LILONGWE, Malawi (AP) -- Madonna's efforts to adopt two youngsters from Malawi have put her in the media spotlight. But she isn't alone: a growing number of Americans are bringing home children from Africa as countries like China and Russia cut back on adoptions by foreigners.
The increase particularly in Ethiopia comes as the AIDS epidemic ravaging the continent leaves more orphans in impoverished countries without relatives to care for them.
Americans adopted 1,725 Ethiopian children in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2008, about 70 percent of all U.S. adoptions from Africa, according to the State Department. The year before, 1,255 Ethiopian children were adopted by Americans.
While experts don't attribute Africa's growing popularity among adoptive parents to a celebrity factor, they do say high-profile adoptions by the likes of Madonna and Angelina Jolie have raised awareness of the availability of orphans on the continent.
"One of the good things about the Madonna adoption or Angelina Jolie, those adoptions brought the need to the attention of Europeans or Americans," said Thomas DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services. "And it brought the possibility (of adopting in Africa) to people's attention."
Wes Stout, 41, who with his wife, Kristin, 37, has adopted two children from Ethiopia, agrees.
"I give some of the popularity of Ethiopia to her celebrity influence," he said of Jolie, whose daughter, Zahara, was adopted from the north African country in 2005, the same year the Stouts adopted their daughter, 3-year-old Kylia.
At that time, the Stouts' wait was less than a year. When they brought their son, 9-month-old Solomon, home six weeks ago, it was after an adoption process that took two years.
"The popularity soared," said Stout of Redwood City, Calif.
And, "while in the end the need is great, for most people who adopt, they are not just adopting to save a life," he said. "They are adopting to start a family and that's an important point."
Rich foreigners have been adopting children from poorer nations for decades. Mia Farrow, now the mother of 14, began adopting children from Asia in 1973, with an orphan from the Vietnam War. In addition to her daughter Zahara, Jolie adopted her sons Maddox and Pax from Cambodia and Vietnam.
But critics have slammed Madonna's efforts to adopt a second child from Malawi this week, accusing her of acting like a rich "bully" and using her money and status to fast-track the adoption process. On Tuesday, Madonna insisted she was following standard procedures.
Many adoption agencies and child rights activists also argue it is preferable for children to be taken care of by relatives or their communities, with foreign adoptions allowed only as a last resort.
Others say that isn't always realistic. "Ideally more local adoptions would be best, but people aren't coming forward and if life is better out there then they should take it," said Zoe Cohen, a private adoption consultant in South Africa.
And while adoptions from Africa have risen, the continent still accounts for only about 14 percent of overseas adoptions by Americans. According to the State Department, 2,399 visas were issued to African children adopted by Americans last year, out of 17,438 adoptions from abroad.
Adoptions overseas have plummeted overall in the U.S., dropping 12 percent last year to the lowest level since 1999. That's due to developments in China, Russia, Guatemala and other longtime sources of orphans that have reduced the number of foreign adoptions.
China accounted for the biggest decline, dropping out of the top spot last year. It was replaced by Guatemala, which almost certainly will lose that status in 2009 because of a freeze on new adoptions imposed because of fraud allegations.
Elsewhere in the West, adoptions from Africa have grown, notably in France, where the continent accounted for nearly a third of the 3,271 overseas adoptions last year. By comparison, only a handful of African children were adopted in Britain in 2007, the last year statistics were available. Most youngsters came from Ethiopia and Nigeria seven from Ethiopia and six from Nigeria.
Orphans usually are taken in by their extended families in Africa, but AIDS and other diseases have taken a toll on those who might have traditionally provided support. In villages across the continent, frail elderly grandmothers do their best to care for children, but many end up in orphanages or on the streets.
The United Nations estimates 18 million African children will have lost a parent to AIDS by 2010.
Simon Chisale, the Malawian official handling Madonna's adoptions, said outsiders are being considered as adoptive parents because traditional family structures have broken down.
"Times have changed," he said. "It used to be simpler but now it is more difficult. People have the heart (to look after their extended families) but the means are not there."
Malawi, with a population of 12 million, is among the poorest countries in the world, with rampant disease and hunger, aggravated by periodic droughts and crop failure. The U.N. says 1 million Malawian children have lost one or both parents, about half of them to AIDS.
In the face of such problems, experts say few African countries are going to turn down help from well-meaning rich foreigners. Madonna's Raising Malawi charity, for example, is building well-equipped schools.
DiFilipo, whose agency works to help shape adoption policy, warns that adoptions by foreigners can have unintended consequences. For instance, wealthy foreigners often make donations to the orphanages where they find their children, leading orphanages to look for foreign placements because they need donations.
But, DiFilipo said, the solution is not to stop foreign adoptions but to strengthen laws and education. He cited Malawi as an example.
Malawian regulations now require prospective parents to be resident in the country for 18 to 24 months, during which time welfare officials assess their suitability a rule that was bent when Madonna was allowed to take her adopted son, David, to London in 2006 before his adoption was finalized.
A draft children's law, expected to be enacted later this year, seeks to address shortcomings in the current legislation, including setting limits on how many children an individual can adopt from Malawi and the interval between each adoption.
A clear legal framework making adoption relatively easy is one of the reasons cited for the adoption boom in Ethiopia, where there are 800,000 AIDS orphans. Ethiopia also allows unmarried women to adopt children.
Chisale said there has been a slight increase in interest in adopting children from Malawi, mainly among the many international aid workers there.
He could not provide numbers and was reluctant to attribute this to attention drawn by Madonna's case, but couldn't deny the enormous influence the star has had.
"Madonna has put Malawi on the map," he said.
Associated Press writers Carley Petesch in New York, Donna Bryson and Stuart Moir in Johannesburg, Jill Lawless in London, Katharine Houreld and Anita Powell in Nairobi, Kenya, and Scott Sayare in Paris contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS name of family's home to Redwood City.)