A Roma couple were charged in Greece on Monday with abducting a young girl dubbed the “blond angel,” whose discovery has prompted thousands of calls from parents of missing children.
The couple — a 39-year-old man and his 40-year-old wife — were ordered detained by a court in Larissa, central Greece, on charges of abducting the child, one of their lawyers, Konstantinos Katsavos, told reporters.
They face a sentence of between 10 and 20 years in prison if convicted.
Police found the blond-haired, green-eyed girl — named Maria — in a Roma camp in the central town of Farsala on Wednesday last week and the couple was arrested after DNA tests showed they were not related.
The girl’s discovery has struck a powerful chord with parents of missing children around the world, including those of Briton Madeleine McCann, who vanished in Portugal in May 2007.
Although first described as a four-year-old, dental checks suggest Maria is actually five or six, the head of Greek charity Smile of the Child, which has been caring for her, told local media.
While police believe the girl may have been abducted at birth, the couple claims she was given up by her biological mother, who they say is Bulgarian, because she could not raise her.
“We’re talking about a woman who could not raise this child and who gave it to the couple in 2009 through a third party shortly after her birth,” another lawyer for the couple, Marietta Palavra, told reporters over the weekend.
“We know the [girl’s] parents are from Bulgaria,” Marios Sainopoulos, a representative for the Roma community in Greece, told Skai TV on Monday.
“The mother gave the child away because she could not raise it ... the child was not kidnapped,” he said.
Illegal adoption — in some cases involving trafficked children — has flourished in Greece, where birthrates are low and official adoption procedures grueling.
Intermediaries can charge 15,000 euros to 20,000 euros (US$20,000 to US$27,000) per child according to police data, the state-run Athens News Agency said on Monday.
Impoverished Roma families in Bulgaria are approached by traffickers who offer to pay 3,000 euros for a boy and 2,500 euros for a girl, the agency said.
Smile of the Child say they have been inundated with telephone calls and e-mails in response to international media coverage of Maria’s discovery.
“Until Sunday evening, we had received more than 8,000 calls and thousands of e-mails,” charity spokesman Panagiotis Pardalis told reporters.
He said the organization’s site had received more than 200,000 visits and its Facebook page about half-a-million.
“It is either families [of missing children] or even unrelated persons [who contact us from abroad], sending us photographs and other information. We forward all the information to the police,” Pardalis said.
“This case has caused a huge international interest. It has brought to the surface the subject of child trafficking and has given hope to so many parents whose children are missing,” he added.
Greek authorities are working with Interpol to trace Maria’s biological parents in a Europe-wide search, a police source said.
In January 2011, police arrested more than a dozen people in the two Balkan countries for trafficking newborn babies to Greece.
In that case, it was Roma babies who were trafficked. The ring arranged for pregnant Bulgarian women to give birth in Greece, where the babies were then sold.