Hilda Vanessa Sanaguaray-Upaya got into an argument with her family and fled the Northgate Shopping Center in Portland on Jan. 27.

Two weeks later, Portland police are still searching for the 14-year-old Deering High School freshman, and police and school officials are increasingly concerned about her safety.

Sanaguaray-Upaya has not been seen or heard from since, police say. She left her cellphone at home, has no access to credit or debit cards and was carrying very little money.

Her family, meanwhile, has become increasingly worried, said Lt. Robert Martin, a spokesman for the Portland Police Department.

“They’re extremely upset,” Martin said of her parents. “They’re doing everything they can. Daily, we have sometimes multiple contact with them.”

Officers have interviewed Sanaguaray-Upaya’s family members, who all have been cooperative in the search.

Family members declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

Her school principal, Gregg Palmer, described Sanaguaray-Upaya as a hard-working student who has been enrolled in Portland schools since at least the eighth grade. She had no disciplinary issues and is on a positive academic track, he said.

“The question that one would ask is, ‘Was there other things going on?’ and boy, not at Deering High School,” Palmer said. “I try to greet the students every morning. She’d come in just like clockwork and was doing really well.”

Palmer said he has not put out a blanket call for information to the student body because doing so can trigger trauma in others, he said, and can be counterproductive. Administrators and staff are working with police to speak with people who knew her best in an effort to not alarm or disturb more people, while also helping investigators gather information.

“We’re just incredibly worried about her. The kids are worried about her. Everybody’s hopeful and anxious that she’ll turn up safe and sound here soon.”

LOOKING FOR A BREAK

So far, from what he knows, investigators are still looking for a big break in their search.

“I don’t think there’s been anything that police have learned that have broke this open in any significant way, to lead them to where she may be,” Palmer said. “I think they’ve picked up bits and pieces of information to form a more complete picture to see what was going on at the time.”

Police have declined to discuss the nature of the argument that immediately preceded her break with family members. It also was unknown whether she had a boyfriend or some other outside influence in her life.

But police are actively seeking out other teenagers who know Sanaguaray-Upaya, may have had contact with her or who could know where she is.

A detective has been assigned full time to Sanaguaray-Upaya’s disappearance, and officers are reaching out to other agencies to assist the search.

Detectives are conducting interviews with her family, her friends and other people who knew her, Martin said.

Police, through the Deering High School resource officer, also are working with administrators at the Portland Public Schools to reach out to Sanaguaray-Upaya’s peers.

“We’re talking with the schools daily,” said Martin, who added that the district’s social workers and guidance counselors, along with the school resource officer, have been invaluable so far.

“There’s a lot of kids who won’t come forward,” he said. “They won’t talk to the SRO, but they’ll talk to the guidance counselor. Or they won’t talk to the guidance counselor but they will talk to the SRO. It’s frustrating.”

Investigators also are searching computers, scouring through social media networks, and subpoenaing cellphone companies in their effort to track her down.

OVERCOMING BARRIERS

He said one challenge in cases of missing persons or runaways is the need to break through barriers that may keep people from coming forward with valuable information.

“A lot of people feel like ‘I don’t want to talk about this person because they’ll be mad at me,’” Martin said.

The passage of time can prompt people who initially were reluctant to speak to come forward, giving police the break they need, Martin said.

So far, Martin said there has been no indication of criminal activity, but cautioned that anyone who knows that Sanaguaray-Upaya is considered missing and who harbors her knowingly could face consequences.

The length of her disappearance is outside the norm, as well. In Portland, Martin said, the department can receive about 100 missing-person reports annually, involving people of all ages, and most resolve themselves within a matter of hours or days.

Teenagers reported missing are somewhat common and often resolve quickly, making the two weeks that Sanaguaray-Upaya has been gone particularly alarming.

Although there have been sightings and police have checked surveillance footage at stores and on METRO buses, none has turned out to be her, Martin said.

Police also are using forensic techniques to aid in the search.

DNA samples have been collected from Sanaguaray-Upaya’s family and entered into a national database of missing persons.

‘MUCH HIGHER RISK’

National and interstate teletype notices also have been sent out to alert law enforcement agencies in neighboring states to be on the lookout for her.

Although most children who run away return home within a week or two, the risks that Sanaguaray-Upaya faces increase with each day she is separated from her family, and should not be dismissed simply because she chose to flee, said Robert G. Lowery Jr., a national expert on missing children.

“It’s too easy to dismiss a child as a runaway as not in danger. In fact, that would be falsehood,” said Lowery, the head of the missing children division for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and a retired detective of 30 years. “These kids have to try to sustain themselves. She’s got to be staying somewhere. She’s got to be fed. She’s got to have a place to sleep. Over time, these children become extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Even children who are couch-surfing at a friend’s house. They’ll eventually be forced to go somewhere else, which makes them vulnerable to people who want to take advantage of her.”

Lowery said it is critical that anyone in the community – parents, teenagers, friends or passers-by – should contact police if they see Sanaguaray-Upaya, hear about her whereabouts or have any other information that could help police locate her.

“I can’t stress enough, the longer she’s away the more vulnerable she becomes to any criminal activity or exploitation,” Lowery said. “After this period of time, I think it could be very well considered that this child is at a much higher risk.”

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MattByrnePPH

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