Janis McCall was at a conference for families of missing children when she heard the news Monday night that three lost women had been found in a house in Cleveland.
For a moment, her heart leapt.
Is it her? McCall wondered.
U.S. & World
Two decades ago, McCall's 18-year-old daughter, Stacy McCall, disappeared from a home in Springfield, Mo., along with one of her friends and the friend's mother. Ever since, when she hears news of a lost woman found, she is overcome with a mixture of panic and hope that her daughter might finally be coming home.
Every time, she has been wrong. But she still allows herself to hope, because without it, she has nothing.
"You get onto roller coasters, up and down," McCall, 65, said Tuesday. "You get up when someone's found, and you get down when you think, well, maybe it was a fluke. But I'd much rather ride on the top of the roller coaster than on the bottom."
And right now, despite the fact that it wasn't her daughter in that Cleveland house, McCall is riding high.
"Even though it has been almost 21 years since I've seen her, I have hope," McCall said Tuesday. "If people would just look at her picture again…"
The longer a missing person remains lost, law enforcement officials say, the chances of finding them dwindle.
But then something extraordinary happens, like on Monday.
"This case serves as a reminder that we can't give up hope on these long-term missing children," said Robert Hoever, a retired New Jersey State Police investigator who is now director of special programs at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "We need to continue searching for them. Every story like this that we hear offers more hope for their families."
That doesn't just go for the relatives of the missing—or their friends, or the cold-case detectives, or the private investigators. Advocates say that the public, too, needs to pay close attention to flyers and posters and Amber Alerts. Because you never know who'll you'll come across.
"Each of these cases highlights why it's important…for the community to continue to keep their eyes open and look for news of children who've been missing for years," said Wendy Jolley-Kabi, executive director of the Association of Missing and Exploited Children's Organizations, a support group for the dozens of non-profit groups dedicated to finding lost youngsters. "This shows the importance of what one or two people can do."
In the Cleveland case, one of the missing women, Amanda Berry, 27, who'd gone missing 10 years ago, escaped a house on the city's West Side Monday night after a neighbor heard her cries for help. He had no idea who she was until she told him, and he called 911. Later, police raided the house and rescued two other women: Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32, who'd been missing for nine and 11 years, respectively. All three apparently had been kidnapped and held captive inside for years. Three brothers in the house, all in their 50s, were arrested.
"This is good," Dr. Gerald Maloney, an emergency room doctor at MetroHealth, at the hospital where the women were treated and found to be in fair condition, said at a press conference Monday night. "This is not the ending we usually see from these stories."
If there's an ending at all.
Hundreds of thousands of children are reported missing every year, and the vast majority are returned home, authorities say. Most cases involve abductors who know the child, or whom the child knows, Jolley-Kabi said.
But there are many who have been missing for months, or longer. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists nearly 2,000 cases of children lost at least a year ago.
Finding them safe is rare.
The most notorious of those cases is Jaycee Dugard, who was 11 when she was taken from a California bus stop in 1991 and held for 18 years by a convicted sex offender before University of California police encountered him and grew suspicious.
There is also Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home, and was chained and sexually abused for nine months before passersby recognized her outside a Walmart.
Another, Shawn Hornbeck, went missing in 2002 and was found four years later by police searching a St. Louis home for another missing boy.
Carlina White was 23 years old when she discovered that she'd been kidnapped from a New York City hospital when she was three weeks old. She figured that out herself, after noticing something strange about her birth certificate in 2010 and contacting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which had her case on file.
Not long after White's discovery, 35-year-old Steven Carter solved his own case as well after he found an age-progression image on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's website that looked a lot like himself.
Dugard, who wrote a best-selling 2011 book about her ordeal, said in a statement Tuesday that the Cleveland discovery "reaffirms that we should never give up hope."
Hoever, the retired investigator, said that families and investigators today have many more tools—digitally enhanced photographs, cell phone communication, social media—that could help break a cold case.
"Law enforcement are better trained to handle these cases. They know what to look for. They have better labs, with scientists reviewing DNA," Hoever said. "There are things we can do today that I couldn't dream up when I first started doing this in 1985. But no matter how good law enforcement is, or how many people are assigned to the case, it depends on public participation.
"The eyes and ears of many far outweigh the eyes and ears of a few."
McCall, the mom who is still searching for her daughter Stacy, hopes that those eyes will find her.
"It can happen," she said. "I'll never give up. That's my slogan. You can't give up."