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

EU Court Fines Poland for Hosting CIA 'Black Sites'

Ruling is first time a court has acknowledged suspects were held and tortured at the sites, under US program launched following the 9/11 terrorist attacks More

Migrant Issues Close to Home Spur Groups to Take Action

Groups placing water, food in the desert, or aiding detainees after release, have one common goal: no more deaths of migrants crossing illegally into the US More

Video At AIDS Conference, Prevention Pill Stirs Excitement

Truveda shows promise, spurring debate over access and other approaches More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debatei
X
Shelley Schlender
July 24, 2014 6:43 PM
In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video Death Toll From Israel-Gaza Conflict Surpasses 700

Gaza officials say a shelling hit a compound housing a United Nations-run school in the Gaza Strip, killing more than a dozen people, during an Israeli offensive in the area. Heavy fighting between the Israeli military and Hamas militants continued on Thursday, pushing up the death toll. So far, more than 730 Palestinians and 35 Israelis have been killed in the conflict. VOA's Scott Bobb has the latest from Jerusalem.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video Israel Targets Gaza Supply Tunnels

The Israeli military has launched a ground operation in Gaza to destroy the myriad tunnels that may have been used to smuggle weapons to Hamas. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports that could mean more hardship for the people of Gaza, who obtain some of their essential supplies through these underground passages
Video

Video Researchers Target Low-Cost Avatar Technology

Scientists at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies say 3-dimensional representations could revolutionize social media. Elizabeth Lee has more from Los Angeles.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.

AppleAndroid