TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Police investigating the disappearance of a young girl from her family’s southern Arizona home said Thursday that child welfare workers went to the household in December, but authorities declined to provide additional details.
The disclosure came nearly a week after the father of 6-year-old Isabel Mercedes Celis was barred from having any contact with his 10- and 14-year-old sons.
Tucson police spokeswoman Sgt. Maria Hawke confirmed the visit but said she couldn’t describe the circumstances that prompted it. The child welfare call was first reported by the Arizona Daily Star.
Tasya Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which oversees the state’s child welfare agency, declined to confirm the visit or say why the girl’s father, Sergio Celis, isn’t allowed to be with his two boys.
Authorities have been searching for Isabel since her father reported her missing April 21. Family members have said they last saw her in her bedroom the night before. A window was later found open with the screen pushed aside.
A few days after the disappearance, a neighbor told KVOA-TV that she heard her dogs barking and male voices outside her bedroom window around 6:30 a.m. on the day Isabel was reported missing. The neighbor said there were no sounds that indicated a struggle. Police have declined to comment on those details.
Earlier this week, police released 911 recordings of Sergio Celis reporting his daughter missing. He was calm while Isabel’s mother, Rebecca Celis, was full of emotion.
Calls to Sergio and Rebecca Celis weren’t returned Thursday afternoon.
No one answered the door at the Celis house when The Associated Press rang the bell Thursday. A sign hung on an exterior wall that said, “Bring ‘Isa’ home.” Fliers with the 6-year-old’s photo were posted outside several homes along the block consisting of modest red-brick and stucco homes.
Police have scoured the family’s home, interviewed more than 500 sex offenders and waded through 1,000-plus tips. They looked for the girl in a 3-square-mile area around her home, ponds, dry streambeds and empty houses. They also searched her house, but a judge has sealed those records until at least later this month.
Hawke said police haven’t determined whether Isabel was abducted by a stranger or someone the family knew. She also said there’s no way at this point in the investigation to conclude whether the girl is still alive.
“There are numerous cases that have happened over the years where somebody may go missing for days, months, even years before they are located,” Hawke said. “So we do have that same hope in this case that she will be found alive.”
Hawke said police are still aggressively pursuing the investigation and are nowhere near declaring this a cold case, adding it would likely be several weeks before police reach that point.
David Pike, who lives six doors down from the Celis family, recalls seeing Sergio Celis from time to time walking his daughter through the neighborhood. “She just wasn’t allowed to just waltz off. Mom and dad kept a sharp eye on her,” Pike said.
Pike’s wife, Linda Pike, said the girl’s disappearance has been hard on people in the neighborhood. “I think most people in this neighborhood that we talk to have a hope that she is still alive,” she said.
Bob Lowery, executive director of the missing children division of the National Center For Missing & Exploited Children, said the chances of finding a missing child decrease the longer he or she is missing because police have already investigated leads and run out of places to search. “Time is the enemy when we are looking for missing children,” Lowery said.
But Lowery said there have been notable cases of missing children being found long after they were reported missing, citing the disappearances of Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard.
Smart was kidnapped in 2002 in Utah. Motorists spotted her as she walked with her captors nine months after a handyman who knew her family took her at knifepoint.
Dugard was snatched off her family’s South Lake Tahoe street in June 1991 while walking to a school bus stop and was held captive in a backyard compound for 18 years. She was discovered in August 2009 when authorities said her captor took her and her children to a meeting with his parole officer.
“We never stop looking for children until we 100 percent know what’s happened,” Lowery said.
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