Athens (CNN) — About 10 cases of missing children are “being taken very seriously” in connection with the suspected abduction of a girl by a Roma couple in Greece, a spokesman for a Greek children’s charity said Tuesday.
“They include children from the United States, Canada, Poland and France,” said Panagiotis Pardalis of the Smile of the Child charity.
In a case that has generated huge interest in Greece, authorities have charged the Roma couple with abducting the child they call “Maria.” They appeared in court Monday and were remanded into custody pending a trial.
A lawyer for the couple says the pair adopted the child from her biological mother.
The Smile of the Child said the girl, who was found Thursday in a Roma community near Larissa, central Greece, is now being cared for in a group home.
Children play in a Roma settlement in Farsala, Greece, where the ‘Mystery Girl’ was found on Saturday, October 19. The case has generated huge interest in Greece.
Greek authorities have requested international assistance to help identify the four-year-old girl.
A handout photo released by Greek police shows the girl, who was found in central Greece during a crackdown on illegal activities by members of the Roma community.
A woman holding her child poses for photos at the camp near Farsala, which lies some 280km (173 miles) north of Athens, Greece, on Sunday, October 20.
The lawyer for a Roma couple accused of abducting the blond girl found living with them in Farsala says the pair adopted the child from her biological mother.
But the police say they are suspicious of the records the couple have provided for the child and for other children in the couple’s care.
Panagiotis Pardalis, a spokesman for Smile of the Child, the charity taking care of Maria, said the girl was found amid “bad living conditions, poor hygiene.”
The Roma village where ‘Maria’ was found
Couple charged in mystery girl case
Mystery girl in Greece not alone
Charity cares for mystery girl in Greece
Medical tests carried out on the girl since she was found indicate she is between 5 and 6 years old, slightly older than initially thought, said Pardalis.
Police have said they are suspicious of the records the couple provided for the child and for other children in their care. In addition to the abduction charge, the couple is accused of falsifying official documents.
Four officials, including the head of the registry office from which Maria got her birth certificate, have been suspended while a police investigation is under way, the media office of the Athens municipality said Tuesday.
The girl received the document this year, it said. It is unusual for a birth certificate to be issued years later.
Authorities asked questions about Maria because she has fair skin and blond hair, while her parents have darker complexions typical of Roma, a race descended from Indian nomads who face widespread discrimination in Europe.
Haralambos Dimitriou, head of the local Roma community, said the couple took the girl in because her Bulgarian mother couldn’t keep her. He said Maria was raised like a “normal” child.
Pardalis said Sunday that she was found in “bad living conditions, poor hygiene.”
Calls about the girl
Thousands of calls poured into Greece after authorities released photos of the girl last week.
Deborah Bradley and Jeremy Irwin, whose daughter Lisa Irwin vanished from their home in Kansas City, Missouri, two years ago aged about 11 months, asked the FBI to get in touch with Greek authorities when they heard about the case.
“There is no such thing as a tip too small,” said Bradley, whose hopes were raised despite the apparent disparity in age between their missing daughter and the girl found in Greece.
Authorities released photos of the two adults charged in the case Monday — Eleftheria Dimopoulou, age 40, and 39-year-old Christos Salis — in the hope that the publicity would reach someone who can provide more information about them.
Police said the blond child looked nothing like the man and woman with her, and DNA testing confirmed that they were not her biological parents.
A police statement said the couple “changed repeatedly their story about how they got the child.”
A government news agency said police found suspicious birth and baptism records as well as family registrations that claimed the woman had given birth to 10 children and the man was the father of four more.
Prejudice against the Roma
Prejudice and discrimination against the Roma are widespread in Greece and elsewhere in Europe, Amnesty International says.
Maria’s case plays into old prejudices about them stealing children for forced labor.
Pardalis mentioned such a possibility, saying, “We don’t have any other information if this girl was forced to work or to beg on streets.”
And the government news agency raised “the possibility of the existence of a ring bringing pregnant women to Greece from Bulgaria and then taking their children for sale.” The agency also cited past “reports” that empty coffins were found for infants who supposedly were stillborn to foreign mothers in Athens.
CNN’s Elinda Labropoulou reported from Athens and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN’s George Howell and David Simpson contributed to this report.