Europe's latest child identity riddle took an unlikely twist Wednesday when a girl thought to have been a teenager trafficked by Eastern European sex gangs was reportedly identified as a convicted fraudster from Australia.
Irish police had briefed the world's media 24 hours earlier that they believed Samantha Azzopardi, 25, was at least a decade younger and a victim of the sex trade.
The Independent newspaper in Ireland reported that Azzopardi illegally attempted to draw social welfare benefits and received a six month prison sentence, which was suspended for 12 months.
The misidentification is the latest embarrassing blow to the Irish police after an ill-judged series of swoops last month in which two blonde Roma children were removed from their biological families on the basis of their hair color.
Azzopardi was found in what police described as a 'distressed state', on one of Dublin's busiest shopping streets a month ago. She refused to disclose her identity to investigators, and apparently maintained the fiction that she could not speak English. Police had been unable to identify her, or her country of origin.
She was identified by an acquaintance after Irish police released a photograph of her following a special appeal to the high court. The Irish police told the Daily Beast this morning: "We can confirm the lady is an Australian citizen." Asked whether the woman had been trafficked or sexually exploited, the police said, "We are not in a position to speak about that. The investigation is ongoing and the lady's welfare is paramount to us."
A source with knowledge of the investigation told the paper that the girl was "fretful of any engagement with officialdom" and "extremely nervous" around anyone dressed in a uniform. "There is no doubt she has been the victim of some traumatic event of some sort," the source said. The Irish Mirror reported that the woman’s parents were on the way to Ireland to see their daughter - and claimed that there was no clear record of how Samantha had entered the country.
Police in Dublin said they had gone to great lengths to identify the woman, including door to door inquires, street vehicle and pedestrian checkpoints in the area where she was discovered, studying CCTV records from the city center and the extensive canvassing of child protection and homelessness units. Images had been provided to Interpol, and ports, airports and train stations. Paediatric orthodontists across Ireland had also been contacted as she has a fitted brace.
Some commentators pointed out that the presence of a fitted brace did not fit with the sex-trafficking story. In a move never before undertaken, the police went to the high court last week to seek permission under the Child Care Act to release the photograph that would eventually lead to her identification.
Lawyers argued that they were in extraordinary circumstances after the investigation "hit a brick wall". The High Court granted permission, despite opposition from the health services who have temporary custody, which said publication of the photo could have been damaging.