Over a decade after her 5-year-old daughter Cinthya was abducted, the Facebook message came to Kadisha Montanez.
“It may be coincidence or the province of God … Tell me, could she be your daughter?”
Kadisha didn’t believe it. An orphanage in Nicaragua was telling the Forsyth County woman that her long lost daughter had been located, abandoned into their care for over a year.
According to Kadisha, Cinthya had been kidnapped by her father in 2009, and hadn’t been seen by anyone in her family since. So as she read the nun’s words, Kadisha expected the message to be some kind of sick joke or scam.
How could her daughter, a United States citizen born in Gwinnett County, be abandoned thousands of miles away, where she had no relatives or even distant family members?
"At 5-years-old, on her birthday, that was the last time I saw her, and then they disappeared," Kadisha said. "Nowadays people will hit you up for money, and a lot of people know my story, because I do tell everybody, ‘I have another daughter, I just don't know where her father has her.’ So I thought maybe it was somebody trying to play a sick joke or something on me.”
But when the messenger, a Catholic nun from the Cristo Obrero Children's Home, a girl’s orphanage in Diriomo, Nicaragua, shared Cinthya’s birth date and other information about the girl, all the doubt’s Kadisha had crumbled, the story was real and Cinthya had been found.
"I jumped up and said, 'Cinthya!'" she said. "I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream, I wanted to run, I wanted to know where she was at so I could just get there."
Through the nun, Kadisha, her son, daughter, and parents, were able to see and talk with Cinthya on a video call.
All of them say that the reunion and seeing the baby of the family, who had grown into a young woman without them, was heartbreaking, wonderful and bittersweet after so many years of pain and uncertainty.
"This is something that I've been waiting for 10 years," Cinthya’s older sister, Naomi Montanez, said on Friday. "When my sister was gone, it was like a part of me died with her. It was like I wasn't the same anymore. And I promise you the moment she came back, it was like anything and everything that I've done was for her."
Kadisha said that she almost instantly decided that she was going to Nicaragua and that she wasn’t coming home without her daughter, no matter how long it took.
After the tearful reunion over video chat, Kadisha sprang into action. She gathered documents like Cinthya’s birth certificate, applied for an emergency passport, booked a flight to Nicaragua and told the U.S. embassy about their situation.
"It took me three weeks to get here," she said on Thursday speaking from her room at the Cristo Obrero Children's Home. "This was the hardest 10 years of my life, and now that I've found her it's like I just want her home. The whole family is waiting for her.”
Cinthya had been taken during a period when Kadisha was serving time in prison for drug trafficking. Kadisha’s parents had guardianship of Cinthya and her siblings while she was incarcerated, and would often bring her children to see her during those seven years. Every so often Cinthya’s father would take the girl for the weekend.
One weekend in February of 2009, Kadisha says that Cinthya just wasn’t returned to her grandparents, no explanation, no communication. The girl and her father disappeared without a trace.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMES, in 2018 the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center had 424,066 entries for missing children.
In that same year, of the 25,000 missing children cases that NCMES assisted authorities with, 4%, or 1,250 cases, were abductions committed by a parent or family member.
According to Luis Serrano, Cinthya’s grandfather, the family didn’t really understand the seriousness of the situation at first. They thought the girl’s father would bring her back eventually.
But that never happened, he said.
"The weekend after [Cinthya was taken], I called my mom and she said, 'Kadisha, he never brought Cinthya back last Sunday like he was supposed to,’” Kadisha said. “They were going by his house where he lived, trying to get in touch, and he had just completely disappeared."
When they did finally face the fact that Cinthya had been abducted, Kadisha said that the family felt as if they couldn’t go to the police, fearing that the girl’s father, allegedly a former gang member, would find out and disappear to Mexico or possibly even retaliate against their family. He had threatened to disappear with Cinthya before.
"I was scared," she said. "We were all scared."
Their family let fear make their decision for them, she said. They hoped that eventually Cinthya would be brought home or they would be able to find her and take her back somehow.
Kadisha went to sleep at night in her prison cell in constant agony. Where could Cinthya be? Was she happy? Was she healthy? Did she have dinner that night?
“Those were hard moments,” she said. “But I would tell myself that her dad had to be taking care of her."
It wasn’t until later that she learned how wrong those hopes had been.
‘I just knew her name’
When Kadisha arrived in Nicaragua and reunited with her long lost daughter, she learned the horrifying truth about how the last 10 years had played out.
Kadisha was destroyed by the news that for the first six years of her disappearance, Cinthya and her father had been living in Lawrenceville just one county over.
Cinthya told her mother that even as a small child she was abused mentally and physically by her father, his new wife and her step-grandmother. They had beaten her, made her go without food, and forced her to sleep in a garage as punishment, she said.
On top of the abuse, Cinthya said her father spent years trying to corrupt her memories of the family she left behind, telling her that they never loved her, that her mother had abandoned her, that her brothers and sisters had always hated her.
"I was always like, 'Why would I find them if they don't love me?’ But I didn't know that they were suffering," Cinthya said. "All of that was just the story that my dad told me."
In 2015, Cinthya was brought to Nicaragua by her step-grandmother, Kadisha said. The family hasn’t been able to figure out how Cinthya left the United States, but they suspect that a document was forged giving Cinthya’s father permission to leave the country with her.
What they do know is that Cinthya’s abuse continued in Nicaragua until as a teenager she began running away, first to the police, then to an orphanage in Granada and finally to the Cristo Obrero Children's Home in Diriomo, where she was given a place to live by the nuns that worked there.
"They really helped me when I needed it," Cinthya said. "So I’m thankful 100%. They don't have that responsibility to take care of us, but they do it because they love doing it.”
Several months ago, near the end of the year that Cinthya was at the Cristo Obrero Children's Home, a new nun came to the home to work for several weeks. The nun reportedly heard Cinthya’s story from another worker and decided that it was time for them to find her family.
Cinthya, now a 15-year-old, hadn’t seen her mother in more than 10 years. At first, she couldn’t provide many specific details about Kadisha and hesitated at the thought of looking for her family. She still partially believed the things her father had said about Kadisha.
But, eventually, she gave them her mother’s name, and in the digital age of Facebook and international instant messaging, that was all they needed.
"I didn't know anything about her; I just knew her name," she said. "I always thought, 'Where are they? Where is my brother? Where is my sister? Where is my mom?’ But I didn't know.”
But beyond all the fear about what she had been told by her father, throughout her abduction Cinthya missed her family terribly. When the nuns told her that they had found Kadisha, Cinthya says that it was like a switch had flipped in her brain, she desperately needed her mom and she needed to get home.
‘I never thought it would be now’
Early on Saturday, Nov. 16, Cinthya’s grandfather, Luis Serrano, was anxiously waiting at his home in Peachtree Corners, counting down the minutes.
Serrano had already been awake for six hours, unable to sleep with the thought of the upcoming day looming and the prospect of finally seeing his granddaughter, ending a decade of torment that he and his wife Rosemary suffered.
"I couldn’t sleep last night, just thinking about it. By 5 a.m., I was already drinking coffee, watching TV and waiting and waiting and waiting,” Serrano said.
Serrano cleared leaves from his front porch as he waited. The girl’s disappearance had hit him and his wife especially hard. They had basically raised Cinthya, Naomi and their brother, Mikey, as their own children.
“I remember taking her to daycare right up there,” he said, pointing down the road, an edge appearing in his voice.
As the minutes counted down, Naomi put the finishing touches on a sign that read, “Welcome Home Cinthya” in glittery cursive letters. Mikey drank Puerto Rican coffee, nervous and anxious at the thought of seeing his little sister again.
“She’s my half-sister, but we were always so close as kids,” he said. “We all grew up right here,” pointing at the yard around him.
Cinthya and Kadisha’s flight from Nicaragua was set to land at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport at 10:30 a.m. An hour later, the family got the message that the flight had landed early and the mother and daughter had already made it through the airport.
The waiting was almost over. They were coming home.
At noon, the family stood in the small driveway, screaming, cheering and filming with phones as a large pickup truck drove down the road towards them. And almost before the truck came to a stop, its doors were ripped open and Cinthya was pulled into an embrace by half a dozen crying family members.
"You're so big," Luis said to his granddaughter.
Inside, Cinthya saw the home that she once had spent so much time in as a child. Her grandparent’s couch, the one that was strictly off-limits to children, hadn’t changed a bit in all the time she had been gone.
“It’s so fat!,” she said with a laugh, through the tears.
They eventually settled in, celebrating the occasion with Rosemary’s special Puerto Rican lasagna for lunch. As they ate, every so often someone would walk by and touch Cinthya’s shoulder of neck, as if to make sure that she was really there.
Just hours before, Cinthya had been thousands of miles away. Just months ago, she had no idea that her family was looking for her.
"I imagined [coming home] when I was older; I never thought it would be right now," she said.
‘We're thinking ahead’
After the arrival party, the general sentiment among Cinthya’s older relatives was “the long ordeal is over, but now the real work begins.”
Over the coming months, Cinthya and her family will have to rebuild the life that was taken away from her. She will have to acclimate to all the things she had been without for years: a fridge full of food, hot showers, school, regular doctor’s visits, car rides, pampered pets in every home and crowded malls filled with people.
So far, it’s all been pretty overwhelming, Cinthya said. But she, Kadisha and the rest of her family are content to start with the small stuff and build their way up to more difficult things.
"She hasn't been able to be a child," Kadisha said as Cinthya sat on her lap, head resting on her shoulder. “The first day she wouldn’t come out of the room without her sister. Now she’s jumping around the house and playing with the dogs.”
On Saturday afternoon, Cinthya got a look at her new room in her mother and her mother’s boyfriend’s house in Forsyth County. The room is light blue, filled with stuffed animals, clothes, beauty products and all the things she’ll need to feel at home, because she is home.
"I love it, it’s my favorite color. It's like my room, my own room," she said in amazement. "My cheeks hurt so much from smiling.”
Soon Cinthya will be back in school and going about all the normal daily things that a 15-year-old should. The family plans to have Cinthya go to counseling to get help for the trauma that she suffered as a child.
But until then her family is taking things one day at a time, and Cinthya is going to get a chance to catch up on some long-overdue fun and comfort, maybe even at the family’s timeshare in Orlando.
"We've already got plans for the summer," Serrano said. "We're thinking ahead."