Perhaps there is no greater nightmare for a father or mother than finding out their child has been abducted.
Philadelphia police recently arrested a suspect who law enforcement officials say walked into the Bryant Elementary School one morning in January and left with a five-year old girl. The child was found by a pedestrian on his way to work early the next morning and the investigation for any accomplices in the kidnapping continues.
But officials with the Center for Missing and Exploited Children say that at least 2,000 children are reported missing every day — a total of 800,000 every year. And while the vast majority are returned home quickly, too many of those reported cases end in tragedy. More than 50,000 are abducted for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The question in a parent’s mind ultimately comes down to what can be done to keep their children safe?
“The case in Philadelphia is what we classify as a non-family member abduction. On the average there are about 58,000 of them reported every year - and more often than not there is either sexual assault or sexual exploitation involved,” said Nancy McBride, National Safety Director for the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. McBride said she followed the case of the 5-year-old girl closely and was relieved not just when the child was returned home but when a suspect, Christina Regusters, was arrested. Law enforcement officials also determined in the course of the investigation that the victim was sexually assaulted.
“Many non-family member abductions are motivated by sexual assault or sexual exploitation,” McBride said. “In terms of keeping children safe, there are many things parents and custodial adults can and should do. If the child is involved in some kind of after-school program or other program, investigate the facility thoroughly and the adults who work there. If you have access to a computer you can check the online lists of registered sex offenders, and it’s always prudent to give the school or facility a list of adults who are approved to pick the child up. Find out what their child release protocols are. In the case of what happened in Philadelphia the onus can’t be on the child because she was so young, it has to be on the adults.”
McBride said it’s also a good idea to have an age appropriate discussion about safety. She said that in abduction cases, the first three hours are most critical when trying to find a missing child. She said that while the murder of an abducted child is rare, an estimated 100 of those cases every year results in a homicide. A 2006 study showed that 76.2 percent of abducted children who are murdered are killed within that critical three-hour period.
Fortunately, the case of the 5-year-old didn’t result in death and although police have made an arrest in the case, the investigation is far from over.
“It’s not over yet,” said Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do on this case and there’s a good bit of forensic evidence to be analyzed. No other arrests have been made yet — although we have been able to connect some of the forensic evidence to a person in the home. We want to be very confident before any more arrests are made, and as I said, this investigation is open. We’re also certain that the child was sexually assaulted.”
“We are very concerned that an adult was able to walk into a school, and then have a student released to them, without the appropriate protocols taking place,” said School District spokesman Fernando Gallard. Gallard said that School District protocols are very specific. For someone to request a student to be released, they have to go to the administration office, identify themselves, show state issued ID; then an administrator has to view file for student to see if that person has the right to have the student released to them.
Throughout the course of the investigation detectives learned from the victim there was a talking bird in the house where she was held prisoner. That led them to a residence in the 6200 block of Walton Avenue, a few blocks away from the school where, on February 19, Christina Regusters was arrested. Three other people in the residence were also taken into custody but they were later released.
Regusters has been charged with kidnapping, conspiracy, aggravated assault, rape, and related offenses. Detectives learned she worked at an after-school care program attended by the victim.
“Whenever something like this happens a community tends to pull together and it’s a good time for that community to assess child safety protocols and safety programs because it’s always the parents and guardians and adults to keep children safe. Really, that’s our job,” McBride said.
A 19-year old woman arrested in the abduction and sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl is being held on $4 million bail.
Christina Regusters allegedly kidnapped the victim from the Bryant Elementary School in West Philadelphia. She faces multiple charges, including criminal conspiracy, aggravated assault, kidnapping, rape, involuntary deviant sexual intercourse, contact with a minor, unlawful restraint, false imprisonment, interference with the custody of a child, concealing the whereabouts of a child, indecent assault, simple assault, corruption of minors and recklessly endangering another person.
According to District Attorney Seth Williams, Regusters’ preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 6 at 1801 Vine St.
Regusters was one of four people questioned by police on Thursday, who live in a home five blocks from the school. The other three were released. Regusters worked at an after-school program attended by the victim.
The victim was abducted from her elementary school at 60th and Cedar Avenue by a woman dressed in Muslim garb who claimed to be her mother. She was found the next morning in an Upper Darby playground by a passerby.
Police have been spending a lot of time with the victim, retracing her steps on the day she was abducted. The victim told investigators that there was a talking bird in the home where she was kept during her abduction. This information helped lead police to the house on the 6200 block of Walton Avenue.
A multicolored macaw was taken from the property during the execution of a police search warrant Thursday night.
According to police, DNA on the shirt the victim was wearing when she was found linked Regusters to the crime.
Attorney Tom Kline, who represents the girl and her mother, could not be reached as of the Tribune’s deadline.
Police said the investigation is ongoing.