New York Times Neediest Cases

Seeing More Than ‘Just Another Missing Teenager From the Bronx’

When Desiree Santana’s 14-year-old daughter went missing in September, she felt frantic.

Ms. Santana filed a police report, but two days later she was still awaiting news. She called the local detective assigned to the case up to seven times a day, but her calls were not returned, she said. The precinct promised to send her daughter’s picture to the press, but Ms. Santana never saw it on the local news.

“To them, she was just another missing teenager from the Bronx,” Ms. Santana, 42, said during a recent interview at her childhood home in the western part of the borough. “She seemed like just another kid who was disobedient and ran away.”

But Ms. Santana, a single mother of six, refused to give up the search for her daughter, Sarah.

Ms. Santana emailed her daughter’s photograph to a local television reporter. Within minutes, she saw the picture on TV. She waited for answers, but none came.

Three days after Sarah disappeared, Ms. Santana and her oldest daughter tracked her down through social media.

Sarah had gone missing before, typically for a few hours. In the last two years, she has disappeared as frequently as once or twice a month, her mother said. Ms. Santana has called the police so often that when she walks down the block, officers ask about her daughter by name.

“They all know us,” she said.

Acknowledging the large number of missing persons cases churning through the system, Ms. Santana assumes that her many calls over the years have made her requests seem less urgent. Indeed, teenagers are the most common demographic among missing people in New York, according to the city’s Police Department. Of the 225 cases of missing children 16 and younger open as of Friday, nearly two-thirds came from Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Sarah’s frequent disappearances have taken a toll on the family.

“I’m just like, when am I going to get to the bottom of what’s going on with her?” Ms. Santana asked.

She said she focused on Sarah’s needs at the expense of her other children, four of whom remain at home and range in age from 5 to 20.

In the last two years, Sarah has been hospitalized every two months in two-week increments — the longest period covered by Ms. Santana’s private insurance. Those hospitalizations, and the disappearances, have put a dent in Ms. Santana’s finances.

Ms. Santana, who makes $47,000 a year as a precertification counselor at Mount Sinai Hospital in the financial district in Manhattan, has had to take days off to search for and care for Sarah, exhausting her paid leave for three years running. In November 2015, she was granted unpaid leave through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, allowing her to take time off without losing her job.

The family’s financial situation endured further strain in February, when Ms. Santana’s oldest brother died of a heart attack. Paying for the funeral, which cost $5,000, fell to Ms. Santana, who receives $704 a month in food stamps and $494 a month in Social Security Disability Insurance for Sarah.

By May, Ms. Santana was seven months behind on her rent and faced eviction from her apartment, just two floors below the apartment where her mother lives and where she had grown up. She went to housing court to request debt forgiveness but was denied. Ms. Santana reached out to Catholic Charities Community Services, a division of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, which took her case back to court and helped her reapply for emergency assistance.

In June, the debt, which had grown beyond $10,000, was reduced by funds from several other organizations and the remainder forgiven through the Human Resources Administration’s One Shot Deal.

By October, Ms. Santana had again fallen behind on the rent, accruing almost $1,652 in arrears and late fees. Another month’s rent loomed. Catholic Charities provided about $1,491 toward her balance, including $313 from the Neediest Cases Fund. With negotiations, the landlord agreed to forgive $700 in late fees.

“Now I’m back on my feet,” Ms. Santana said.

Now Sarah’s situation is also looking up, Ms. Santana said. She had conducted online research, taken Sarah to therapists, and contacted the state’s Health Department and the Bronx borough president for guidance about available services, but nothing seemed to work.

Then, after Sarah disappeared again in October, Ms. Santana called and emailed the governor’s office, explaining her family’s situation and her frustration with a lack of resources for her daughter. She received a response within 24 hours, promising assistance.

Three weeks later, with help from the state’s Office of Mental Health, Sarah was moved from home to a rehabilitation center in Westchester County, where she now attends classes and is supervised to ensure that she does not run away. Her mother said she had hope that with the proper treatment, Sarah could excel. “Now, she’s excited when she comes from school,” Ms. Santana said. “She’ll call and say, ‘Mom, I got an A.’ She’s more focused now.”

Ms. Santana has considered writing a book, she said on a recent fall day.

“But who would believe it?” she said with a laugh. “We could pour some wine and talk all day, and you’d either think, ‘That can’t possibly be true’ or ‘Let me get away from her — she’s bad luck.’”

Ms. Santana’s vision of a better future is wrapped up in the success of her children. “I live for them,” she said.

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