News / Europe

'Maria' Mystery Lifts Lid on Bumbling Greek State

A four-year-old girl, found living with a Roma couple in central Greece, is seen in a handout photo distributed by the Greek police and obtained by Reuters, Oct. 18, 2013.
A four-year-old girl, found living with a Roma couple in central Greece, is seen in a handout photo distributed by the Greek police and obtained by Reuters, Oct. 18, 2013.
Reuters
She has two identities and lived off thousands of euros a month in child benefits for nearly a dozen offspring that appear to exist only on paper, and but for one little girl would have continued the fraud Greek police say she perpetrated for two decades.
 
The girl is Maria, or the “blonde angel without an identity” as she has come to be known, and the woman is a 40-year-old Roma who claimed to be her mother but has been charged, along with her 39-year-old partner, with the girl's abduction.
 
The mystery surrounding Maria's real identity since she was discovered peeking out from under a blanket at a Roma settlement in central Greece has made headlines across the world and prompted a global search for her biological parents.
 
And in a debt-laden country eager to show foreign lenders it is reforming its state apparatus, the case has lifted the lid on a bumbling bureaucracy and patchy system of controls that allowed the girl to slip through the cracks.
 
So deep are the cracks in the country's birth registration system that it was “pure luck” that Maria's case was uncovered at all, said Konstantinos Tzanakoulis, mayor of Larissa, the provincial capital of the region where Maria was found.
 
“Who knows how many such cases exist?” he asked, blaming a system he said was riddled with loopholes. “We may never know.”
 
After Maria's discovery, police found that her purported mother had registered one ID card and six children in Larissa, starting from 1993. In nearby Trikala, using a fake identity, she registered four more.
 
A few dozen kilometers away in Farsala, which houses the Roma camp, her partner registered another four children. Police say at least 10 children registered by the couple are unaccounted for and may not exist.
 
That allowed the couple to claim 2,790 euros in child benefits a month in a country dependent on EU/IMF loans and desperate to show it is making progress on tackling such fraud.
 
With no national birth registry until May and with some municipalities yet to move their files to the database, there had been no way to cross-check the births, officials said.
 
Indeed, the births and child registrations all appeared legal until the woman's arrest, when police realized she appeared to have given birth to six children in under 10 months.
 
The couple have been jailed pending trial on charges of abducting a minor and procuring fake documents, which they deny.

Fertile ground
 
Maria was discovered during a surprise raid by police looking for drugs and weapons on the Roma settlement.
 
The couple say Maria's real mother gave her up willingly after birth because she could not raise her - an adoption that was “not exactly legal” but consensual, their lawyers said.
 
Officials say Maria's case is not isolated, though data is scarce.
 
Sifting through piles of papers on birth registration laws strewn across his desk, Tzanakoulis said the extent of the fraud carried out by the Roma couple showed the state's weaknesses.
 
“It was a complete shock,” he said. “The level of fraud would have been the last thing to cross anyone's mind.”
 
In this case, the woman was able to declare Maria's birth nearly four years after the fact, even though home births must be registered within 100 days. She even used her own fake ID as one of the two witnesses needed to prove the girl was born at home.
 
The mayor of Athens has since launched a probe into the local registry there and suspended two employees who dealt with such cases. Greece's top court has also ordered an investigation into all birth certificates issued in the past six years on the basis of a signed declaration rather than a hospital birth.
 
The local arm of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) says the lack of controls makes Greece fertile ground for possible trafficking.
 
Its head, Labros Kanellopoulos, estimates that thousands of missing children, mainly from eastern Europe, may be victims of trafficking, but there is no data on official numbers.
 
“There is a lack of checks, and the onus of responsibility lies with the police and local authorities, who have not shown enough interest,” he said.
 
Police, who believe Maria is either eastern or northern European, have focused their investigation on whether she was trafficked rather than abducted, a police official said.
 
In Farsala, mayor Aris Karahalios says the case is a chance for Greece to finally push ahead with reforms it has promised.
 
“The system is anachronistic and a symptom of our entire society, which only deals with things on the surface and pushes everything else under the carpet,” he said.

You May Like

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said To Be Improving

Experimental drugs have been tried on six people: three Westerners and now, three African pyhysicians More

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities residents rebuild their lives, but many say everyone is being treated with suspicion More

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

Girls learn to object; FGM practitioners face penalties from jail sentences to stiff fines More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improvingi
X
Carol Pearson
August 19, 2014 11:43 PM
The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.
Video

Video For Obama, Racial Violence is Personal Issue

The racial violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with an issue to which he has a deep personal connection. To many Americans, Obama's election as America's first black president marked a turning point in race relations in the United States, and Obama has made ending the violence a policy priority. On Monday he issued a new call for calm and understanding. Luis Ramirez reports from the White House.
Video

Video Clinton-Obama Relationship Could Impact 2016 Election

President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a long and complicated relationship. That relationship took another turn recently when Clinton criticized the president’s foreign policy. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports there is renewed attention on the Clinton-Obama relationship as Hillary Clinton considers running for
Video

Video Iran Looks to Maintain Influence in Baghdad With New Shia PM

Washington and Tehran share the goal of stopping Syrian-based militants in Iraq. But experts say it's Iran, not the United States, that will most influence how the new government in Baghdad approaches internal reforms and the war in Syria. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

AppleAndroid