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German leader adopts Russian child

MOSCOW -- Thousands of Russian children are adopted by foreigners every year -- but few go to such high-profile homes as the leader of Germany.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's decision to welcome a 3-year-old Russian girl into his home made national news in Russia and won praise from adoption advocates who say Russians should follow Schroeder's example.

Schroeder and his wife, Doris Schroeder-Koepf, picked up Victoria several weeks ago from a children's home in St. Petersburg, the German newspaper Bild reported yesterday. She joined Schroeder-Koepf's 13-year-old daughter, Klara. Schroeder, 60, had no children of his own.

While an official of Schroeder's party confirmed the adoption, the German government declined to comment, citing Schroeder's right to privacy. Russian officials also were silent, but Russian news agencies quoted an unidentified Kremlin source as saying Schroeder had informed President Vladimir Putin about his plans.

About 200,000 Russian children await adoption, many living in cash-starved children's homes where education and medical care are limited. Homes are found for about 15,000 every year, with about half adopted by families living outside Russia.

"We have 200,000 children like her, but unfortunately we don't have 200,000 chancellors," said Boris Altshuler, director of Russia's Right of the Child advocacy group.

Since Russia first allowed foreign adoptions in 1992, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, some 50,000 children have joined foreign families, according to the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. Last year, foreigners adopted nearly 8,000 Russian children, with the vast majority going to the United States and then Canada, Spain, and Italy, Russia's State Statistics Committee said.

"We should be thankful to these other countries, but we can't depend solely on them," Altshuler said.

Among Russians, adoptions are still considered somewhat taboo. Many people express unease and shame about the number of foreign adoptions, but still look with puzzlement on Russian couples who choose to adopt.

It doesn't help public perception that most children up for adoption are in orphanages after being removed from homes where the parents may have been alcoholics, abusive, neglectful, or jailed, specialists said.

For foreign couples looking for a child, though, Russia is often a first choice. Adoptions usually can be completed within a year.

But the process isn't always easy. Russian law requires that prospective parents visit Russia twice -- once to meet the child and a second time for the court hearing completing the adoption. The final cost, including travel, often reaches $25,000.

Local animosity occasionally results in foreign adoptions being put on hold in a region, advocates said.

Schroeder's adoption drew a level of attention normally given to foreign adoptions only when abuse is involved.

A Kremlin source, speaking to Russian media, insisted Schroeder did everything by the book.

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