EVERY year 100,000 children disappear from their homes. The vast majority return safe and well, but others appear to vanish into thin air. For the families left behind, time stands still.
In a desperate effort to uncover the truth, staff at the National Missing Persons Helpline are updating the photographs of some of these long-gone teenagers to show how they might look today. Here, TESSA CUNNINGHAM talks to four families waiting for a miracle.
DAVID SPENCER disappeared in December 1996, aged 13. He would now be 21. His mother Christine, 42, has two younger sons: Johnathan, 20, and Lee, 17. She lives in Birmingham with her second husband, Michael, 50, a gas fitter.
Christine says: DAVID would have celebrated his 21st birthday in December.
But, even looking at his new photo, I find it impossible to believe: in my mind, he'll always be the freckle-faced ginger-haired teenager who kissed me goodbye that night nine years ago.
I've lost count of the times I've grabbed a young lad by the shoulder - willing it to be David. It never is.
I only leave the house once a week to do the weekly shop. Even then, I can't rest until I get back in case he returns and finds the house empty.
I know it's unfair on my other children.
Neighbours are taking Lee to Rhyl this summer. It will be his first holiday in ten years, but what else can I do? I would never forgive myself if David came back and I was out.
I last saw David at 10.30pm on December 26, 1996. It was an extra special Christmas because he'd turned 13 a week earlier. His step dad, Mick, and I bought him a pool table. He was delighted, but he couldn't wait to see what presents his best friend, Paddy, 11, had got.
He spent most of Boxing Day at Paddy's house a few streets away, taking turns on his friend's new mountain bike, appearing occasionally to grab a handful of custard cream biscuits.
At 10.30pm, he popped home to ask if he could spend the night with Paddy at his older brother Andy's place - two minutes away. I was reluctant, but I didn't want to spoil the fun. I ruffled David's hair and waved him off.
As I watched him saunter away in his new purple polo-neck jumper and trainers I never imagined it would be for the last time.
The police arrived at 5am the next day. The boys had never got to Andy's house.
I was frantic, but at first I clung to the hope they were playing a prank.
Then, three days later, Paddy's new bike was found abandoned at the back of our local Texaco garage. He'd never have done that willingly. The police thought the boys might have got into a stranger's car. I fought against the idea, but I know it's a possibility. David believed he was streetwise, but he was still barely 13.
Three months after David vanished, two boys were spotted sleeping rough near Warwick, 30 miles away. They'd bought fish and chips and the owner later identified them as Paddy and David. Our hopes soared but the trail went cold.
The police reopened the case earlier this year and are now treating it as murder. But with no body to bury, I can't believe it.
I've tried to protect his brothers, but the impact on them has been devastating. They were teased by classmates and ended up at special schools because it affected their studies and they got so far behind. They don't talk about David, although his photos are everywhere; they find it too painful.
I always tell people that I have three sons: two are at home and one is missing. Everyone's sympathetic, but no one really understands. How can they?
LOUISE KAY vanished in June 1988, aged 18. She would now be 35. Her sister, Nicola Derham, 38, lives in Eastbourne with her twin sons, Josh and Ben, 12, and her partner, Des Stork, a businessman. Nicola says: IN THIS new photo, Louise has the same glorious smile and all the confidence that's come from a successful career and a happy family. …