Lakeland Man Who Sheltered Teen Arrested For Interfering With Custody

Posted: April 14, 2011 by The STR in NEWS & LOCAL NEWS
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When the system fails and just when I started to like Sheriff Grady Judd….

AUBURNDALE | A 31-year-old children’s mentor is accused of illegally keeping in contact with a teenage boy he failed to gain custody of this year.

Maisen Imani Santiago of Lakeland is charged with interfering with child custody. He has been suspended without pay from Anchor House Ministries, an Auburndale group home where he mentored boys for almost a year, said Michael Staples, its executive director.

An arrest report says Santiago unsuccessfully tried to get legal guardianship of Bryan Perez, 17, whom he mentored through Anchor House. When that fell through, Perez ran away and was found at Santiago’s home.

A Polk County sheriff‘s report says Children’s Home Society sent Santiago a letter March 24 prohibiting him from allowing Perez to visit.

Santiago and Perez had developed a father-son relationship, according to Santiago, which made it difficult for him to report Perez when the teen arrived unannounced at his home. Instead, Santiago said, he urged Perez to turn himself in.

“When you’re put in that situation with someone you love, it’s hard,” Santiago said by phone Wednesday.

The outcome of the criminal case will determine whether he remains employed with Anchor House, Staples said.

Deputies booked Santiago into the Polk County Jail on Monday. He was released Wednesday after a bondsman posted his $1,000 bail.

Santiago has worked multiple stints as an Anchor House mentor, the latest lasting 11 months, Staples said.

The organization cares for boys, most of whom are between 14 to 17.

They are usually from foster care or other circumstances that leave them without guardians.

Santiago sought legal guardianship of Perez but was denied because of a battery charge he had received, the report says. Polk County Clerk of Court records show Santiago had a 2008 domestic battery charge that was dropped because he entered a pretrial diversion program.

The denial frustrated Perez, Staples said, who had grown close to Santiago.

“So many of these young men have not had a father,” he said. “When they develop a healthy relationship with a male role model, it means a lot to them.”

Before Santiago was denied guardianship, Perez had his own bedroom, clothes and other belongings at Santiago’s home. After school at Tenoroc High School, Perez would stay at his home until his 10 p.m. curfew, Santiago said.

Perez ran away from Anchor House and employees reported him missing April 3.

The boys at Anchor House attend public school, youth groups and play sports on community teams when they aren’t at the organization’s 10-acre campus.

Runaways are rare, Staples said, but some do attempt to leave.

“You can’t be in very room every minute of the day,” he said. “If a child is really intent on leaving, he’ll find a way to leave.”

Deputies found the teen April 8 hiding in a bedroom closet at Santiago’s home, the report says.

“It’s easy to tell someone ‘Why didn’t you call the cops?’?” Santiago said. “I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I should have called the cops, but it seemed like I could keep encouraging him and he would turn himself in.”

A woman who identified herself at Perez’s mother, Luz Ocafio, said Perez felt safe with Santiago.

“He has a been a complete father figure,” she said by phone. “If Bryan has a problem, he knows he can go to Maisen.”

Anchor House employees are told not to seek guardianship of the boys they care for, Staples said.

Santiago was given an exception because he began seeking guardianship before the rule was imposed.

“If he had any contact with the child, he was obligated to tell us and law enforcement,” Staples said. “As far as we’re concerned, that’s a breach on his part.”

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