Little Girl Lost

What do parents really know about their children? Tara Jadun's mom thought she knew everything about her daughter -- until the day she disappeared. The fourteen-year-old walked out of Nautilus Middle School in Miami Beach and simply vanished into the humid metropolis. That was four months ago, and all the things Zeeba Rasheed knows about Tara haven't helped find her -- the poems she wrote; the dance classes she loved; and the new friends she finally made at school. Tara was sometimes depressed, sometimes anxious, like any teenager. But she was also full of highs -- excited about the eighth-grade prom, looking forward to getting her restricted driver's license. "How could she just disappear?" Rasheed asks again and again.

Tara turned fifteen September 4, and she should have spent it laboring through another Thursday of classes at Miami Beach High with her friends. Instead it was her mother who could be found at Beach High that morning, handing out buttons with Tara's picture on them. The afternoon was spent tracking down the tiniest of leads. This time the trail led to a deaf boy who makes sandwiches at a local sub shop. He recognized Tara's picture, remembering the outgoing teenager because she briefly communicated with him in sign language. He thought he saw her get into a white car with someone, but he couldn't recall crucial details, such as when. When Rasheed went back to question him intensively, however, it turned out the boy probably hadn't seen Tara after all. Another dead end.

Rasheed has become a part-time detective, questioning friends, canvassing the neighborhoods around north Miami Beach, where Tara was last seen at a bus stop on 71st Street. Tara's mom even rode the bus routes between the island and the apartment the two briefly shared in Miami's Design District. "I was going half-crazy," she says. "I didn't know what I was doing. Kids were calling me all times of the day, at midnight, giving me leads. I'd follow them all." She talks to bus drivers, patrolmen, business owners. Nearly every day she calls Carlos Borges, the Miami Beach detective charged with finding missing kids like Tara. She has been frantic since the first day, but now she's getting desperate. "I truly feel that somebody found her in a vulnerable stage and is holding her," Rasheed relates, her voice fading to a whisper. "I don't know what condition I will find her in."

This is a common reaction among parents whose children unexpectedly do not come home. It's almost easier to believe that someone kidnapped or coerced Tara than imagining she would voluntarily leave her family and not even call to let them know she was safe. "Mom and Tara were close," says Shami Rashdi, Tara's older sister. "And Tara adored my daughter, her niece. I think she would have at least called one of us by now, and said something -- 'Come and get me,' or 'I'm safe.'"

Rasheed knows her daughter was stressed; the prom was coming up, and so was a challenging ballet recital. Earlier that week in May, Rasheed had even yelled at Tara because the girl had skipped English class to collect signatures in hopes of being voted prom queen. "I took away her two-way pager," Rasheed recalls. "I ripped those signatures up right in front of her and said, 'You don't deserve this. You cannot miss your classes.'" It seems so petty now, but Rasheed believes the encounter contributed to her daughter's uncharacteristic reaction two days later. This is the story she has pieced together from friends and school officials:

On Friday, May 9, Tara and another girl were sent to detention for giggling too much in class. Later that day Tara was suspended by an assistant principal, allegedly for not answering him when he asked her for identification. Tara had never been suspended, and became "hysterical," according to school sources, at the thought her strict mother might not let her go to the prom as punishment. "That's what she told a security guard there," Rasheed recounts. "Then she left with some other girls for lunch. They weren't her friends. They were just girls that always leave school."

At 3:40 p.m. Rasheed drove to the school to pick up her daughter as she did every day. That's when she discovered Tara had been suspended and left school on her own. Rasheed was angry with the school for not calling her, especially since she was there frequently and knew everyone. When Tara didn't come home that evening, Rasheed reported her missing to the police. It took her two days of legwork to find out where Tara had gone. Sunday morning she knocked on the apartment door of a girl named Jennifer, who confirmed that Tara had spent the night at her house, but left Saturday afternoon after the two had a fight. Explains Rasheed: "She came back to ask the mother for a dollar to get the bus home. Some other kids from the eighth grade saw her at the bus stop near there at about the same time. They said she was crying." And that's the last anyone knows.

Detective Borges knows runaways and he knows that kids are often much more resourceful than their parents realize, but he is worried about Tara. For one, it's been four months, much longer than most teenagers go before turning up or returning home. All leads have gone nowhere. Tara also didn't take anything with her -- no money, no extra clothes, no mementos. "I don't think she was planning to leave at all," Borges says. "And not to contact family or friends? That concerns me. She's not a streetwise kid."

Her sister Rashdi agrees. She describes Tara as a sensitive and social girl who is sometimes overanxious about things. "I think she got a little scared and she panicked," she speculates. "For her to be out there this long, it's very scary."

Since then Rasheed has given up her apartment and moved to a friend's home in Kendall. In this new place Tara's old bedroom has been partially re-created in hopeful anticipation of her return. It is a testament to her search for identity. On the door is a miniature New York license plate with her name on it. There's the painting she did of her Pomeranian, Precious. A stuffed Tigger doll sits on her bed, next to the latest issue of Teen People her mother has left for her. The keyboards she played lean against a wall. A white leather-bound copy of the Koran sits on a night table next to rap CDs and books about black history. Her journal lies open on a small dresser. Mostly it is a record of her obsession with African-American pop culture -- music, hairstyles, clothing, slang. Dozens of magazine photos of rappers are pasted into the book. "My boo," is scrawled wistfully in the margins next to a smirking Nelly. There are also pictures of Tara with her friends. On the last page, titled "Tha Facts," are Tara's plans for the prom, a masquerade/Mardi Gras affair that was held at Monty's on South Beach. Next to the journal, a pair of brand-new, white strappy prom shoes sit in their box.

Zeeba Rasheed is a tiny woman, her delicate features etched with fatigue from the endless cycle of emotional highs and lows that kick in every time the phone rings. In the space of a few minutes spent talking about her daughter, she will go from laughing to crying to simply staring, a deep wrinkle pinched between her eyebrows. Her unwanted role as detective keeps her level; it gives her the will to get out of bed every morning.

Utter helplessness is an entirely new sensation for Rasheed. She is used to overcoming adversity. A Saudi Arabian by heritage, she spent her childhood in England and Pakistan. Her family married her off to a relative at age twelve. She had her first two children by the time she was fifteen. At eighteen she left her husband for a new life in South Florida, even though it meant being disowned by most of the family. It took her four years to get her children out of Pakistan. Today, at 43, she has a successful career in commercial real estate, and consults for major parking companies based in New York. She's made it. More than anything, Tara is the culmination of her ambition. "I always tell her she's my masterpiece."

But she acknowledges that her busy life has been hard on her daughter. Rasheed divorced Tara's father when she was young. Then a third marriage failed. They moved a lot and Tara went to many different schools, causing her to be held back in the sixth grade. She got to Nautilus almost halfway through the school year. But Rasheed says Tara seemed happy because she made lots of new friends. Yet she also indicated she didn't like some of her teachers. Once she even ran away to a cousin's friend, but that lasted only a couple of days before she called to come home. Rasheed wants to believe Tara will return safely this time as well. "I am a person of faith," she says. "I have faith in God He'll protect her until I find her."

MISSING: Tara Jadun

A.K.A.: "Nay-Nay"

Age: 15

Height: 5'3"

Weight: 150 lbs.

Tara has brown hair of medium length. She wears glasses. Anyone with information should contact Det. Carlos Borges at the Miami Beach Police Dept.: 305-673-7776, ext. 5161.

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Rebecca Wakefield