Post-episode PSAs aim to help broken families reconnect

The producers of “Without a Trace” surely are gratified that millions have been entertained. But they are especially proud that five have been found.

At the end of every episode of CBS’ missing persons drama, a public service announcement is shown featuring a real-life missing person. It’s a call for assistance, and, so far, the effort has paid dividends.

“I think it took over three years for any type of success story to happen,” explains creator and exec producer Hank Steinberg. “But then it happened quickly twice after that.”

In July 2005, as the result of a tip from a viewer who saw a PSA on “Trace,” a kidnapped 8-year-old boy and his 7-year-old sister were rescued from their parental abductor. This year, an 18-month-old girl, a 26-year-old woman and an 18-year-old woman all were found in the same way.

“We try to use all forms of media to move cases along,” notes Ralph C. Thomas, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s violent crimes unit, investigative division. “My unit has all the garden-variety violent crimes: kidnap for ransom, murder for hire, bank robberies, assaults on police officers and the most-wanted list. If we are looking for a fugitive case or what we call a major case, we look for a major media outlet: a billboard, the Internet. We use whatever we can.

“Generally speaking, it’s been a great help.”

The idea came from CBS. The network sent a copy of the pilot to the FBI.

“There was no hesitancy to do this,” says Michelle Goldschen, who works in the bureau’s office of public affairs. “We thought it would be an excellent venue to profile missing persons cases.”

Thomas reports that in 2005, for example, 798,000 children were reported missing. Many of them were simply out for short periods but returned. Yet of that total, Thomas says, about 25% would be considered the victim of a family abduction. He reports that in 2005, there were 338 children involved in 275 Amber alerts, which are considered the instances where kids are most at risk.

So how does the series choose which missing persons to profile in its PSAs?

When the program began, the FBI alerted its agents in the field to submit missing persons cases for possible use on the show. “A good percentage is missing children,” says Goldschen. “We try not to use age-progressed photos but rather actual photos. Most of what we put up is relatively recent, although that doesn’t preclude us from doing an older case.”

The cases chosen typically are posted onto the FBI’s Web site first. A template is used for a poster of the missing person. Then that template is forwarded to CBS.

“We don’t know exactly how many tips we get, but we do hear from a lot of our agents with tips and leads,” Goldschen explains. “The five that have been found so far definitely prove that it’s working.”

At the beginning, the producers of the show consulted with the FBI’s public affairs division about cases used on the show for episodes and for the PSAs.

Now “Trace” has its own on site consultant.

Goldschen and her colleagues naturally are fans of the show, but are also pleased with the results of the PSA program.

“We greatly enjoy working with CBS and the show, and hope this continues to go on for a long time,” Goldschen says, “and that there’s a continued willingness to help us out.”

And while Steinberg naturally is enjoying the critical and ratings success of “Without a Trace,” it is the bonus of overseeing a show that can make a difference that he relishes.

“It is incredibly gratifying to see families reunited,” he explains. “We’re just making entertainment, and then to do something that affects the population in a way like this is great.”

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