Missing and Never Forgotten
Relentless anguish for parents of runaways from Staten Island
Published: Sunday, July 15, 2012, 9:28 AM
By John M. Annese/Staten Island Advance
Enlarge Maureen Donnelly
Staten Island's Missing kids -- July 15, 2012 gallery (4 photos)
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- For Suzanne Parker, the nightmare was visceral -- her 16-year-old son, bloody and battered, his handsome features morphed into a warped, swollen mess.
Her son, Andrew, had run away from his Graniteville home in November, and after months of frantic searching, the dream hit her like a night terror.
"It was the scariest thing. He was all beat up ... The face I saw was his, his right eye was all glazed over. On his right side, his teeth were missing," she recalls.
Ms. Parker got her son back, physically none the worse for wear, last month. Police found him staying with a 22-year-old woman in York, Pa.
But for parents like Ms. Parker, the anguish, frantic searches and feelings of dread are all too common.
"For parents of missing children, that's the pain they feel each day," said Robert Lowery, executive director of the missing children division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The longer children remain on the run, the more vulnerable they become to gangs, drugs, prostitution and predators, Lowery said. Even a seemingly self-reliant teen on the run can be lured as they find it harder to meet their basic needs for food and shelter, he said.
"They will be taken advantage of the longer they stay on the run in some way, shape or form," he added.
Of the seven missing children from Staten Island listed on the National Center's website, four are described as "endangered runaways." They are:
* Joeline J. Thomas, 14, who left her Staten Island home on Oct. 9, 2011.
* Cinthia Olea-Garcia, 16, who didn't return to her Midland Beach home from New Dorp High School on Feb. 18, 2011.
* Kathryn Pratts, now 16, who vanished from her Staten Island home on Nov. 24, 2010.
* Arkadiy Tashman, now 24, who on Jan. 26, 2005, left a note saying, "Sorry about this. No wake, no funeral," then disappeared from his Mariners Harbor home.
"Every day when I come home from work I tell myself maybe I'll see her, maybe she'll be at home," says Cinthia Olea-Garcia's mother, Florencia Olea, speaking in Spanish.
The day she vanished, Cinthia was supposed to pick up her 11-year-old sister at the bus stop after school, but never showed up.
About 30 hours later, she called her mother, telling her she was OK, but her voice sounded off, like she was being forced to speak, and the line went dead.
"There is no news. Her friends don't know anything about her. They have sent her messages but she hasn't answered," Ms. Olea says.
Since then, Ms. Olea has put up thousands of fliers and has repeatedly contacted the police, but gets mostly the same response, that they have no news. Last week, an investigator told her they were investigating whether she may have purchased fake IDs.
Cinthia takes asthma medicine, Ms. Olea said, and she's begged the police in vain to check the city's health clinics in case she's turned up.
Citywide, more than 98 percent of the roughly 7,400 missing children reported last year were runaways, according to statistics from the state's Department of Criminal Justice Services.
The vast majority of those cases end up solved -- the stats show 862 cases still active at the end of the year, and that's a cumulative number that includes unsolved missing cases from past years.
The state data doesn't break down those numbers by borough.
Both Ms. Olea and Ms. Parker say they feel police didn't do enough to find their children.
Ms. Parker went as far as contacting the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau, and enlisted the help of private investigator Joe Mazzilli, a retired former undercover NYPD detective and star of the A&E show, "Runaway Squad," which aired for a single, 10-episode season in April 2010.
"A runaway is gonna go to the bottom of the pack, let's face it," Mazzilli says.
The TV show was an offshoot of his "Runaway Assistance Program," which he runs free of charge out of his Brooklyn office.
Lack of resources and a mentality that teens run away for valid reasons, or will eventually return on their own accord, translates into a lack of response from most law enforcement agencies, he says.
"'He ran away for a reason.' I hear that all the time. 'He ran away for a reason,'" Mazzilli says. "The people who call us are decent people who want their kids back ... The first thing we hear all the time, all the time, is the police aren't helping us at all."
Mazzilli said most police departments aren't eager to accept his firm's help, and he's even come close to being arrested while working a case.
Runaway teens are routinely scooped up by criminals and pimps, he says, referring to investigations that have led him and his staff into the heart of gang territories.
Even in cases where a runaway is trying to escape an abusive home situation, Mazzilli says, "They still don't belong on the street."
The NYPD treats runaway cases the same as any other missing person case, says NYPD spokesman Det. Joseph Cavitolo.
The police wouldn't provide details on how many personnel work in its Missing Persons unit for this story.
Lowery, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said his organization typically works well with police and law enforcement agencies. "In general, the law enforcement response is very passionate, very aggressive," he said.
Still, he acknowledged that runaway cases often don't attract the type of public concern and media attention and police resources as other higher-profile crimes.
"There isn't a high demand from the public," Lowery said, noting that police agencies must often set priorities based on anti-terrorism concerns, slashed budgets, and "demands from the public to immediately respond to armed robberies, violent crime."
Nevertheless, he said, missing boys and girls alike risk being targeted by predators, or becoming involved in drugs, as they stay on the run.
Lowery added, "We consider our runaways, all of them, endangered."