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Reporters made mistakes in coverage of "Greek Maria"
October 25, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
All of the assumptions made about the origins of a little blonde girl found with gypsies in Greek last week have turned out to be wrong. Fair-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed "Greek Maria" was born Stanka Ruseva, is actually a Bulgarian Roma girl and probably an albino.
What's really sad, though, is how all those those assumptions – and the sensational reporting by news media around the world – have hurt a lot of other people along the way.
The saga began last week when Greek police conducted a drug raid on a Roma (the polite term for Gypsies) settlement in central Greece. A female prosecutor spotted a tow-headed little girl in one home and noticed that she didn't look anything like the dark-complected Roma couple who claimed to be her parents, or like any of their other children. DNA testing was conducted and soon proved that she was not their biological daughter. The couple was arrested and charged with abduction. Police released a photo of the blonde, blue-eyed, fair skinned child and soon news media began speculating that she was abducted as part of a child trafficking ring and might be one of the missing children stolen from wealthy Western families. American families were among those who hoped the girl might be their kidnapped daughter. The Greek media dubbed her "the blonde angel" and authorities speculated that she must be Scandinavian.
Old stereotypes about so-called Gypsy child stealers were bandied about in news stories and on online comment forums. Neighbors of two Roma couples living in Ireland noticed that these families, too, had blonde, fair-skinned children and reported them to the authorities. Social workers took children from those families into custody, no doubt traumatizing them for life. In both cases, DNA soon proved that the children were the biological children of their parents, according to reporting by The Daily Mail, and the children were returned. Lawsuits are probably in the works. I hope they are successful.
Meanwhile, the Roma foster parents of the girl found in Greece insisted that they informally adopted "Maria" from a poor Bulgarian family who were unable to care for her, which turned out to be the case. This morning it was announced that DNA testing has proven conclusively that the little girl's biological parents are Atanas Rusev and Sasha Ruseva, dark-complected Roma gypsies living in Bulgaria who have at least nine other children. The family is so impoverished they live in only one room. Five of their biological children are blonde or red-headed, light-eyed and fair-skinned and likely albino. One of the parents has an albino gene in the family. Had little Maria been found with her actual biological parents, the prosecutor might have been suspicious of them too. Perhaps everyone needs some instruction in basic genetics and on recessive genes.
So, the tabloids don't get their fairy tale happy ending. There will be no happy reunion of a long-lost, kidnapped child with her wealthy American or European parents. The real story is a lot dirtier, more commonplace and far more sad. What happens next is probably up to the courts in Greece or Bulgaria. Her foster parents want legal custody of her and her biological parents want her returned to them. But I have my doubts that the girl will ever get to go home to either of her families. Her biological parents either gave her away or allegedly sold her at age seven months; her foster parents are accused of training her to dance for crowds and beg for money. Novinite.com, a Sofia, Bulgaria news agency, reports that Greek psychologists have said Maria shows signs of past abuse and is very aggressive. A Bulgarian social worker quoted in a Daily Mail article said the girl will be put up for adoption if she is returned to Bulgaria.
The lesson for newspaper reporters all around the world is one I first learned in Journalism 101: when you make assumptions, you make an ass out of "you" and "me."
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