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Lessons from 'America's Most Wanted': Never give up

By Philip Lerman, Special to CNN
updated 5:45 AM EDT, Thu May 9, 2013
  • Philip Lerman oversaw the missing child cases for "America's Most Wanted"
  • 60 cases were solved but not the personal one: his stepsister's disappearance
  • He saw brave families hold out hope, and show would air and re-air their cases
  • Lerman says every family of a missing child is holding onto hope after women found

Editor's note: Philip Lerman is the former co-executive producer of "America's Most Wanted." He oversaw the missing child cases on the show for more than 15 years and saw more than 60 of them solved -- but never the one that struck his own family.

(CNN) -- How do you keep hope alive?

The news of the recovery of Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, along with Michelle Knight, sent shock waves through the nation and the community of folks who used to work at "America's Most Wanted," a show that ran for decades, trying to bring missing children home. When you deal with tragedy every day, you absolutely live for moments like these -- moments that came all too rarely.

I don't think we aired Knight's case -- she was an adult when she went missing, and we sadly had to draw the line on those cases -- but we did tell Berry and DeJesus' stories, and they became close to our hearts. We worked like madmen when children went missing, because we knew that if they were not recovered that first day or possibly the next, the chances that they were still alive began to diminish rapidly.

Philip Lerman
Philip Lerman

And yet, as days turned into weeks and months, I would listen to the families and to the cops and FBI agents on this case, and hundreds of others, and I would marvel at their determination and their belief that we would, in fact, solve this one. Or this one. Or this one.

And I wondered: How did they all manage, in the midst of such sorrow, to keep hope alive?

It was a question I have pondered all my life.

I was about the age Berry is now when my stepsister, Jackie, disappeared. She suffered from schizophrenia and one night ran out of our house in Rockaway, New York, in a mania-induced rage. She was last seen headed to Manhattan on the A train, wearing no coat in the middle of winter, probably without a dime in her pocket.

My family was not one of those brave, strong families I would meet years later; Jackie's disappearance tore our family apart. Her mother was driven to madness by the not-knowing, my father driven to depression and attempted suicide by a life that had become a lonely prison, caged in by his wife's grief. They became, thoroughly and utterly, hopeless.

I suppose that working on "America's Most Wanted" gave me a chance to do for others what I could not do for my own family -- and, sure enough, the very first story I worked on was the case of a missing 5-year-old girl from Boston. We managed to bring that girl home to her family, and until I had a child of my own, it remained the most important thing I had ever done in my life.

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Before "America's Most Wanted" was canceled, 60 missing children were found. And in every case, every one, you could trace the successful return of that child to someone -- a family member, a cop -- who just decided to never give up hope. Our host, John Walsh, a man who'd lost his own child to terrible violence, would never let us give up on a case. And so we pressed on.

Whenever a child would go missing, the media would jump all over the story for a few days and then move on to other things. But we kept airing the case, year after year, hoping against hope that something would turn up. Whenever the energy to keep going on a case would flag, someone would remind us of the miracles that came before.

Along with the families, we were buoyed -- elated, overjoyed -- by cases like Shawn Hornbeck, an 11-year-old who disappeared from a country road near his parents' home in Missouri in October 2002 and was found alive four years later. And whose parents never, ever gave up hoping. Elizabeth Smart, whom we found after she was held for nine months by a so-called street preacher. Or the astounding case of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was recovered after 18 long years and who was honored Tuesday night -- in one of those wonderful moments of synchronicity -- at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's annual Hope Awards.

As so many people rejoice, I have to admit to some pangs of sadness as I watch the news of the recovery of Berry, DeJesus and Knight. I know there are so many families, like my own, who fear that they will never see their loved ones again. We think of the joy that DeJesus and Knight's families must feel. We watch as Berry's relatives exult at her return: "I'm excited to see her," said her cousin. "I'm excited to hold her, excited to squeeze her, to tell her how much I love her and miss her" -- and know that we may never get to say those words.

I talked to Lance Heflin today, my old boss, and he told me, "People who don't follow this don't realize what an absolute miracle this is. This just doesn't happen. When you do this for a living you realize, this is a goddamned miracle."

And it is that fact -- that miracles do indeed happen -- that every family of every missing child is trying to hold onto. I know, because I have spent 15 years working with them, that moments like these remind you: The hardest thing to do is, in the end, the only thing to do. You have to. There is no choice.

You have to keep hope alive.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Philip Lerman.

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