ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The plight of an unknown girl found living with her alleged abductors in a Greek Roma settlement has triggered a global outpouring of sympathy and tips — but no breakthrough in identifying the child, authorities said Monday.
Greek investigators are considering everything from potential child trafficking to welfare scams or even simple charity as they seek the child's biological parents.
The "Smile of the Child" charity, which is caring for the girl known only as "Maria" until her parents are found, said Monday that a dental examination showed she is older than previously thought — 5-6 years old instead of four.
The charity has received more than 8,000 calls and thousands of emails about her from people from the U.S., Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, Australia and South Africa.
"The case has touched a chord with lots of people from many countries," Panayiotis Pardalis, a spokesman for the charity, told The Associated Press on Monday. "This case is now giving hope to parents of missing children."
He said the charity has received photos of missing children and potentially connected cases, "which we are forwarding to the police," but mostly people were just conveying their concern.
Greek police have sought assistance from Interpol, the international police agency, which has 38 girls younger than 6 on its missing persons database. None of them, however, fit the mystery girl's description.
The story has resonated particularly in Britain, where the tabloid press drew parallels with missing girl Madeleine McCann, who disappeared at age three from a Portuguese resort six years ago. The mother of Ben Needham, a British boy missing in Greece since 1991, said she was thrilled by the news of the mystery girl's recovery. Her toddler was 21 months old when he vanished on the island of Kos.
The girl was found last week in a Gypsy, or Roma, settlement near Farsala in central Greece as police searched for drugs, firearms and fugitives. The blond, blue-eyed child was strikingly unlike the couple she lived with and a later DNA test showed she was not their child.
A 39-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman appeared Monday before an investigating judge in Larissa, near Farsala, to face criminal charges of child abduction, which carries a maximum ten-year prison sentence. Police named them as Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou or Selini Sali — as the woman had two separate sets of identity papers.
Both have denied the charges, last week claiming they adopted the child while she was just days old. A defense lawyer said they were motivated by charity after being approached by an intermediary for a destitute foreign mother.
The suspects have also been charged with illegally obtaining official documents such as birth records.
Police allege the Roma woman claimed to have given birth to six children in less than 10 months, while 10 of the 14 children the couple had registered as their own are unaccounted for.
It is unclear whether the children exist or were made up to milk the Greek welfare system. Police say the two suspects received about 2,500 euros ($3,420) a month in subsidies from three different cities.
The man also faces separate charges for allegedly possessing an illegal firearm and drug-related offences.
Greece's Roma community has for centuries been exposed to poverty and discrimination. According to the London-based Minority Rights Group, some 80 percent of Greece's 300,000 Roma are illiterate. They are already stereotyped by some in Greece and elsewhere as social outcasts, thieves and beggars — and now they fear they will be stigmatized as child traffickers as well.
The case "doesn't reflect on all of us," Babis Dimitriou, president of the local Roma community, told the AP.
Police have raided dozens of Gypsy settlements across Greece in the last few weeks, including four more camps Monday in Athens and Thessaloniki.
Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Lori Hinnant in Paris and Raphael Satter in London contributed.