Missing Child: Nightmare That Never Ends

Fearing the Worst in Brittanee Drexels DisapperanceCourtesy National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
There have been few leads in the disappearnce of Brittanee Drexel, 17, who was last seen April 25 while on spring break in Myrtle Beach. Her family and friends say they fear the worst.

Two months since her 17-year-old daughter went missing in a South Carolina beach town, Dawn Drexel cautiously holds on to hope. But each day it gets harder.

"This is a nightmare, and you don't wake up out of it," said the Rochester, N.Y., mother who has lived in a donated condo in Myrtle Beach, S.C., since her daughter Brittanee disappeared April 25.

Brittanee Drexel was last seen on a surveillance video leaving the Bluewater Resort where she had gone on spring break with friends, against her mother's will, friends she later left.

"I will never stop looking for my daughter," said Drexel. "So many children go missing each day. This is part of my life now. I am not going to quit."

Parents of missing children say that the pain is excruciating, and psychologists confirm that the loss can be even greater than when a child dies. Deciding when to give up the search is different for each.

"For those of us who will never experience such a horrible crime, it's hard to imagine how they get up every day, go to jobs, get their other children ready for school," said Marsha Gilmer-Tullis, director of its family advocacy division for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"We never encourage them to give up," she told ABCNews.com. "Our goal is to always work the case and try to have some resolution. We always talk about hope."

But Drexel has set a deadline for herself -- the end of June -- when she will return home to her husband, from who she recently divorced, and her two other children.

"It's been very difficult," she told ABCNews.com. "I wake up in the morning, and I think about Brittanee. At this point, I just want some closure. I need to know where she is -- and if she's not alive, I need to know."

"But I am missing my other children," she said of her 12-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, whom she talks to daily. "My daughter Marissa says she wants her Mommy home."

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 797,500 children under the age of 18 were reported missing in 2008. An average of 2,185 children are reported missing each day. Most are family, not stranger, abductions.

Coping with a missing child -- be it months or years -- is an excruciating ordeal for families. Many couples split apart, commit suicide or suffer physical or mental health consequences. Some turn to drug and alcohol.

Missing Children: Siblings Suffer

Siblings, in particular, are affected by the unresolved loss. Drexel's daughter doesn't want to sleep in her own bed because her sister's room empty room is next door.

"She needs to feel safe," said Drexel. "She says, 'Mommy, you need to come home.'"

At the same time, her daughter says, "You can't leave without Brittanee," said Drexel.

If you have any information regarding the disappearance of Brittanee Drexel, please contact the Myrtle Beach Police Department at (843) 918-1000.

And for parents, emotions also range from guilt to rage to hyper-arousal.

Much of it is anchored in a feeling of "powerlessness to the max," according to Therese A. Rando, a Rhode Island psychologist and author of, "How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies." "Especially in Western civilization, the role of parent to child is the closest genetically, psychologically and socially," said told ABCNews.com. "You should be able to protect a child so he can grow up and bury you."

Like the Drexels, parents will do anything before giving up hope and calling off a search, wondering if the child is out there somewhere in need.

"Are they choosing to come home or unable to come?" Rando asked. "Are they lost or physically injured? They may be imprisoned or mistreated."

"You do whatever you can," she said. "Maybe one more flier, one more congressman to reach and one more reporter to give the story to can make a difference."

For the DuBois family of Escondido, Calif., whose daughter Amber has been missing since last February, the wait for answers that have never come has been devastating.

The 14-year-old was last seen 200 yards from the gate of Escondido High School. She had sent four text messages to her grandmother at 6:45 a.m. and was last seen by family friends around 7:15 a.m.

There have been few leads in her case. At the time of her disappearance, she was carrying a $200 check for a school program, and Valentine's Day gifts for her friends.

Her cell phone was turned on for a few minutes on the day following her disappearance but hasn't been used since.

"I'm hanging in there, but it's still hard to function every day," said her mother, Carrie McGonigle, who has a younger daughter from a new marriage. "It's hard to be a good parent to my 6-year-old. It's tearing up the family."

Missing Child Causes Health Problems

Amber's disappearance has taken a toll on her half-sister, who has nightmares and, like the rest of the family, is seeing a counselor.

"She feels like we don't love her and that our focus is on finding Amber," said McGonigle. "She gets angry and her teachers say she has changed 360 degrees from nice to angry."

McGonigle is on antidepressants for stress and has not been able to work at her customer service job at a printing company in four months.

"It's utterly devastating and tears us apart," said Amber's father, who is an electronic engineer. "I haven't worked a day since she went missing."

"All we have is our hope, and when you lose that, all is gone," said Maurice "Moe" DuBois.

If you have any information regarding the disappearance of Amber Leeane DuBois, please contact Amber's Search Center at (760) 743-7343.

For Kelly Jolkowski, who has waited for her son Jason's return for eight years, activism has helped her cope.

Jason disappeared at the age of 19 on June 13, 2001 -- an anniversary that will hit the family hard on Saturday. He left home to meet a co-worker who was supposed to drive him to work.

He was last seen by his younger brother Michael taking the trash out in their Omaha, Neb., driveway.

"He had no enemies. He was a nice kid. No one hated him, and there is no evidence of mental health issues or family problems," she told ABCNews.com. "He doesn't look like a runaway and there is no evidence someone took him."

She said she replays that day forever in her mind.

"Parents always wonder if they could have done something to prevent this," said Jolkowski. "They always play back the last day or the last week."

Parents of a missing teen might worry that things may have been different had they not yelled at the child about picking up his clothes.

The Jolkoski's marriage has remained intact, despite the pressures, and a close network of friends and extended family have softened the pain.

In 2003, the family formed a nonprofit organization, Project Jason, which is dedicated to helping families find their missing children. "We support them. We listen to them and find out what their needs," she said.

They work with hundreds of families across the United States, offering free online counseling. The group also distributes posters through the trucking industry and homeless shelters and keeps an address on the online game Second Life.

Waiting Eight Years for Son to Come Home

Jason's Law was passed in 2005, establishing a state clearinghouse that collects information on missing persons and makes it available to the public.

For the first time this weekend, they will hold a retreat for families with missing children.

Both the DuBois and Drexel families have also found solace in organizations dedicated to their missing children -- the Brittanee Drexel Foundation and Bring Amber Home.

"What we have found is the ability for them to connect with others who are going through the same thing is helpful," said CEMC's Gilmer-Tullis.

Jolkowski agrees.

"When you become active in the solutions, it helps a great deal in healing," said "You always have the feeling that you have momentum moving forward, accomplishing things that might find Jason or another child."

In her gut, Jolkowski really doesn't know if her son, who would be 27 this weekend, is alive or dead.

"We have our right to hope until we find our truth," she said. "Jason could be sitting somewhere wanting to come home."

"When someone dies through health or an accident they are dead and there is an answer," she said. "You can go through the steps of grief, denial, anger and progress.

"We are stuck and we don't know what we are grieving for."

If you have any information regarding the disappearance of Jason Jolkowski, contact the Omaha Police Department at (402) 444-5600.

For more mays to help, contact Team Hope (Help Offering Parents Empowerment) for assistance to families with missing children.

ABC News' Dean Praetorius contributed to this story.