In The News

The Madonna Effect

“He says that he’s going to marry me
We can raise a little family
Maybe we’ll be alright
Its a sacrifice

But my friends keep telling me to give it up
Saying I’m too young, I ought to live it up
What I need right now is some good advice, please

Daddy, daddy if you could only see
Just how good he’s been treating me
You’d give us your blessing right now
cause we are in love, we are in love, so please

Papa don’t preach, I’m in trouble deep
Papa don’t preach, I’ve been losing sleep
Oh, I’m gonna keep my baby,
Dont you stop loving me daddy
I know, I’m keeping my baby”

“Papa Don’t Preach” written by Brian Elliot and Madonna

What a strange juxtiposition. Madonna’s chart-topping hit from 23 years ago in many ways describing the circumstances of her newly adopted African daughter Mercy’s conception.

Mwandida, they tell me, had met an 18-year-old student called James Kambewa. They met secretly at his sister’s flat. Mwandida’s friends at school warned her it would end terribly, but she ignored them. She was in love.

Unfortunately, Mwandida’s story did not end happily ever after. She died of complications from childbirth. Her family told James Kambewa that his baby died too. It wasn’t until news of Madonna’s impending adoption hit and the press starting digging that he found out his daughter was still alive. How did he react?

“She is my daughter, my blood,” he says. Why did he disappear? “I was frightened. I was just 18 and my family disowned me.” So why has he appeared now? “The newspapers found me, I didn’t find them. I thought Mercy was dead. Mwandida was my only love. I have not been with a woman since Mwandida.”

“She is my daughter, my blood.”

This child had a family. In fact, in addition to her birthfather, she also had a maternal grandmother who lovingly raised her for the first three years of her life.

The story locally is that Lucy, the grandmother … refused to let Mercy be adopted by Madonna. And for three years – from that day in 2006 until about four weeks ago – Lucy remained implacable, resisting approaches from priests, people from the orphanage and other people she had never seen before, to persuade her to let Mercy go.

However tough Lucy has been in resisting Madonna, Madonna has been tougher. She never gave up on adopting Mercy – not least because no one tells Madonna she cannot have what she wants. And now, after years of being told that adoption was the right thing for Mercy, Lucy caved in. In Malawi, she is an old woman and she had had enough.

Some people say that Mercy is “lucky” to be adopted by a rich celebrity like Madonna. They say her birthfamily should be grateful. Sound familliar? It’s the theme we hear all too often in the adoption world – “lucky baby” – casting adoptive parents in the role of savior. Most of the time we shake our heads, knowing that our children are the blessings and we are humbled to be part of the miracle that brings orphans and families together. But what about cases like Mercy’s – a child who is not an orphan, who literally has multiple family members who love her and want to raise her? How is it “lucky” that she is ripped from their arms, now suddenly living on the covers of tabloids, a poster child for her new mother’s charity work?

Can we honestly say this adoption was in Mercy’s “best interests”?

Some international adoption advocates apparently think so.

“The Malawi court’s ruling is consistent with the core principles in our Policy Statement,” said [Professor Elizabeth] Bartholet.

And what did the Malawi court rule?

(3) technical “residence” requirements for adoption must be read in light of the new international order characterized by “globalization and the global village.”

Oh I see. So that 18 month residency requirement just meant a petitioner had to live somewhere on the globe. I’m sure it’s not that Madonna’s massive cash infustion via her own Kabbalah-sponsored charity convinced them to bend the rules so far they no longer make any sense.

Why do I care about one little girl in Africa? Why do I feel the need to analyze Madonna’s adoption here on a website dedicated to adoption integrity in Vietnam? Consider what another advocate has to say:

Madonna’s victory in the Malawian court may further endanger the vulnerable children she purports, so vociferously, to want to help.

Consider the legal system that has endorsed the U-turn in the country’s adoption policy. And I have no doubt that corrupt adoption agencies and child traffickers, newly alerted to the ease with which Malawian laws can be circumvented, are even now planning to target the country.

We are also witnessing the rise of a distressing new phenomenon dubbed the Madonna Effect, in which destitute mothers abandon their babies in the hope that they will be adopted by wealthy foreign mothers.

It is a tragic corollary of Madonna’s personal triumph that such abuses are now flourishing.

And there lies the rub. This isn’t simply about one child, though in my mind that would be tragedy enough. This is about countless other children, in Malawi and possibly around the world, who will fall victim to circumvented adoption laws and the “Madonna Effect”.

Some will say I’m over-reacting. Being too negative. But just this week I heard about a boy who experienced this “Madonna Effect” first hand – though Madonna can’t take the credit.

I can.

He lives in Cambodia. In 2001 when my family and so many others in America and around the Western world were making Cambodia one of the top ten sending countries, his destitute parents decided to place him in an orphanage in the hopes that he would be adopted by wealthy Westerners. He was just a toddler, but he still remembers how it felt to watch his mom and dad walk away. He was never adopted. Cambodia’s adoption system was corrupt to the core. The FBI found evidence of baby-switching, coercion and money laundering. The doors of international adoption slammed shut right in front of him. And now, eight years later living in a childrens home with other orphans too old to be adopted even if the law allowed, he still feels that pain and rejection.

“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!”

Madonna by her fame and riches and celebrity forces us all to consider the ramifications of her adoption. But we mustn’t stop there. For though we are not famous celebrities, our actions have consequences too. Vietnam shut down because of widespread evidence of corruption. Our money provided the incentive. Who will untangle the web?

Christina Chronister

Christina has adopted two children from SE Asia in 2002 and 2006. Her experience adopting at the time of the U.S. shutdown in Cambodia was eye-opening and led to the creation of a parent-led advocacy group which successfully lobbied for the review and subsequent approval of hundreds of adoptions caught in the pipeline. Her involvement, which included meeting with State Department officials and working with members of Congress, did not end when all the pipeline cases were resolved. Rather it became clear that accountability was sadly lacking in adoptions around the world. The most vulnerable (and yet the most vital) parties in adoptions – children and families – were underrepresented at the table in nearly every discussion. In 2006 she co-founded Voices for Vietnam Adoption Integrity to continue to raise awareness of the need for ethical practices at every step of the adoption process. In 2018 Voices for Vietnam Adoption Integrity changed their name to Voices for Adoption Integrity, recognizing that the struggle is not limited to any one country or program.


  1. Christina – this was incredibly well-written. It makes me SICK and I am still totally in awe that she was able to throw her power and celeb status around to set a precedent that can only perpetuate the taking advantage of legal loopholes. I am really curious and would like to hear the story from the beginning (NOT that it exonerates Madonna’s actions no matter what the initial circumstances). Specifically, why was she drawn to THIS child, a child who obviously already had/has a family? I feel like it would have been wrong on a lesser level (?) if she’d had the country bend its adoption policies for a child who was the starving orphan of 2 dead parents and no relatives. But to fight like that to rip a toddler from the loving arms (that she’d known for 3 years!!!) of her grandmother, and then have it exposed that her father might have also wanted to provide a loving home to a daughter he never knew he had?! Ugh. This poor little girl. I wonder what Madonna will tell her when she’s old enough to ask.

  2. I am so confused! Was Mercy living in an orphanage the first 3 years of her life or with her grandmother? The previous reports stated that she was living in an orphanage the past 3 years and the grandmother was hoping to get her when she was 6, meaning she was to live in the orphanage for 3 more years. Does anyone know what was really going on here? I would love to know the truth before I can form my opinion–thanks for your help!

  3. Tara – your understanding appears to have been the case. The alleged father, however, was willing to take custody immediately.

  4. I for one think it’s wonderful. I’m happy for both Madonna and Mercy. Mercy has been living in an orphanage her WHOLE LIFE. If the man claiming to be her father really is, he abandoned the underaged girl he knocked up along with his child. He was not told that Mercy was dead, in his own words, he assumed it after finding out that the mother was. He never inquired after her- that is, until he heard that rich and famous Madonna wanted her to have a loving home where she can expect to live to an age of more than 42 years. The court made the right decision. Madonna fell in love with Mercy back in 2006, so this definitely was no easy, snap decision. Someday Mercy may return to do great things for Malawi, as she’s had the chance to fulfill her potential.

  5. KL,
    How could he inquire about a child that he was told was dead?!

    Another article, in addition to the one I linked/quoted:

    “Kambewa says he had no money to marry Mercy’s mother and, six months after she became pregnant, he had to move to live with extended family, hundreds of miles away.

    That’s where, he says, he eventually received a letter that broke his heart.

    Speaking through a translator, he told David, “The letter said my girlfriend and my daughter have passed away during childbirth. This was the toughest point in my life.”

    In fact, family members tell David that, while Mercy’s mom died shortly after giving birth, Mercy lived and was raised by her grandmother for several months before being turned over to an orphanage.

    Kambewa says he only learned the truth a month ago, when reporters covering Madonna’s adoption case tracked him down.

    He says he wants to bring Mercy home and be the father she never had. “

  6. Tara,
    According to another article ( )
    “Mercy lived and was raised by her grandmother for several months before being turned over to an orphanage. …
    She said through a translator she thought the orphanage would help lighten her load until mercy was old enough to go to school. “When I got Mercy into the orphanage, the discussion that we had was that after 6 years I would be able to get Mercy back into the community, so that she could be integrated back.”

    The article also noted that she was caring for 6 other grandchildren and often visited Mercy at the orphanage. So clearly she was committed to the child, but needed some help. It’s hard for us to understand but in developing countries families often use orphanages as a temporary care place, fully intending to bring the child back when they are able.

    And, as Nicki said, now there is also Mercy’s father who very much wanted to raise her.

  7. I feel like Madonna has set the image of AP’s and pending AP’s back about a thousand steps. I am so angry that she ‘got what she wanted’ at apparently any cost.
    I am a bit confused, though. Did Mercy’s father and/or grandmother sign relinquishment papers??

  8. Mercy’s grandmother finally gave up after 3 years of being aggressively pressured to relinquish. she signed papers last month. The father, however, never even got his day in court. He wasn’t able to arrange DNA testing which would have allowed him to claim her before the court approved the adoption.

  9. Laurie-

    From what I’ve read, she met Mercy at the same time she met David Banda. She was not able to complete the adoption at that time because the grandmother would not give permission, but has been working on it ever since.

    I agree in that I feel it would have been “less wrong” if the child she adopted did not have family who could have cared for her. There are plenty of TRUE orphans in Malawi from among whom Madonna could have “chosen.”


  10. In addition to the father, the grandmother wanted to care for her. As Christina quoted in this post:

    “The story locally is that Lucy, the grandmother … refused to let Mercy be adopted by Madonna. And for three years – from that day in 2006 until about four weeks ago – Lucy remained implacable, resisting approaches from priests, people from the orphanage and other people she had never seen before, to persuade her to let Mercy go.

    However tough Lucy has been in resisting Madonna, Madonna has been tougher. She never gave up on adopting Mercy – not least because no one tells Madonna she cannot have what she wants. And now, after years of being told that adoption was the right thing for Mercy, Lucy caved in. In Malawi, she is an old woman and she had had enough.”

    It is difficult for us to understand that a family might place a child in an orphanage for temporary care, but this is common in other countries. It happened in Vietnam as well. Familes who placed their children in orphanages with the understanding that it was a temporary arrangement had those children adopted out from under them. That was the case with Mercy. The grandmother fully intended to get Mercy back. She just needed help, and the orphanage was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but now she has lost Mercy forever.

  11. I don’t understand how it is that Mercy will be given a US visa when the alleged father was never allowed to have DNA testing done. In Vietnam, we saw this done at the expense of prospective adoptive parents. How is it that Madonna is allowed to adopt and get a visa without testing, when the average PAP would have been given an RFE or a NOID?

  12. Well then it seems that CIS should be with holding approval until DNA testing is completed and Mercy’s father signs relinquishment papers (if he so chooses). They were adamant about it in Vietnam, as well as re investigating cases so where is CIS and the Dept. of State NOW?

  13. According to the AP, the Supreme Court stated about residency that “Madonna was in Malawi not by chance but by intention. She is looking after several orphans whose welfare depends on her…” ( Even more blunt, there are reports that Madonna contributed between $12 ( and $19 ( MILLION dollars to Malawi through her charity there while awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision Bella is right — where is USCIS now?

  14. This article is full of many mis-truths as speculations. This child’s grandmother left her at the orphanage shortly after birth because she could not afford to support her. Had the family been responsible enough to tell the baby’s father he had a child (and my best guess would be he knew all along and didn’t step up to care for his daughter) this adoption may be a non-issue. The bottom line is this little girl has been in an orphanage because no one is willing to raise her. In a country where she has an expected life span of 43 years, I applaud Madonna (a woman I’m not of fan of by the way) for stepping up and offering this child a viable chance at a long, happy life. As for this blog, based on this article, I no longer believe what is printed here. Check facts before you write an article.

  15. I believe Madonna has dual citizenship in the U.K. and U.S. That’s most likely the reason as to why USCIS hasn’t intervened.

  16. I know I am late to this thread but thought I would comment anyway.

    I think everyone (including celebrities) needs to adhere to the guidelines set by the child’s birth country when completing an IA. I have no problem with Madonna or any other celebrity adopting a child, but I don’t understand why she had to choose a country that does not allow foreign adoption (set by the 18 mo. residency rule). There are thousands of African children that are legitimately needing homes whose countries/orphanages participate in IA-choose one of them.

    If she went to Malawi to provide aid to the country and fell in love with the children-then she should have funnelled how ever much money she could into the country to provide the children with a better life. The grandmother obviously was not open to adoption-so if she felt a special connection to this little girl then help the grandmother financially-she would have indirectly benefited 6 other grand children also.

    These children are not souvenirs-you don’t get to see a cute one and decide you want to take them home. She could have helped this child and chosen a different country (one that has an IA program) to adopt from and none of this would be an issue right now.

    I am not anti-adoption and do not think all children belong in their birth countries. I do however think it’s important for AP’s (celebrities and non-celebrities alike) to honor the host countries rules and regulations-and in this case Malawi is not a country open to IA (unless you are a super rich celebrity I guess).

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