STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. (PIX11) — When Rafael Escobar Jr. went to live at St. Michael’s Home for Children in the early 1970s, he had recently been treated for a nervous breakdown that he suffered at 13 years old. According to his older sister, Rafael changed after his mother abandoned the family.
“It hit him more than it hit all of us,” said Carmen Escobar, one of Rafael’s nine surviving siblings. “He started losing his hearing, and he didn’t want to talk. He became catatonic.”
But Rafael, known as “Junior,” did recover for several years — he learned to enjoy activities at the group home run by Catholic Charities, which sat on 88 acres of land at 1380 Arthur Kill Road.
“He used to love to play basketball, all the time,” Rafael’s younger brother, Freddie Escobar, recalled. “He had this crazy hook shot. They called it the ‘Raf’ shot.”
When Rafael was 16, he served as a groomsman at his sister Celeste’s wedding — and was happy to dance with a pretty bridesmaid.
“We were happy to be together,” Celeste Escobar Piñero said. “We loved him so much.”
But as Rafael approached the age of 18 — an age when he was supposed to be gearing up to leave the home — his mental health worsened. Once again, he was admitted to psychiatric hospitals.
“He just wasn’t ready to leave,” Freddie Escobar remembered. “And he was very, very afraid.”
When “Junior” visited his sister Carmen on certain weekends, she saw that his condition was deteriorating.
“He wasn’t himself, because they had him on all these medications,” Carmen Escobar told PIX11 News. “Lithium and all that, [which] would make him look like a zombie.”
And when Rafael Escobar realized he might not achieve his goal of joining the military, he tried to put on a brave front in a telephone call to his sister.
“He said, ‘I’m going to make you proud,” Carmen Escobar recalled through tears. “I’m going to make all of you proud of me.'”
On November 30, 1976, Freddie Escobar — three years younger than Junior — said he went to his brother’s room at St. Michael’s. The youngest Escobar son had been living at the home since the age of 11.
“I went to check up on him, and he just wasn’t there,” Freddie Escobar, now 62, remembered.
The Escobar sisters showed us a letter they received from a social worker at the home in early December 1976. It revealed Rafael had been missing from St. Michael’s since Nov. 30 of that year. The letter stressed it was “extremely important” to locate and return him to the home.
Celeste Escobar Piñero recalled filing the missing persons report at the nearby police precinct on Staten Island. There, she was told that foul play was suspected.
St. Michael’s Home for Children was the subject of some negative headlines in 1976, with stories surfacing that minors were drinking and doing drugs at the facility, while others were subjected to physical assaults.
“There were a lot of things that were happening that were kind of strange,” Freddie Escobar said. “There was a girls’ side and a boys’ side. Some girls were getting pregnant.”
Celeste Escobar Piñero said the family never got any viable leads on Junior’s whereabouts.
“We tried so hard to find him on our own,” the sister recalled. “We had given a deposit of $5,000 to someone that claimed to be a private investigator.”
But that investigator “jerked” the family around and stole their money, she said. Growing increasing desperate for news, the family sought a reading with a fortune teller.
If he’s alive, Rafael will be marking his 65th birthday this Christmas Eve.
His sister, Carmen, told PIX11 News she has never closed his bank account — and she’s never changed her phone number. She has the same name as her mother, and hopes one day her brother will remember it.
“I was always hoping he would remember his mother’s name,” Carmen Escobar said, “He was always concerned about her.”
“I never forgot about him,” Junior’s sister, Celeste, added. “We never forgot about him.”
When PIX11 News reached out to the Missing Persons Squad, asking about assistance for the Escobar family, we learned the Office of Chief Medical Examiner will hold a missing persons day on June 25th. Families of the missing can come to the event on First Avenue in Manhattan and submit DNA samples that can be put in a national database.
For the Escobar siblings, who had a brother and sister die in Puerto Rico before moving with their parents to New York, memories can be painful.
Carmen Escobar told PIX11 News about the six room apartment she had rented, hoping to bring her sisters and brothers back from group homes, one by one. She said Junior called her once, crying that he wanted to come home.
“He said, ‘I’m next on line, I’m next on line, right?'” Carmen Escobar remembered. “I’m next on line to come and live with you?
“I said, ‘Yes you are, you are next.'”