Worldwide search underway to solve mystery of girl found in Roma settlement
Published Saturday, October 19, 2013 11:30PM EDT
Police in Greece believe a four-year-old blonde girl they've found living in squalor in a Roma settlement might be linked to a child trafficking ring in Europe.
An international investigation is now underway after the girl was found Wednesday during a routine search for drugs and guns in an impoverished Roma community almost 300 km north of Athens.
The girl, and going by the name of Maria, bore no resemblance to the couple who claimed to be her parents.
DNA tests quickly proved they weren't related to the girl, and the couple, a 39-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman, told conflicting stories about how they came to have the child: They found her in a blanket. The girl's Canadian father turned her over to them. She was left by strangers at their camp.
The man and woman were arrested and charged with abducting a minor.
Another man, who claims to be a relative, insists the girl was loved and well-cared for.
"We got this girl in a very nice way. We raised her. We got her. She was given to us and we raised her," the man told reporters.
It’s possible the girl was taken into their family in order to bolster family finances, as the couple had registered 14 children in three different Greek regions, in an apparent ruse to bolster family benefits.
However, police aren’t ruling out the possibility of a child trafficking ring behind the mystery.
They have asked Interpol for assistance in finding the child's real family.
Anthropologists are studying the girl’s features to try to determine where she was born, and police suspect she may have been taken from a family in eastern or northern Europe.
She is currently in the care of “A child’s smile” charity in Greece. Costas Giannopoulos, director of the charity, said he is seeking help from international groups for lost or abused children.
The suspects' lawyer, Marietta Palavra, said the couple took the girl out of charity from a stranger who said she was unable to support her daughter.
Around 80 per cent of people living in Greece’s impoverished Roma communities are illiterate, according to a London-based Minority Rights Group.
Palavra acknowledged that Roma and Greek citizens occasionally make multiple registrations of children in order to obtain state welfare benefits, but asserted that her client had not taken the girl in for those reasons.
“Just because (the suspect had forged documents, it doesn’t make her a kidnapper,” she said. “The couple loved the girl as if she were their own.”
The City of Athens released a statement Friday, saying Greek laws surrounding birth registration are “extremely problematic and antiquated.”
The law allows people to register babies as their own, based on one person’s affirmation, and two witnesses. Parents can also delay registering their child until the child turns 18.
“We are shocked by how easy it is for people to register children as their own," Giannopoulos said. "There is much more to investigate. There are other registered children that were not found in the settlement, and I believe police will unravel a thread that doesn't just have to do with the girl."
To many, the mystery surrounding the young girl is reminiscent of another high profile case, of Madeline McCann, the British girl who disappeared six years ago during a family vacation in Portugal.
A spokesman now says this case ”gives great hope that Madeleine could be found alive"
With a report by CTV's Richard Madan and files from The Associated Press