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Global search under way for parents of girl found with Greek Roma

Social IssuesPoliticsPension and WelfareInterpolInterior Policy

The discovery last week of a young girl living in a squalid Roma camp in central Greece has set in motion a worldwide search for her biological parents and generated thousands of calls and emails about missing children, Greek media reported Monday.

Greek authorities formally charged the Roma couple in whose care the blond, blue-eyed girl called Maria was found and jailed them pending trial for alleged child abduction and welfare fraud.

The girl was discovered Wednesday during a police search for weapons and drugs at the Roma camp in Farsala. She came to authorities' attention because she bears no resemblance to the couple who claimed to be her parents. DNA testing showed the child was no biological relation to the couple, police said.

Authorities identified the male suspect as Christos Salis, 39. The woman was in possession of two sets of documents identifying her as Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, and as 41-year-old Selini Sali, the Greek news site ekathimerini.com reported.

When arrested, the couple were found to have identity documents for 14 children -- six of them purportedly born to the woman within a 10-month period. Authorities have speculated that the couple might have been part of a child trafficking ring, or that they generated the false documents to draw larger welfare benefits. The Associated Press in Athens quoted police as saying the couple had been receiving 2,500 euros, about $3,420, a month in public assistance.

An Athens charity caring for the girl reported Monday that dental examination of the child suggested she is probably 5 or 6 years old, not 4, as claimed by the couple and stated on the child's forged birth certificate, ekathimerini.com reported.

Release of the girl's picture on Friday and a Greek police appeal to Interpol for help in finding her birth parents drew more than 8,000 calls and thousands of emails to the charity, A Child's Smile, spokesman Panagiotis Pardalis told Agence France Presse.

At an arraignment in Larissa on Monday, Salis told a magistrate that the girl was given to him and his common-law wife by a Bulgarian intermediary when she was still an infant, and that the girl's birth mother is from the Bulgarian Roma community but lives in Greece, the Athens-Macedonian News Agency reported.

Some members of the Greek Roma community demonstrated outside the courtroom to show support for the couple and warn against the case intensifying discrimination against Roma, AFP reported from Larissa.

Amnesty International describes Europe's 10-million-plus Roma, often referred to as Gypsies, as "one of the largest and most disadvantaged minorities" on the continent and details discrimination against them in housing, education and employment.

The Roma community in Greece is estimated to number 300,000, and 80% are illiterate, according to the Minority Rights Group in London.

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Twitter: @cjwilliamslat

carol.williams@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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