‘Maria’ case raises fears of booming baby fraud

ATHENS, Greece — Prosecutors across Greece were ordered Tuesday to conduct emergency checks of birth records from the past six years, after the arrest of a Gypsy couple on suspicion of abducting a little girl triggered fears of widespread welfare fraud.

The blond-haired, fair-skinned girl, known as Maria and believed to be 5 or 6 years old, drew the attention of police during a raid on a Gypsy camp last week because she looked unlike the couple raising her. DNA tests showed they were not her biological parents as claimed on her birth certificate.

The mystery of the girl’s identity has attracted the interest of investigators and parents involved in missing-child cases around the world. The case has also raised concern among human rights groups that Europe’s Roma, or Gypsy, community is being unfairly targeted.

The Gypsy camp suspects, Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, and Christos Salis, 39, received more than $3,420 in monthly welfare payments after declaring they had 14 children, eight of whom are unaccounted for and presumed not to exist, authorities said. They were jailed on charges of abduction and document fraud.

They deny the abduction allegations, claiming they received Maria from a destitute woman to raise as their own.

A Supreme Court prosecutor ordered a review of thousands of birth certificates issued after Jan. 1, 2008, amid growing criticism that the country’s birth registration system is wide open to abuse.

Families cheating the welfare system typically declare the same birth in multiple cities or produce false birth certificates for children who may not exist.

Up until five months ago, there was no central national registry, so births declared in different municipalities were not cross-checked.

“The case of the underage girl Maria does not appear to be an isolated one,” the order signed by prosecutor Efterpi Koutzamani said.

Benefit fraud has become a powerful issue in Greece, which is suffering through its sixth year of recession and has an unemployment rate of nearly 28 percent. Most Greeks have seen their income and pensions drastically cut since the country was bailed out in 2010.

Police spotted Maria during one of dozens of raids they have carried out on Roma camps in the past few weeks in a crackdown on drug smuggling and burglary gangs.

Police said Maria’s birth was falsely declared in Athens by Dimopoulou in 2009, but they did not elaborate. A charity in charge of the girl’s temporary care said a dental examination indicated she is 5 or 6, not 4 as originally thought. It is not even certain the child was born in Greece.

Her DNA has been entered into an Interpol database to check for matches.

On Monday, the mayor of Athens suspended three officials in charge of record-keeping after an emergency review revealed multiple instances of birth certificates issued without proper documentation.

In Ireland on Monday, police seized a young blond girl from a Romanian Gypsy couple in Dublin in a move spurred by the case in Greece.

The couple said the 7-year-old child was theirs, but a Dublin maternity hospital they cited had no record of the birth. No arrests have been made.

Europe’s top human-rights official said he is worried about a possible backlash against the Roma.

“Of course it is a danger,” said Thorbjoern Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe. “If a Roma family, a Roma people are involved in this, this should not lead to condemnation of the whole Roma society.”

Derek Gatopoulos, Associated Press