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Losing Hanna, Part II 

Every turn in the case of a teenage runaway gets her more lost in a bureaucratic maze

Page 5 of 7

Under the photo is the word "Deceased."

Nobody sleeps that night. In the days that follow, Maxine tells herself that it is just a dream ... that they need to keep looking for Hanna.

The next day, Rodriguez and Cheryl talk on the phone. He says Hanna died from massive head injuries on Jan. 19, the night someone dumped her on Morse Drive.

For almost three months, her body has been lying in a California morgue, tagged "Jane Doe." Police are treating her death as a homicide. They haven't yet identified a suspect.

Rodriguez needs Cheryl to go to the local sheriff's department and have the inside of her mouth scraped for a DNA sample. Police need to compare Cheryl's DNA to that of the girl. They need to be sure it's her daughter.

Before the results are final, Rodriguez calls Maxine's house looking for Cheryl. She's not home. So he asks Maxine how well she knows her granddaughter - or, more specifically, how well she knows her granddaughter's body.

"Does she have any identifying traits?" he asks.

"She has hammertoes on both feet," she tells him. Hanna inherited the funny second toes from Maxine.

"What about birthmarks?"

"Yes," Maxine says. "On her inner thigh."

"Does she have any scars on her face?"

Maxine thinks about that one. And she remembers. Hanna has a chicken pox scar on her forehead.

The detective says he's 99 percent sure. They have Hanna.

April 2004-April 2005

Within days, Hanna's name crops up in newspapers as far away as Portland, Maine; Toronto, Canada; and London, England. Much is made of the fact that her great-great-grandmother was Maria Montessori, the founder of the schools by the same name. Montessori schools teach the importance of autonomy, free thinking, and challenging authority. The irony - and the news peg - is obvious.

"Slain girl a Montessori descendant."

"Girl with a famous name dies far away, a Jane Doe."

"But for her famous family name, 15-year-old Hanna Montessori would have lived and died in obscurity, her brutal murder another teen runaway statistic."

On Fox News, Greta Van Susteren interviews Hanna's father. Local TV crews show up at Maxine's trailer.

Then, just as quickly as the media blitz arrives, it's gone. Maxine and the rest of the family are left looking for answers.

Wasn't it DFACS' responsibility to watch out for Hanna - to watch out for her better than her family could? Wasn't that the point of taking her away in the first place?

The way Maxine sees it, the agency had three chances to save her granddaughter.

The first came Aug. 21, 2003. Over dinner, Hanna told a DFACS social worker that she intended to run away from the shelter. The next day, she did. She skipped out on the bus that was supposed to take her from high school back to the shelter. Had the agency paid closer attention to Hanna's claim, she might not have been able to run that first time - and might have been dissuaded from running again.

With the help of her family, who tracked her down through friends, police picked up Hanna a couple of days later. But even after that escape, DFACS placed no additional restrictions on her. The agency simply says it doesn't pay any special attention to wards of the state who've run away. That was the second chance to save her. A month later, Hanna ran away again, the same way she did before. But this time, nobody could find her.

The last chance came after she ran away the second time, when the agency could have made certain that Hanna's info had been sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (what's more, Cobb County police, who investigated Hanna's case, didn't submit Hanna's info to the center's database, either). If DFACS officials had checked, they could have made sure the center knew that Hanna was missing - and that she had been fingerprinted by the Henry County Sheriff's Department after she ran the first time.

Those fingerprints would have been useful had they been entered into either the missing children's database or the FBI's database. In fact, it's likely that Hanna would've been identified when she was arrested in L.A., in which case she would have been sent back to Georgia. Alive.

Three warnings. Three chances to save her. Three missed opportunities.

It was Hanna's stepmother - not DFACS or Cobb police - who figured out that more could've been done to save Hanna. Although Christine was two months late in her realization, identifying Hanna at that point (rather than a month later) might have helped Santa Ana police with their homicide case. Instead, police didn't know for three months who Hanna was, where she came from and whom she might have been hanging out with in California.

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