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Inside Baby Lisa’s Family: Keeping Hope Alive 5 Years After Her Mysterious Disappearance

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Lisa Irwin‘s memory is still ever-present in the north Kansas City, Missouri, home from which she disappeared more than five years ago as a 10-month-old toddler.

This past Halloween her mom, Deborah Bradley, bought Lisa an Elsa costume from the Disney movie Frozen. For Lisa’s last birthday — she would have turned 6 on Nov. 11 — Deborah and Lisa’s father, Jeremy Irwin, planned to buy her a necklace bearing Lisa’s topaz birthstone.

Those presents testify to the parents’ unshakable belief that their daughter was abducted but survives and is waiting to be found and reunited with her family. Indeed, wrapped gifts fill Lisa’s unchanged bedroom, marking every special occasion she has missed with Deborah, Jeremy and big brothers Blake and Michael, now 13 and 11, since she mysteriously vanished from her crib on the night of Oct. 3, 2011.

“No matter where she is right now, she’s still my daughter,” Deborah tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, of the girl nicknamed “Pumpkin Pie.”

“Just because someone else is raising her until I get her back does not mean that her birthdays and holidays should be missed.”

“I don’t expect other people to understand,” she says. “It’s one of those things where everybody copes differently. My most important thing for her to know when she comes home is she was never forgotten.”

Subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up the latest issue, on newsstands now, for updates on the Lisa Irwin investigation.

Courtesy Irwin Family
Courtesy Irwin Family

Police concede that, despite the hundreds of leads they’ve investigated along with those tips sent to the family’s website, FindLisaIrwin.com, authorities neither have any suspects nor any idea what happened to Lisa.

“As with any case, if we have information that leads us down a certain direction, we will utilize all the resources we had at the very beginning,” Kansas City police Maj. Steve Young tells PEOPLE. “It’s still a case that we care very much about.”

But with no definitive suspects or theories pointing toward a resolution, Lisa’s family is left to find their own ways to keep her in their lives until they have answers.

• For more on this case, watch “What Happened to Baby Lisa?” on our new true crime show, People Magazine Investigates, Nov. 14 (10 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.

“I’ve had a picture of her right by my bed for five years, and even on the rare instances that I’m not home, I still bring one with me or have one on my phone,” says Jeremy, a 34-year-old electrician. “It’s always the last thing I do before I lay down and go to sleep: I tell her good night, and I give her a kiss.”

“I feel like that’s a normal thing that I would absolutely do if she was home,” he tells PEOPLE. “I do it with both of my other boys. It’s just part of keeping her in the daily routine, if you will — just right on the front of your mind. And it helps, because you can’t tell her goodnight or kiss her personally. This is the — I don’t want to say ‘next best thing,’ but the only other option.”

Says Deborah, 30, a stay-at-home mom: “Every single day she is in multiple conversations between me and my boys, between me and Jeremy, whoever I’m with. We’re always talking about her. Obviously any plans you make for the future, she’s in them.”

RELATED VIDEO: What Happened to Baby Lisa? 3 Things to Know About the Case

Cyndy Short, a defense attorney who worked with the Deborah and Jeremy in the early stages of the investigation into Lisa’s disappearance, says she would characterize the couple now as “determined.”

“I think there is hope,” she says. “They’re not giving up.”

“When I saw Deborah recently, and I hadn’t seen her for a long time, what impressed me was how warm she was, how sad she was, how committed she was, how much-loved this little girl that she lost is,” Short says. “As soon as she saw me, she hugged me, she was tearful, she was grateful that I was still willing to speak for her child. There’s just this authenticity, and that’s what I felt from her.”

• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.

Short knows, too, that as the people closest to the missing girl, Lisa’s parents drew initial attention from authorities, who never named them as suspects — but never cleared them. (Deborah and Jeremy have always denied involvement.)

“It’s hard to say that somebody isn’t a suspect when you don’t have any,” Maj. Young says. “But truly, there isn’t anybody that is or isn’t.”

Short says she hopes that investigators have dismissed the idea of Lisa’s parents involvement, both for Deborah and “for her sons.”

“But I don’t know,” she says. “If you’re in law enforcement, you have to keep all avenues open until you have a clear pathway to go down, which they clearly don’t.”

National Center for Missing and exploited children
National Center for Missing and exploited children

Deborah and Jeremy still place their faith in police, and they hope someone will recognize Lisa from the age-progressed image created this year by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to show how Lisa might look now.

“We hope and pray that every time we’re able to get her on TV or someone’s able to do a story about her, that someone will see her picture and call in,” Deborah says.

“Knowing that I will eventually have her home, that gets me out of bed every day,” she says. “That, and my two little boys who still need me. They need us to be strong for them. And so does she. As a parent in this situation, you have to be the strong one for your family. You have to.”

But until that hoped-for reunion, Deborah says, she will keep Lisa’s once-favorite Barney toy by her bedside: “It makes me feel good, just having something of hers close to me.”

People Magazine Investigates airs Mondays (10 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.