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January 06, 2008 11:00 AM

As news of Britney Spears‘s latest problems became public, horrified family and friends watched the drama unfold along with the rest of the world. After a day of constant media attention, several of them spoke out to PEOPLE, expressing concern for Britney, her family and her two sons.

“It was very upsetting yesterday, just worrying about it all day,” says Britney’s aunt, Linda Brandon-Kjos. “We’re all just hoping and praying she’s fine. She’s a sweet, sweet girl and people aren’t seeing that side of her.”

“She’s got to be reaching out for something and no one knows what it is,” adds former dance teacher Renee Donewar. “It is so sad that the people that are close to her can’t reach through to her.”

Doreen Seal, the mother of Jason Alexander, the man Britney married for 55 hours in 2004, expressed some reservations that the latest event was a turning point. “She has not hit rock bottom,” Seal says. “She needs help. If she doesn’t get help, I don’t think anybody wants to see the way this will end.

“When she was younger, she had her friends, her cousin and for the longest time, she had [ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake],” continues Seal. “Now, she has nobody.”

“All I can say is that Britney is a very sick girl,” says another family source. “The tragic thing is that Britney genuinely loves her children and would never knowingly put them in harm’s way. Her mental instability is getting in the way of her making proper judgment and it’s extremely unfortunate. Her family’s taking this situation very seriously though. I just hope people can respect the fact that she needs help and keep the harsh criticisms to themselves.”

Other friends offered support, but no advice. Britney’s former assistant, Felicia Culotta, simply says, “My heart and prayers are with her and her family.”

Many members of her family are handling the latest news stoically. Spears’s grandfather, June Austin Spears, tells PEOPLE, “We re doing all right,” before adding, “I’m going fishing tomorrow morning.”

Kentwood Reaction

Residents of Spears’s hometown of Kentwood, La., had differing reactions to Britney’s erratic behavior.

“I think she’s just a normal person,” says Kentwood Realtor Tissie Gorman. “I can’t see nothing bad about her.”

Another Kentwood resident disagrees. “[Britney] is going backward instead of forward. She’ll never get her children now. I wonder if she really wants her children.”

Many residents want Britney to know that she still has hometown support. Everyone in Kentwood is praying for Britney,” says a friend of Jamie Spears’s. “We just want her to get better and come home.”

• Reporting by SHARON COTLIAR, ALICIA DENNIS, JEN GARCIA, WENDY GROSSMAN and RUTH LANEY

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