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The 'adopted' girl in the Greek Roma camp: Mystery drives hopes, fears of backlash

Police took 'Maria' during a raid of Roma camp. Parents of abducted children are watching the case with interest, though some Roma warn against rushing to judge their embattled community. 

John Kolesidis/Reuters
A poster of a girl, found living with a Roma couple in central Greece, is seen today in the Athens office of the "Smile of the Child" charity which is taking care of the child as police search for her biological parents. A Roma couple is accused of abducting the girl, known as 'Maria,' whom DNA tests show is not the couple's biological child.

The case of “Maria,” the little blond girl found in a Roma camp in Greece last week by a couple who are not her biological parents, has generated interest around the world as authorities seek to resolve the mystery of how she ended up in the camp and whether any laws were broken.

The discovery of the child, who was living among Roma, or Gypsies, in central Greece and is thought to be 5 or 6 years old, immediately gave hope to parents of abducted children and shed light on the stubborn problem of missing children across the globe. But it has also raised fears among Roma of further stigmatization as thieves and social outcasts, and is prompting some to caution against leaping to judgment – or tarring an entire community with the criminality of some of its members.

The couple, who lived in Farsala, Greece, say that they adopted the child in good faith at birth, though they concede the adoption was not official and they lack paperwork to prove the child is legitimately theirs. Investigators have said the paperwork they do have leaves a trail of alleged discrepancies, among them having given birth to six children in 10 months. The community in which they live has bolstered the veracity of their claims about the adoption, though the couple is due in court in Greece today on charges of abduction.

“Maria,” whose pale skin and green eyes are less common in Greece and among the usually swarthier Roma, was found by authorities after they raided the camp in search of drugs and weapons. Authorities carried out a DNA test that did not match the parents.

Of the 250,000 missing-children cases reported each year in Europe, only a tiny fraction of them involves criminal abduction. "Maria's" situation is even rarer, says Delphine Moralis, deputy secretary general of Missing Children Europe based in Belgium. “I have never seen a case where we are looking for the parents instead of the child,” she says of her eight years working in this area. “We have never issued a found poster; it has always been a missing poster.”

The Greek partner of Missing Children Europe is The Smile of the Child, where “Maria” is being cared for. Since news of her possible abduction was released, the group has been flooded by phone calls.

According a statement by the group, the girl was found in the midst of a police investigation on Oct. 17. "The features of the girl and the controversial claims of the persons who claimed to be the parents of the child lead the authorities to collect a DNA sample test. The results of DNA testing proved that these people are not the biological parents of the child. Upon the order of the Public Prosecution authorities the child was immediately removed from the Roma camp and is now in care and protection of The Smile of the Child until a solution in the best interest of the child is found."

Members of the community where the girl was found have come out in support of the couple, calling them loving parents, and the president of the local Roma association told The Associated Press that he fears a backlash against the 2,000 other Roma living within their community. The case “doesn’t reflect on all of us,” he said. 

Six million Roma live in the EU and are widely discriminated against, with Amnesty International calling them “the largest and most disadvantaged minorities in Europe.” They are also widely accused of perpetuating crimes ranging from pickpocketing to child smuggling.

Their plight has become a hot political issue in France recently, as the tough-talking Interior Ministry has said only a few Roma families can fully integrate in French society, comments that social organizations have widely rebuked but that polling has shown the French to support.

In a case closely watched in France this month, three Roma families from Croatia have been charged with grooming young boys and girls to become thieves.

And tensions have intensified with the approach of the new year, when Romania and Bulgaria are set to become part of Europe's passport-free Schengen Area. France says the two countries are not yet ready, in part because of problems with the rule of law.

"Maria's" case has had another raising hope among parents pf missing children, like those of  Madeleine McCann. The British couple have searched for their daughter since May 2007, when she vanished at age 3 from their holiday rental in Portugal. "This gives Kate and Gerry great hope that Madeleine could be found alive," a spokesman for the McCanns told the Daily Mirror.

About 50 to 60 percent of missing children cases in Europe tend to be runaways. The next biggest group is international parental abduction, and the third is of unaccompanied migrant children who often end up in child-trafficking rings. All three are incredibly vulnerable, even if they rarely receive the attention that criminal abduction cases generate. “The issue of runaways is often trivialized,” says Ms. Moralis. “But when you look at runaways, the majority are running away from situations of conflict, of abuse or neglect.”

Spreading that awareness is one of four key pillars Missing Children Europe has just launched for their 2014-17 strategy, which also includes bettering services for missing children and their families, investing in research and statistics, and more prevention. The group launched a hot line specifically for missing children in 2007 that works in 25 of 28 EU member states and 27 European nations.

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