talk about international adoption. The issue is in the news again after pop singer Madonna's effort to adopt a second child from Malawi was rejected by a judge last week.

She had been hoping to adopt a sibling from the same background as her son, whom she adopted in 2006. She's appealing the court's decision, which apparently hinged on the requirement that the adoptive family live in the country for 18 to 24 months.

So we decided to speak with other parents who've also navigated the waters of adopting children from Africa. They're here with me in our Washington studio to share their experiences. I'd like to welcome Deborah George. She's a freelance radio producer. She's worked with us on this program. She adopted her daughter from Sierra Leone.

And Tracey Neale is a former local television news anchor. She adopted her twins from Ethiopia. Welcome to you both. Thank you for coming.

Ms. DEBORAH GEORGE (Radio Producer): Hi, Michel.

Ms. TRACEY NEAL (Former News Anchor): Hi. Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Deborah, you filed actually a piece for NPR about adopting your daughter in Sierra Leone, and I'd like to play a short clip.

(Soundbite of NPR program)

Ms. GEORGE: The little girls' longing seized my heart. She was way too young to have her dreams be over, and out of all the children I'd met I thought this one could make up for the lost time. She could have her childhood back. Together we could defeat war itself.

MARTIN: Take us back, Deborah. How did you meet your daughter, and what was the war that was stealing all these children's childhoods?

Ms. GEORGE: Okay. The war in Sierra Leone had been going on since 1991, and on this trip - I had been there earlier a couple of times - but on this trip it was beginning to wind down. The rebels were in negotiations with the government.

MARTIN: And this was a particularly vicious conflict. Anybody who covered it saw a tremendous amount of suffering. There was a tremendous amount of carnage visited upon the civilian population. I think that's pretty well-documented. You obviously saw a very great deal in the course of covering this. What do you think it was about this little girl that touched you?

Ms. GEORGE: I was at a center for war-affected children, and I had asked to speak to a number of girls, as well as boys, but they were being brought to me one by one.

And these were all children who had been abducted by the rebels, and some of them had been released during negotiations, but a lot of them had run away. But it's unusual for a girl to have run away.

And this little girl was, she was angry, and she wanted to tell her story.

MARTIN: But what was it that made you want to bring her home?

Ms. GEORGE: I didn't at first. I was standing outside, you know, waiting for my ride to pick me up and go back home when it started raining, and she ran out, and she had this big old umbrella, and she held it over my head, and she put her hand in mine. And we just waited there.

And as I left, as I was being driven away, I stared at her out the window, and I just couldn't get her out of my mind.

MARTIN: You fell in love.

Ms. GEORGE: I fell in love, and when I got back to the States - it wasn't until I got back to the States that I sent her picture to a friend and asked him to go find her, and he did.

MARTIN: Tracey, as I understand it, you initially tried to adopt a child in South Africa. Do I have that right?

Ms. NEALE: Yeah, and can I tell you, when she said she fell in love, I know that feeling. I too was sent to cover a story about the AIDS and orphan crisis. This was many years ago. I was sent by Fox News to cover the story.

I walked into an orphanage in South Africa, just outside of Johannesburg, and I felt this little tug on my skirt, and I looked down and this little girl looked up at me and she opened her arms and she said, Momma.

She pulled me down to the floor. She climbed in my lap, climbed into my heart, and I knew in that moment - I didn't say anything out loud - but boy, inside I said this little girl is my daughter.

And what I didn't know is that all the children in that orphanage were dying of AIDS, and the other thing that I did not know is that the children were there not to be adopted, but they were left there. They had been deemed by the government to be unadoptable.

MARTIN: Can I just interrupt. Why was she deemed unadoptable? Was it because South Africa wouldn't let her go, or was it because the U.S. wouldn't let her in?

Ms. NEALE: It was a combination of the two back then. But South Africa had said that children who had full-blown AIDS could not be adopted, and she fell into that category.

MARTIN: How long was it before you realized that you were not going to be allowed to bring her home?

Ms. NEALE: At the orphanage, they told me that these children were not up for adoption, but I didn't believe it. I was like okay, fine, say what you want to, but I'm going to figure out a way to do it. And then it was probably over the course of the next six months that I realized that, boy, this is a much bigger issue than anything that I'm probably going to be able to fight, although I didn't give up. Over the course of the next year, I still said, well, even though I was turned down, I said I'm still going to try to do this. And it just turned out, you know, she died in the process, and, you know, there was just nothing I could do. It was…

MARTIN: How awful.

Ms. NEALE: Yeah, it was awful. It was heartbreaking, and it just, you know, for the next…

MARTIN: And your eyes are still showing that…

Ms. NEALE: Yeah.

MARTIN: …pain right now. I just want to say it, though not to belabor the point, but you're obviously still experiencing the pain of…

Ms. NEALE: Yeah.

MARTIN: …that loss.

Ms. NEALE: Yeah.

MARTIN: But how, then, were you able to, or did you then turn your attention to Ethiopia, where you were able to bring your twins home? How did that happen?

Ms. NEALE: It took many years of healing, and that's why I started an orphan's organization called Veronica's Story, because I want to tell her story and for her young life to have some meaning. And it was actually through wanting to grow this orphans organization that I started looking into Northern Africa, because it was an area where we hadn't worked. And that's when I started getting the feelings again that maybe it was time, it was time for me to try.

MARTIN: Deb, tell us about some of the administrative hurdles that you had to overcome in order to bring your daughter home. And as I understand it, as a journalist, you actually reported out some of these - and you feel that some of these are justified. They're not cultural defensiveness, for example.

Ms. GEORGE: Yes, yes. Right. Right. And I want to say part of it is that I had read a story in the Washington Post about some children from Sierra Leone, they had had their hands cut off by the rebels, which was a common thing that they did, even to very young children. And then in this article, it said every time they heard the name Sierra Leone mentioned, they would burst into tears.

And I thought that's terrible, and I don't want to do that to a child. And I think that a country that has been through 11 years of war, they experienced it communally and maybe they need to heal communally as well, and so I thought maybe it would be best to leave her there and let her heal with the entire country.

MARTIN: So what made you decide to start this - it turned out to be a pretty long process.

Ms. GEORGE: I had put her in a boarding school, a wonderful place called the Harford School run by a wonderful woman, Lucretia Sheriff, who had reopened the school after the war ended. But at some point, Andrew - my friend's name. He's a Sierra Leonean journalist. He said, Deborah, he said, this is all very well and good, but you know she's living rough here and she needs a mother.

MARTIN: Do you think that you hesitated in part because you're white?

Ms. GEORGE: Yes. Yes. In part because - not so much because I'm white, but because I'm Western. And some of the groups that are criticizing, you know, Madonna's decision now say that it's wrong to take a child away from its cultural heritage and ethnic heritage and religious heritage. And those are things that I did think long and hard about, because identity's also very important to me, as well. And I thought, maybe it's not right to do that.

She exists in a very communal culture. There are people around her. Bring her to a place that has some values that I don't even think are good, you know, rampant materialism and focus on the individual. So I thought long and hard about those things, and they were important to me.

MARTIN: And what tipped your balance to deciding, yes, I'm going to do this?

Ms. GEORGE: Her personality. I come from a family of immigrants, and so I know, you know, many people who have made the decision to leave - to leave the homeland and go to a different place. And some of them came and never looked back. And I know that some of them, like my grandmother, for instance, who just died a few years before, so she was very much on her mind, that all of her life - she was 104 when she died - all of her life, she had longed for her village.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with two parents about their experience with international adoption out of Africa: Deborah George and Tracey Neale. They both happen to be journalists. Tracey, just tell me a little bit about, administratively, what are some of the things that you have to do?

Ms. NEALE: Well, for me, in terms of adopting the twins, this has been a very long process and it is not over yet. The twins are two, and this process has been going on for three years. Okay? So it started a year before the twins were born. I started the process not even knowing which children would be adopted, and we are still trying to work out, on this end of things here in the United States, their U.S. passports and their birth certificates. They're saying that they had a foreign birth. So it's not over yet. Just in August, we got their U.S. adoption done.

MARTIN: Deb, how about you? One of the things I found fascinating is you had to - there was some sort of a sex trafficking investigation. Tell me about that. (unintelligible)

Ms. GEORGE: It was not really sex trafficking, but child trafficking investigation.

MARTIN: A child trafficking investigation. That's not aimed at you. That's just a standard procedure. Tell me about that.

Ms. GEORGE: A standard procedure. It was very difficult to figure out what steps to take first. No one really seemed to know. And the State Department didn't even seem to know, because Sierra Leone was coming through a war and the justice system was just starting to reconstitute itself. There were very few answers to the questions I had, so I contacted an adoption agency here in the States, and they conducted a home study just to get me certified, because that's the first step.

Not so much bureaucratic hurdles, but there were all kinds of hurdles. For example, one day, we needed to get a paper certified in a hurry. and so we went to this government office, and they had electric typewriters, but there was no electricity that day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GEORGE: And they insisted that the document had to be typed. So there was a generator nearby, so we arranged for someone to come, start up the generator so that the electric typewriter could work and it took all day. And I was sweating bullets, you know, hoping that this was going to happen in time. But those were the kind of hurdles.

MARTIN: What would you say to the obvious argument? On the U.S. side, there are those who would say, well, you know, there are plenty of children in need in the United States who could benefit from a loving and functional home. I mean, I have just to say, nobody has the right to tell you who to love, but there's always that question. Just how do you answer that?

Ms. NEALE: It's tough. I mean, there are vulnerable children who need love here and there and across the street and across the world. And it just so happened that it's these children, and maybe next time it will be somebody who's here in Washington or here in the United States. It just so happened to be that in this case, these are the children that we happened to end up adopting and bringing into our homes. It just so happened that our life journey took us down this path.

MARTIN: I'm curious how you react to the whole Madonna discussion. And then, of course, then there's Angelina Jolie. And when you see these stories, do you feel something, Deb?

Ms. GEORGE: I do you find some elements of the story very strange. You hear about her arriving and leaving in her private jet. I think to myself if the requirement for the legal adoption is that she resides in the country for 24 months, she can certainly fly in and out to do her work. I think I would have been willing to do that. At one point, I thought if I need to, I'll go there. I'll stay there.

MARTIN: What about you, Tracey? Do you have any feelings about these stories?

Ms. NEALE: Yeah. I kind of feel like maybe there was no mercy for the little girl that she wanted to adopt because languishing in an orphanage, you know, you're not going to have the same opportunities as you would with a mother who bathes you and reads you stories at night and gives you the food that you need and the quality, you know, education that you might have. And no, I'd have no idea what kind of mother she would make. I don't know her. I've never met her. But at the same time, you know, I just wonder if that child is going to have the same opportunities to have with, you know, a mother - whether it's Madonna or anybody else. I just wonder if the court, you know, maybe made the right decision. I don't know.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Deb.

Ms. GEORGE: I want to get back to the trafficking investigation, because I think that's part of certain country's reluctance to bend the rules for people who want to adopt. I looked up some stuff that I had gathered when I was in the process, and this is a story about a trafficking ring that was broken up in Sierra Leone, and this was maybe the year before I was doing my official adoption of her, and they found these two men who had gone to villages and talked to destitute parents and told them we'll take your child to a white man's country and give them a good education, and you'll see them again.

And so parents gave up their children. And it was later found out - there were 29 children in this case that this had happened to. And I think some of them were already in the U.S., and it was found that they did have parents.

MARTIN: So…

Ms. GEORGE: They did have at least one parent.

MARTIN: What if parents just do want their children to be raised somewhere else so they can have other life chances? Is that…

Ms. GEORGE: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, there's a quote here from a woman, a mother of six who lost her husband during the war. And she says, in response to this news article, she says: "If they're legitimately adopting my kid, I would even offer two. I'm an unemployed single parent struggling to bring up six children. This is simply too much for me."

MARTIN: I just wonder if you think there's additional sensitivity because of this gap between the U.S. and a number of countries in Africa where the concern is that people are exploiting their wealth.

Ms. GEORGE: That's right. And I think that there's a lot of, you know, national pride invested in not having to have your country known as the one that exports its children.

Ms. NEALE: Absolutely. But you do have to give her credit - Madonna - in this case, because she has a track record in that country of doing humanitarian work, of using her money to help the one million orphans that the country does have. It's a very impoverished country. AIDS is running rapid in that country. And so she has done good, and probably will continue to even after this situation, and so you do have to give her that credit.

MARTIN: In our last couple of minutes that we have left, do you have some advice for someone who is thinking about taking the journey that you all have been on?

Ms. GEORGE: Well, one thing I did, and it helped me a lot, is I tried to imagine her life if I didn't adopt her, and I imagined all kinds of lives. I didn't just imagine one thing. You know, there's a lot of altruism associated with adopting and adopting from poor countries, and, you know, get that out of the way, although it is a part of the equation. But I imagined her getting married, having children, living in the village, maybe selling in the market place, maybe even getting to go to school, to college. But then I thought, well, but there are no jobs.

Maybe she'll get married at a very early age. Maybe she'll be one of the - I think it's one in eight women who die in childbirth in Sierra Leone. I wanted to give her all the options and all the freedom that I could, and so that helped me make a decision.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. NEALE: I would say be patient. Be very, very patient with the process. Don't mark the calendar. Have a wonderful support system around you to tell you that it's okay, that when it becomes very, very silent and you don't know what is going on, that it's okay. Have faith. You'll get through the process. And also spend time with families that have gone through it. Share your concerns. You know, if you're going to bed and laying in bed at night worrying about things, just talk to those folks who have gone through it so that you know that you're not alone, that those things aren't just popping in your head and that you're the only one who's ever felt that way. No. Everybody else has probably gone through it, too, and it will be okay, and you'll get through it. And in the end, it will be a wonderful, wonderful experience.

MARTIN: Tracey Neale, a former television news anchor, adopted twins from Ethiopia. She's also the founder of Veronica's Story. It's a nonprofit that works to support orphans with HIV AIDS in several countries in Africa. Deborah George is a freelance radio producer. She adopted her daughter from Sierra Leone. If you want to hear the story that she produced about that experience, we'll have a link on our Web site. They were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Ladies, moms, thank you both so much.

Ms. NEALE: Thank you.

Ms. GEORGE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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