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'I fell asleep for 5 minutes after feeding my baby. When I woke up, my 4-year-old was missing.'

As told to Lee Price.

There’s a certain kind of reverence that you experience when someone shares a story about a missing child with you. As a parent, your empathy for what another mother has gone through can feel like an ache in your chest.

Rachel* is a mother of three children who lives on the south coast of NSW.

She has a welcoming home, full of artwork and ready-for-school checklists for her 10-year-old twins Alex and Josh, and her six-year-old son Billy.

When her youngest was six weeks old and her twins had just turned four, Rachel woke one morning to find that one of her older boys was missing.

Rachel’s husband gets up at 5am to leave for work, and on this particular day, he had accidentally woken Alex, one of the twins.

She shares the events that happened next.

It was a day like any other day with three young children.

‘Alex came into my room, and woke the baby up as I was trying to get him back to sleep. I told him to go and put a movie on while I fed the baby and that I would be out soon to make him some breakfast.

As I was feeding Billy, I fell back to sleep for what would have been no longer than five minutes. I jolted awake and it was still dark outside, the sun wasn’t even up.

I put the kettle on and went to the boys’ bedroom. Alex wasn’t there.

I woke Josh up and asked him if he knew where Alex was. He said ‘oh he got dressed already.’

I looked all over the house, calling his name, and then I looked at the front door. It was unlocked.

In September 2014, a mother called 000 to report her son missing. Five years later, he still hasn’t been found. Listen to Mia Freedman’s interview with journalist, Caroline Overington, who has been investigating the case. Post continues below.

I went out the front with Josh to see if I could see Alex. He could sense my panic by this time. When we couldn’t see him on the street I called 000 and reported him missing.

I was a mess but the woman on the 000 call was amazing. She kept me calm, and got me to listen to her so that I could answer her questions.

I just wanted to get in my car and go looking for him, but she said no, he might come back, you need to stay home and talk to us. Describe him, what is he wearing, where do you think he might go?

I had no clue what he was wearing but luckily Josh knew that he had his Lightning McQueen shirt and hat on.

There was nobody around to help us.

It was only just getting light outside so there was nobody around. The street was quiet.

I wondered whether I should go and knock on my neighbour’s houses to ask if they’d seen him but I was just trying to do what the police officer told me to and answer her questions.

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000 keep you on the phone, so I used my home phone to call my husband who was still on his way to work in Sydney. He spun around to head home.

My boys had never left my side until this day.

Initially I thought that someone must have come in and taken him, because my kids do not run off. At the park, they would be the ones right by my side. They weren’t runners.

You go through a thousand thoughts. How did he get out? Who took him? Where is he? Is he in a ditch? Is he hiding? Is he OK? Has someone found him?

I realised that he must have left as the door was unlocked from the inside, and there was no damage to the door from someone trying to gain access.

But I couldn’t wrap my head around that because my kids never leave my side. Why would he go somewhere at 5am?

What if I’m not getting my kid back?

You just go through every scenario of not getting your kid back. Because they’re not in your sight, and that’s the worst.

I had forty minutes of not knowing where he was. It was absolutely the worst feeling I’d ever experienced. All you can think is ‘What if I’m not getting my kid back?’

There’s a hole in your stomach straight away. And that hole is still there now when I think about what happened. I can imagine that for those parents who don’t get their kid back, that hole is just always there.

A local shopkeeper saw Alex walking on his own.

A lady that works in the fruit shop about a kilometre away from my house was just opening up for the day and had seen him walk past.

She assumed that there must have been a parent nearby, but when she looked again and saw that he was alone she went up to him and asked him if was OK.

He had crossed several streets to get there and was next to a busy four-lane highway.

She gave him a drink and asked him if he needed a lift home. He told her what street he lived on and she brought him up and saw me standing outside the house, hysterical.

I just hugged him and said thank you. I couldn’t speak. I told the police that he was home and within five minutes they arrived to check that we were all OK.

I asked him later where he was going and he told me that he had planned to go and visit my parents, who live about 60km away in Sydney. He said, ‘You wanted to sleep so I thought I would go and see Nanny and Poppy.’

It’s affected the way I parent.

The “what-ifs” still kill me. What if he had decided to cross the highway? What if someone had picked him up? What if I had fallen asleep for an hour and didn’t know he was missing until then? What if the lady from the shop hadn’t been outside?

It was at least 12 months before I could go to sleep without seeing that morning’s events play in my mind over and over.

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I got new locks on the door and used to sleep with the house keys under my bed so that I knew that the kids couldn’t get out. I used to make my husband tie elastic bands on the back door so that they couldn’t open the door.

My husband thought I was crazy, and I think that’s because he only got the message: ‘Alex is gone…oh, now he is back.’ He didn’t go through what I did so he doesn’t feel it like I do.

I’m still funny now, six years later, about being away from my kids. I went away for the first time a month ago for three nights. After one night I could have come home.

I need to see them go to bed. I need to wake up and see them. I don’t like them being away from me. If something happened to them and I wasn’t there I would never forgive myself. I know I have to get over this, as I can’t be there all the time.

Even now, I am still very concerned about house security. I lock up and then ask my husband to go over it all again before he goes to bed.

That day, my son Josh learned that bad things can happen.

I believe that Alex going missing led directly to Josh’s anxiety. When they started school there was an incident on the first day where he couldn’t see his brother and he just fell apart.

Even now he still needs to know where his brother is all the time. It’s like at that moment he realised that bad things can happen.

Josh brings it up all the time and tells the story. All Alex really talks about is the chocolate milk that he got and the police being in his house later.

We’ve just renovated and the boys have their own rooms for the first time, but they both like to have the doors open so that they can see each other.

I don’t think I will ever relax about their safety.

The boys have just started walking to school with friends. I’ll walk behind them with Billy – I can’t let them go alone.

We’re only a few blocks away from the school but I know now that bad things can happen. He went missing from my house. My safe space.

I think unless it happens to you, you don’t get it. As a mum, you can imagine what it might be like, maybe more so than a husband could because our kids are so tied to us viscerally.

Everything is out of our control. If they want to get out they will figure out a way. It’s horrifying. I expected they’d figure it out when they’re sixteen, not four.

I did blame myself in the beginning. I talked about it a lot with friends and family and they all kept saying ‘you’re allowed to sleep in your own home at 5 am, you shouldn’t feel guilty for not getting up then.’

I think it’s easy for me to agree with that now. But had I not got him back I would have blamed myself for the rest of my life. I just know I would have.’

* Names have been changed for privacy. Feature Image: Getty.

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