By Alex Tresniowski
Updated May 17, 2010 12:00 PM

She would be 7 years old now and maybe moved on from the little teddy bears she loved so much. But the stuffed animals are still there in her bedroom, just as she left them three years ago. “There are a lot of pictures her brother and sister have drawn for her and a million Christmas and birthday presents, but all the things that are special to her are still there too,” says her mother, Kate McCann, 42. “I appreciate that she’s older now, but I thought, ‘It’s her room, she picked the paint for the walls, and these are the teddies she had.’ Sometimes I’ll go in and sit there and try to get a sense of closeness.”

This May 3 marked the three-year anniversary of Madeleine McCann disappearing from a ground-floor apartment in a Portuguese resort, and her parents Kate and Gerry are fighting hard to not let their daughter be forgotten. With precious few clues as to where she might be or what happened to her, the McCanns, both British doctors, have publicly criticized investigators in Portugal and England for all but giving up on the case. They have just launched a new push for help in finding Madeleine, whose birthday is May 12. “There is no police force doing anything active, and there hasn’t been for a very long time,” says Gerry, 41. “The onus has fallen on us to run the search for our own daughter, and I don’t think it’s right.” Portuguese officials announced they were shelving their investigation in 2008 but have said they would reopen it if new information emerges, while Leicestershire officials won’t comment on the case because it is under the direction of Portuguese police.

The McCanns say they last saw Madeleine when they left her and her sister and brother-2-year-old twins-alone in their rented apartment in Praia da Luz, while they dined with friends at a restaurant some 50 yards away. Gerry checked in on the kids just after 9 p.m., but when Kate went back an hour later Madeleine was gone. In September 2007 the McCanns themselves were named suspects by Portuguese police but were cleared in 2008. “Whoever took Madeleine,” insists Gerry, “is still at large.”

But how long is too long to hold out hope? The McCanns were inspired by the stories of Shawn Hornbeck, rescued in 2007 more than four years after he vanished, and Jaycee Dugard, who survived an 18-year abduction ordeal. “I spoke with them after Jaycee’s recovery, and I told them there are many scenarios under which Madeleine could still be alive,” says Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Most children Madeleine’s age who are abducted are “not taken to be harmed but for another purpose,” says Allen. “There’s no such thing as false hope.”

For the McCanns, the challenge is keeping the search for Madeleine a priority while giving their other two children as normal a life as possible. Gerry, a consulting cardiologist, went back to work full-time in 2008, but Kate, a general practitioner, has not resumed her job; instead she cares for twins Sean and Amelie, now 5, in their home in Leicestershire in central England, popping open her laptop to check on the search for Madeleine when the twins are in school or asleep. Her children “help us hugely,” Kate says with a sigh. “They just lift us. They say matter-of-factly, ‘Our big sister’s not with us because somebody took her, but we’re looking for her.'” Young Sean even talks about finding “the naughty man who took Madeleine,” says Gerry. “He talks about when he finds him what he’ll do. We say, ‘No, we’ll get him to the police and put him in jail.'”

For the past 18 months the McCanns have been paying a detective to work the case full-time (they rely on donations to Madeleine’s Fund, which has generated some $3 million). They travel to Portugal once or twice a year to follow up on leads and are pushing officials there to conduct a full review of the case and to look into some of the hundreds of tips and possible sightings that come in each year. “People have told us they tried to give information and were told Madeleine was dead,” says Gerry. “We’re exasperated.”

When the pressure gets to be too much, the McCanns go for runs to let off steam; Kate also has a key to the local church, and “sometimes I just sit there quietly or I speak to God.” Their twins remember Madeleine in their own way, borrowing teddy bears from her room but always putting them neatly back where they got them. “Even when they have a bag of sweets, they will say, ‘I’m going to save this one for Madeleine,'” says Kate. “They will say, ‘Can I draw a picture for Madeleine?’ and they’ll put it in her keep-safe box in her room.”

More than anything, the McCanns hope there won’t be another anniversary without Madeleine in their home. “The fourth one would be even harder, because then she will have spent longer away from us than with us,” says Gerry. Even worse, says Kate, will be putting more unopened birthday presents in Madeleine’s room. “There are days when I just feel like shouting, ‘Where is she?'” she says. “Madeleine should be back in our family, where we know she’d be happy and loved.”


Donations to aid in the search can be made at Tips should go to