Families of missing Iowa girls wrestle with what-ifs
By EMILY SCHETTLER Des Moines Register July 28, 2012 10:32PM
The FBI released these photos of 8-year-old Elizabeth Collins (left) and her 10-year-old cousin, Lyric Cook-Morrissey, who've been missing since July 13, when they went for a bike ride in Evansdale, Iowa. Their bikes were found near a lake. | FBI via AP
EVANSDALE, Iowa — Two weeks since the mysterious disappearance of two young cousins in this small northeastern Iowa town, life is far from normal for the families praying for their return.
Heather Collins, mother of 8-year-old Elizabeth Collins, sits up at night with the window open, “waiting for a police car to pull up into my driveway with Elizabeth in it.”
Dan Morrissey, father of 10-year-old Lyric Cook-Morrissey, wrestles with the unknowns and what-ifs.
“You wonder what she’s doing, where she’s sleeping at night,” he said.
Nighttime, when visitors have gone home and there’s time to think, is often the hardest, said Lyric’s mom, Misty Cook-Morrissey.
Every year, an estimated 800,000 U.S. children are reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Most are found quickly.
But for the families of those who don’t return — fewer than 100 each year — the uncertainty of what happened to their child can be excruciating. Even unbearable.
“To have a missing child or missing children is really a parent’s greatest nightmare,” said Marsha Gilmer-Tullis, director of the Family Advocacy Division at the center.
There’s even a special term for many of the emotions families feel: limbo grief.
“You’re just not really sure what’s going on,” Gilmer-Tullis said. “Do I move forward thinking that perhaps the outcome is not going to be a good one or do I want to always have that hope that the outcome is going to be a really good one?”
The impact of a child abduction can be far-reaching, especially in a small community such as Evansdale. Families are close in this town of less than 5,000, and law enforcement officers charged with finding the girls are more likely to know them and their families. That can be extra tough, Gilmer-Tullis said.
Lyric and Elizabeth’s 32-year-old uncle was rushed to the hospital late Thursday night after an apparent drug overdose. His mother and the girls’ grandmother, Wylma Cook, said the disappearance has been rough on him, and he has hardly eaten or slept since they were reported missing.
Many family members are struggling.
“I don’t think anyone really slept until Tuesday or Wednesday, to be honest,” Heather Collins said.
She had a pacemaker implanted nearly two years ago and needs a follow-up procedure. However, doctors won’t do it while she’s under so much stress.
“I’ve just asked God for extra strength to keep my heart healthy now and forever,” she said.
Sandy Breault, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said many officers working on the case draw motivation by thinking of their own families.
“Everybody wants these girls home,” she said. “Everyone.”
As the search continues for Lyric and Elizabeth, those involved in the case have told the girls’ families they must try to return to normalcy.
For Heather Collins, that meant taking her 12-year-old son, Kelly, shopping for new school shoes. It was her first trip to the mall since the girls disappeared.
“I had a lot of people come up to me and give me all their blessings and stuff,” she said. “But I’m sure there might have been that one person out there thinking, ‘What is she doing out there shopping with her son while her daughter is missing?’ ”
Her husband, Drew Collins, returned to work for a few hours Thursday at Planetary Tree Service, a business he has owned and operated for 12 years, but even that brings memories of his missing daughter.
Heather liked to bring Elizabeth and her three siblings to job sites where they could watch their dad work and have lunch together.
“You kind of feel guilty for going to work, for doing those things,” he said.
It’s weird, he said, to have your world turned upside down overnight.
Not only are they dealing with the trauma of a missing daughter and niece, but they’re dealing with it on a high-profile stage. The case has attracted national attention, thanks to cable news networks and social media channels. Millions are waiting for news .
“You know, you’re living life one week, and then the next week it’s like the rug’s pulled right out from under your life and you’re on ‘Good Morning America,’ ” Drew Collins said. “It’s strange, but those are the things we have to do to get the word out there about our girls so that they can come home.”
For now, the families seek humor in little things, like when Elizabeth’s 4-year-old sister, Callie, told a police officer to find her sister — now.
“She put her hands on her hips and said, ‘Have you found my sister yet? You need to hurry up and bring her home,’” her father said.
They find strength and support from neighbors and strangers alike in the 65-year-old town, carved from the farmland of Black Hawk County. It’s nearly impossible to go anywhere in Evansdale and not spot a pink ribbon or flier bearing the photos of the girls.
Dozens of people, all wearing pink shirts reading “Bring Lyric and Elizabeth Home,” gathered at Meyers Lake on Friday, 14 days after the girls disappeared.
They set flowers along the water’s edge and wrote letters to Lyric and Elizabeth: “We love you, we miss you, we’ll never stop looking for you.”
It’s hard to understand the feeling of having a child or family member go missing until you experience it yourself, said Derek VanLuchene, president and founder of Ryan United, an organization that helps families, communities and law enforcement with cases of missing and abducted children.
His brother was abducted, assaulted and killed 25 years ago.
Linda Christie, of Waterloo, understands the pain all too well.
Her granddaughter, Evelyn Miller, was abducted and killed seven years ago. The girl’s body was found floating in the Cedar River five days after she disappeared.
Christie, 64, said she still sees a therapist. Sleep is evasive.
“I’ve been just sick over this,” Christie said of the search for Lyric and Elizabeth. “We’re lucky that Evelyn was found, and that was by the grace of God. I’m sure the families are going through hell not knowing if their girls are alive or dead.”