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BLANTYRE - The senior Malawian child welfare official who was to go to London to assess whether Madonna could adopt a little boy from the southern African country has been removed from the high-profile case following allegations he solicited money from the singer for the trip.
Simon Chisale, the country's chief social welfare officer, said the government had gone to court last week to have Penstone Kilembe, the director of Malawi's Child Welfare Services, replaced as the assessor in the Madonna adoption.
Kilembe, who returned to Malawi late Monday after attending a conference in the United States last week, said he had not heard of the move and denied any wrongdoing.
"I am not aware of these developments. I have just arrived from New York and nobody from my office has told me anything. I will be in the office tomorrow," he said.
Madonna and her husband, film director Guy Ritchie, were granted temporary custody of David, then 13 months old, last October. His father had placed him in an orphanage after his mother died.
Critics accused Madonna, who found David in the orphanage while in Malawi to launch a project to help the country's 2 million AIDS orphans, of using her celebrity status to circumvent Malawian adoption laws -allegations she denies.
The allegations were likely to be revived because of Kilembe's removal, as well as new reports Monday that Madonna was paying for a Malawi welfare official to study at a British university.
The latest developments and delays in carrying out the assessment as well as reports of internal government wrangling are likely to raise concerns that Malawi's child welfare department is in a state of disarray at a time when it is under international scrutiny.
Andrina Mchiela, a top civil servant in the child welfare ministry, said Monday that a staffer's tuition was being funded by the singer.
"Madonna is paying for everything and we are extremely grateful. She asked us whether we had any problems and we told her the ministry lacked trained personnel. We told her about (the staffer), and she immediately responded.
"Madonna indicated a willingness to sponsor more officers. We just have to inform her of our need," she said.
An e-mail was sent to Madonna's spokeswoman US-based spokeswoman Liz Rozenberg requesting comment, but there was no immediate response on Monday, a national holiday in the US
Malawian rights organizations have said their government needs help monitoring Madonna's planned adoption.
There have been newspaper reports in Malawi that Minister of Gender and Child Welfare Kate Kainja-Kaluluma stopped Kilembe from going to London because he had allegedly solicited funds from Madonna for the trip without the minister's knowledge or permission. According to the original custody order, Kilembe was appointed to oversee the adoption, which included inspections of the star's home in May and December.
Kilembe, who disputes the allegations, said he had spoken to the minister and that the matter had been resolved.
In an affidavit presented to the court, child welfare officials said Kilembe was leaving the ministry and "moving on to a new posting." It did not give details on his new position.
Chisale confirmed Monday that he had been appointed to replace Kilembe but refused to discuss the adoption further.
"Yes, I have just been informed I would do the assessment but I am not mandated to discuss the issue until perhaps we finalize the report," he said.
Madonna's lawyer in Malawi said he was cooperating with Chisale, who was to work with child welfare officers in London. A British child psychologist and lawyer would be part of the inspection.
The second inspection is scheduled for December and a report is expected to be filed before the courts in the capital Lilongwe by the February 2008 deadline for a judge to determine whether the Madonna and her husband are suitable adoptive parents.
The couple's custody order could be revoked if it is found that David was being treated differently from their other children, Lourdes, 10, and Rocco, 6, or if the toddler's rights were being violated in any way. - Sapa