As a publicity walk aiming to highlight the the issue of missing persons and raise money to help find them comes to the region, Sarah Foster meets two mothers whose sons have disappeared.

ANY mother whose child has wandered off at the supermarket or local park must have experienced it - the blind panic of being separated from your baby, the precious life you would give your own to protect. For a few frantic moments you search desperately, plagued by thoughts of an accident or abduction and when, as in most cases, your child is found, there's an overwhelming feeling of joy and relief.

Such situations are part of the fabric of family life - minor incidents to be recounted through the years and perhaps to make parents even more protective of their offspring. But what happens when your child is not lost accidentally? What if they don't want to be found?

According to the Home Office, about 210,000 people are reported missing in the UK every year. The vast majority return within 72 hours but thousands don't - many of whose pictures and details form the National Missing Persons Helpline's database; all of whom are someone's wife, mother, father, brother, daughter or son.

To highlight its work in helping to reunite families and raise vital funds, the helpline is staging a Missing Miles walk from Edinburgh to London this month and next. The fifth event of its kind, it is being supported by the family of Dr Richard Stevens, the Manchester consultant found dead after going missing for six months, as well as celebrities like Gail Porter and Sir Bobby Robson.

Part of the charity's remit is to find out who goes missing and why and as part of this, York University has carried out research on its behalf, culminating in the 2002 Lost from View report. Among the reasons identified for people disappearing were family conflicts or relationship problems, debt, illness or accidents, abuse, general anxiety or stress, and alcohol, drug or solvent misuse. Very few people were found to have been abducted and the most likely group of adults to go missing were men in their late 20s.

It was when they were just short of this age bracket that Steven Clark and Craig Hetherington vanished without a trace. Steven's mother Doris had accompanied him on a walk on Saltburn beach just after the Christmas of 1992 when, just as they were about to head home, he said he wanted to pop to the toilet. As he went into the gents, Doris went into the ladies. It was the last time she saw her son.

"When I came out, I did look around but then I thought, 'I'll just pop home and get the kettle on and be waiting for him,'" she says. "When his dad came back from the football match I said, 'Steven hasn't come back yet' and after a while, we went onto the beach with torches, then his dad went travelling around the area in the car. You think, 'Where on earth could he be?' Nobody would dream that somebody would just disappear."

Eventually, the police became involved and Doris and her husband Charles, from Marske-by-the-Sea, began searching the country for their son. "At the beginning, we used to go round visiting different towns. We would go to London and travel round the Kings Cross area. If there was a sighting, we would go and have a look but eventually you realise you are looking for a needle in a haystack," says Doris.

While this may sound defeatist - and although she's had no contact from Steven in almost 12 years - she's adamant that she hasn't given up on him. "We would never give up. We don't know whether he's dead or alive but we can't ever give up hoping that we will have contact one day," she says.

What makes Steven's disappearance particularly unusual is the fact that to his family, not only was it wholly unexpected but there was nothing to suggest he had any kind of problem. A childhood accident had left the 23-year-old without the use of his left hand and with minor learning problems, but to all the world he was a happy, smiling young man who took life in his stride. "I thought I knew Steven very well but the thing I came up with is that you can never really know somebody," says Doris.

She admits to being angry over what he has put the family through and jokes about giving him "a cuddle first and a slap later" if he ever came home. But she can't keep a trace of bitterness from her voice when she says: "People say that he has every right to do what he wants because he's an adult, and he has, but we would still like to know where he is."

Sandra Flintoft, whose son Craig Hetherington vanished while on a night out in Middlesbrough less than two years ago, denies feeling any anger, describing the then 22-year-old engineering student as "vulnerable". As in Steven's case, the events leading to his departure were starkly banal. "The last thing he said to me was, 'I'll have some lasagne later. Put it on a plate,'" says Sandra, 51. "The next morning we realised that the lasagne hadn't been eaten and his bed hadn't been slept in."

Just as for Steven, an exhaustive search for Craig proved fruitless. Although both men have featured in National Missing Persons Helpline campaigns, including having their pictures printed on milk cartons, they have continued to evade discovery, abandoning their bank accounts and anything else that could lead their families to them.

There has only ever been one sighting of Craig, which Sandra, of Guisborough, says proved extremely painful when it turned out to be false. "It was very, very disappointing because you want it to be your son. It was devastating."

Dr Joan Harvey, a chartered psychologist at Newcastle University, believes a person's disappearance is often triggered by heightened emotions, such as in adolescence - which can last into the mid-20s - or mid-life. She says that while the missing person may be perceived as heartless, they may simply lack the emotional intelligence to understand the impact of their actions. "Most people who do these things cannot put themselves in the shoes of the people they are affecting. It's not that they don't think about it - it's just not in their mindset to go there."

While Doris believes in keeping busy to avoid the pain of thinking of her son, Sandra admits that for her, it is still raw. "I'm still on medication from the doctor because I was just so depressed. Craig's had two birthdays since he went missing and those times, and the two Mothers' Days, have been the hardest. Both times I've thought there would be a phonecall or a card," she says. "I bought Christmas presents hoping that he would come home at Christmas. He's going to be an uncle in October and he'd be absolutely thrilled."

Naturally, it is not just their mothers who have been left shattered by the men's disappearances but every member of their families, including their fathers, Steven's sister Victoria, 32, Craig's brother Mark, 27, and their grandparents. Although the strain of someone going missing often erodes relationships, both families have stuck together.

Yet, however much support they receive from each other, their friends and colleagues and the helpline, nothing can fill the gaping holes left by Steven and Craig, nor comfort the two mothers of these lost children. "As a mum, you just have a yearning to have contact. That never leaves you - no matter what your child does," says Doris.

* Families and friends of missing persons can contact the National Missing Persons Helpline on 0500 700 700, and missing persons can ring the Message Home Helpline on 0800 700 740 or the Runaway Helpline on 0808 800 7070.

* The Missing Miles walk will go from Baltic Square, Gateshead to Durham Cathedral on Sunday, May 23; Durham Cathedral to Darlington Market Square on Tuesday, May 25; Darlington to Northallerton on Wednesday, May 26; Northallerton to Easingwold Market Place on Thursday, May 27 and Easingwold to York Minster on Friday, May 28. For a sponsorship form, log onto or call 020 8392 4592.