The Mysterious Case of Maria, Greece’s Fake Roma Child

In a reverse missing child case, Greek authorities are searching for the parents of a young girl found in a Roma camp, and trying to sort out whether she was the victim of a benefits scam or part of a broader child trafficking ring.

Two haunting home videos of “Maria,” the blonde child whose pigtails were still dark from hair dye when she was discovered last weekend in a gypsy camp in Greece, could provide vital clues into a sinister European child trafficking ring, according to authorities. The discovery of the mystery child also gives fresh hope to the parents of Madeleine McCann, whose have always believed that their daughter was snatched from their holiday apartment in Portugal in 2007 under similar conditions.

Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, and her husband Hristos Salis, 39, faced charges of kidnapping and falsifying documents in a Greek court on Monday in connection with Maria’s discovery last week during a routine weapons and drug sweep of the Farsala camp north of Athens. They face 10-year prison terms if convicted. One of their lawyers, Marietta Palavra, planned to enter not-guilty pleas on the kidnapping charges, claiming that Maria was given to the couple to take care of when she was an infant. She admitted that the couple did not legally adopt Maria, but she says they didn’t kidnap her either. The couple showed “nothing but love” for Maria, she says. “Just because they had forged documents, doesn’t make them kidnappers.”

One of the videos released over the weekend depicts Maria around the age of two being trained to dance by Dimopoulou, who forces her to twirl by grabbing her arms. A male child is violently pushed out of the way as he dances alongside the toddler. In the short silent clip, Maria has a pacifier in her mouth. Her hair is dyed dark brown and cut short, but she is clearly the same little girl who was discovered last week. In the second video, from September, Maria is again forced to dance, this time alongside a couple on a makeshift stage. She is obviously shy and uncomfortable as she mimics the movements of the woman.

On a routine sweep through the camp last week, Greek police noticed Maria because her ivory skin and white-blonde hair stood in stark contrast to the features of her supposed parents. Police also found several weapons and balaclava head masks in the home where Maria was living. Dimopoulou and Salis were arrested and Maria was taken into custody during the sweep.

DNA tests later proved police suspicions that the couple had no genetic link to the child. Police say the couple had falsified documents and birth certificates to show that Dimopoulou had birthed six children in the span of just ten months. Salis had papers claiming he was the father of four children. The couple had 14 children with them when they were arrested, many of whom police say bear no resemblance to either parent. The identities of those children are being cross-checked by Greek authorities. Palavra, the couple’s lawyer, said that the multiple birth certificates were a way of maximizing state benefits and that it was common practice to raise children communally within the nomadic camps. She claimed that the archaic Greek system, which does not cross-check births between regions, makes it easy to take advantage by registering children in different communities. The couple allegedly received around €2,500 a month in Greek aid to care for their registered children.

Maria, who only speaks Roma dialect, is now in the custody of the Greek welfare charity Smile of the Child, which placed her in a group home for abandoned children in an undisclosed location in Athens. The charity received more than 8,000 phone calls in the first 48 hours of an international appeal to find Maria’s parents. Eight of the leads are credible, including four from the United States, says Panagiotis Pardalis, of Smile of the Child. The other credible calls came from Sweden, France, Canada and Poland. DNA tests will be used to definitively prove parental connections, says Pardalis. They will also look at the circumstances under which the parents allegedly lost their child in the first place, whether through kidnapping or abandonment.

There is no global central database for missing children, though Missing Children Europe acts as an umbrella group for a range of agencies that keeps lists across the Eurozone to help cross-reference searches and claims. In the case of Maria, authorities in Greece could only check the database of missing Greek children. They have to rely on a hotline to accept calls with tips or claims from other countries. “It is not a perfect situation,” says Pardalis. “But it is all we have in place to find out where this little girl came from.”

Pardalis says they will eventually bring in anthropologists to study Maria’s features to try to narrow down her roots if no credible family member comes forward. Because she was suffering from psychological and physical neglect when the police found her, authorities have not pressed the child for information. She is either four or five years old, they believe. Her only known birth certificate was forged and she has no apparent birthmarks or identifying markings other than her fair features. She was in dirty clothes and suffered from numerous skin irritations, including head lice when she was rescued from the camp. In the photo taken when she came to the center, which was distributed internationally by Interpol, her fingers appear stained and dirty. She will not speak, Pardalis says, but she is improving. "She's feeling happy, she's playing with toys, and she feels safe in the new environment."

Members of the Farsala Roma community gave the videos of Maria during her time in the encampment to Greek Alpha TV. Local press interviews with members of the community who knew her paint a disturbing picture of exploitation. She was well known for her unique looks, treated almost like a special guest, or more likely, a moneymaker, among those in the camp. The community members also provided photos of the bedroom where Maria, who they referred to as their “special princess,” slept. While the rest of the family’s 14 children slept on mattresses on the floor with the parents, Maria, they said, was given her own room. Her child-size bed was covered in red velvet, lined with teddy bears and dolls. Her pretty pink shoes and dancing dresses were hung neatly in a closet. The photos imply that Maria was a prize possession in the camp. “Maria likes dancing,” Dimopoulou’s daughter Panagiota, told Greece’s SKAI television. “She was very special.”

Authorities are now trying to ascertain just what Maria’s presence in the camp really means. If she had been kidnapped to be sold or trafficked, she would not have still been in the camp, says Babis Dimitriou, a spokesperson for the Farsala community. More likely, she was being groomed for dancing for money, perhaps eventually for use in the sex trade. Dimitriou says he fears that Maria’s story will result in further backlash against the Roma communities across Europe, who suffer constant discrimination. “It doesn’t reflect on all of us,” he told Greek SKAI.

The Council of Europe estimates that there are around six million Roma living in the European Union, with the largest concentrations in France, Italy, Greece and Ireland.

A report by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that 90 percent of the communities live in poverty. "Many face prejudice, intolerance, discrimination and social exclusion in their daily lives. They are marginalized and mostly live in extremely poor socio-economic conditions,” according to the report.

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Discrimination against the nomadic Roma communities was underscored last week when a 15-year-old Roma girl from Kosovo became the center of a deportation case in France. Leonarda Dibrani was yanked from a French school bus and deported along with her parents and five siblings in early October after being denied political asylum. French president Francois Hollande later said that Leonarda could return-- alone. Her parents would have to stay in Kosovo. Leonarda declined to return.

Authorities in Greece have conducted two more sweeps of large Roman encampments looking for discrepancies among families since Maria’s discovery. Plans to investigate ties between the Farsala camp and other large communities in Spain, Italy and France are already underway. The case of Maria has given renewed hope to parents like the McCanns and the family of Ben Needham, who disappeared from his grandparents’ holiday home on the Greek island of Kos in 1991when he was just 21 months old. Needham’s mother says their own investigation led them to the Farsala camp, which they believe is the center of a child trafficking ring. “We have always believed that Ben's abduction was gypsy-related and have had a long ongoing inquiry in Larissa. We hope that the investigation into Ben's disappearance will now be looked at again,” she told ITV.

McCann spokesman Clarence Mitchell said the discovery of Maria gives palpable hope to all parents of missing children, proving that “missing children can still be out there waiting to be found.”