HOUSTON (AP) — Long after tiny Miguel Morin disappeared in late 2004, the infant's family still paused to mark the milestones of his life, holding a celebration every year on his birthday and praying for his safe, swift return.
Now that wished-for reunion may be only days away after police arrested the boy's former baby sitter on charges she abducted him and began raising Miguel as her own.
"It's kind of hard to believe," the child's mother, Auboni Champion-Morin, said Thursday. "Some of these cases take years and years, and sometimes they don't come back. It was overwhelming."
Miguel, now 8 years old, is in foster care in the Houston area while investigators sort out his complicated story. At a court hearing Thursday, a child-welfare investigator testified that he was healthy physically and emotionally but had apparently not attended school.
Lisa Rose, an investigator for child-protective services, said the boy is a normal height and weight and that he's well-mannered but cannot read or name the school he attends. He believed he was 6 years old and identified a photo of the kidnapping suspect as his mother.
Miguel's parents agreed in court to provide DNA to confirm that the child is theirs. The whole family is eager to have him back, including the couple's five other kids ranging from 7 to 14, the mother said.
"They're anxious," Champion-Morin said. "They're ready to see him."
The former baby sitter, Krystle Rochelle Tanner, had been a friend of Champion-Morin's and she was Miguel's godmother. She lived in the same apartment complex.
Police identified her as a suspect shortly after the boy disappeared, but investigators soon lost track of her. Relatives said she had vanished too.
When the boy was reported missing, Houston police declined to issue any sort of alert that might have drawn tips from the public. Champion-Morin said officers told her she would have to pay $500 for that step, and she didn't have enough money.
Instead, she put up fliers and constructed a website about her son's disappearance.
In San Augustine, a community about 140 miles northeast of Houston where Tanner was jailed, police said evidence against Tanner had been presented to Houston prosecutors in February 2005, but no charges were filed because authorities could not verify the exact date the boy was reported missing.
Further complicating matters were unconfirmed claims by Tanner's relatives that Champion-Morin asked Tanner to keep Miguel indefinitely and may even have had a written agreement to that effect.
With no charges filed, Houston police closed the case in 2006.
Gary Cunningham, chief deputy of the San Augustine Sheriff's Department, did not know why the case was abandoned.
"I will add, however, that I truly think they did the best they could do with the information that they had," he said.
The boy's parents were frustrated that the case was not more aggressively pursued.
Police "kept changing the person who was supposed to be handling this case," Champion-Morin said.
Victor Senties, a spokesman for the Houston Police Department, said the case was handled as a suspected kidnapping and was therefore assigned to homicide detectives. He said the department is now investigating why the matter was closed, but he would not elaborate.
The case got new life last summer, when Tanner took the boy to the hospital for some kind of leg injury. She could not provide his name or Social Security number, which raised doubts among the hospital staff, who contacted child welfare investigators.
Tanner told authorities different stories about the child: He went by different names and she had been asked to keep him for an extended period of time for a woman that she had met in a park. She told investigators she did not know the women's last name and had only been given a cellphone to contact her but that the number had since been disconnected, Cunningham said.
In January, sheriff's deputies began investigating the matter as a missing child's case. Neither Child Protective Services nor law enforcement knew about the 2004 Houston kidnapping case because the boy had been removed from a national database of missing children.
Caseworkers kept digging and told police on March 7 that Tanner's older child may have been reported missing in Houston years earlier.
On Monday, officers arrested Tanner, who admitted she was keeping the boy "off the radar" by not sending him to school. Authorities located Miguel a day later, when Tanner's sister called to say she had seen reports of the arrest and offered to turn over the boy, whom she believed was her sister's stepchild, Cunningham said.
Tanner was expected to appear in court next week. She does not yet have an attorney, and jailers were not making her available for interviews.
Miguel's mother, a stock clerk at a clothing store, has not seen a recent photo of the boy and does not know for sure when she will be permitted to see him. She plans to get a lawyer to pursue legal action against Tanner.
"This is my child, not her child," she said. "It's hard for me to hear that he's had no type of education, that he didn't know his age. I want to tell him that I love him."