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.
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 Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs