By Karolina Tagaris
LARISSA, Greece (Reuters) - She has two identities and lived off thousands of euros a month in child benefits for nearly a dozen offspring that appear to exist only on paper, and but for one little girl would have continued the fraud Greek police say she perpetrated for two decades.
The girl is Maria, or the "blonde angel without an identity" as she has come to be known, and the woman is a 40-year-old Roma who claimed to be her mother but has been charged, along with her 39-year-old partner, with the girl's abduction.
The mystery surrounding Maria's real identity since she was discovered peeking out from under a blanket at a Roma settlement in central Greece has made headlines across the world and prompted a global search for her biological parents.
And in a debt-laden country eager to show foreign lenders it is reforming its state apparatus, the case has lifted the lid on a bumbling bureaucracy and patchy system of controls that allowed the girl to slip through the cracks.
So deep are the cracks in the country's birth registration system that it was "pure luck" that Maria's case was uncovered at all, said Konstantinos Tzanakoulis, mayor of Larissa, the provincial capital of the region where Maria was found.
"Who knows how many such cases exist?" he asked, blaming a system he said was riddled with loopholes. "We may never know."
After Maria's discovery, police found that her purported mother had registered one ID card and six children in Larissa, starting from 1993. In nearby Trikala, using a fake identity, she registered four more.
A few dozen kilometers away in Farsala, which houses the Roma camp, her partner registered another four children. Police say at least 10 children registered by the couple are unaccounted for and may not exist.
That allowed the couple to claim 2,790 euros in child benefits a month in a country dependent on EU/IMF loans and desperate to show it is making progress on tackling such fraud.
With no national birth registry until May and with some municipalities yet to move their files to the database, there had been no way to cross-check the births, officials said.
Indeed, the births and child registrations all appeared legal until the woman's arrest, when police realized she appeared to have given birth to six children in under 10 months.
The couple have been jailed pending trial on charges of abducting a minor and procuring fake documents, which they deny.
Maria was discovered during a surprise raid by police looking for drugs and weapons on the Roma settlement.
The couple say Maria's real mother gave her up willingly after birth because she could not raise her - an adoption that was "not exactly legal" but consensual, their lawyers said.
Officials say Maria's case is not isolated, though data is scarce.
Sifting through piles of papers on birth registration laws strewn across his desk, Tzanakoulis said the extent of the fraud carried out by the Roma couple showed the state's weaknesses.
"It was a complete shock," he said. "The level of fraud would have been the last thing to cross anyone's mind."
In this case, the woman was able to declare Maria's birth nearly four years after the fact, even though home births must be registered within 100 days. She even used her own fake ID as one of the two witnesses needed to prove the girl was born at home.
The mayor of Athens has since launched a probe into the local registry there and suspended two employees who dealt with such cases. Greece's top court has also ordered an investigation into all birth certificates issued in the past six years on the basis of a signed declaration rather than a hospital birth.
The local arm of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) says the lack of controls makes Greece fertile ground for possible trafficking.
Its head, Labros Kanellopoulos, estimates that thousands of missing children, mainly from eastern Europe, may be victims of trafficking, but there is no data on official numbers.
"There is a lack of checks, and the onus of responsibility lies with the police and local authorities, who have not shown enough interest," he said.
Police, who believe Maria is either eastern or northern European, have focused their investigation on whether she was trafficked rather than abducted, a police official said.
In Farsala, mayor Aris Karahalios says the case is a chance for Greece to finally push ahead with reforms it has promised.
"The system is anachronistic and a symptom of our entire society, which only deals with things on the surface and pushes everything else under the carpet," he said.
(Additional reporting by Reuters Television in Farsala and Renee Maltezou in Athens; Editing by Deepa Babington and Will Waterman)