The Endless Search

updated 04/27/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/27/2009 01:00AM

SHAWNA GAGNON
Montgomery, Ala., 49 Seeking her baby sister Zena (Xena) Goodfellow

My sister [in snapshot, below] had cerebral palsy. My mother would put us in the playpen. We were close. When she was 5 and I was 6, she was taken to a [California] hospital where people hollered and were tied to the beds. I'd ask, "Why can't we bring her home?" [Later], they moved her and she was gone. California says I need a birth certificate or Social Security number to contact her; all I have are old photos and her name. I just want to know if she's happy.

LAURA McNEAL
Compton, Calif., 47 Seeking her mother, Gloria McNeal

Laura was 6 when her mother left her home alone with her little brother. (At left, she holds a picture of her mom from childhood.) After the police came, Gloria was institutionalized in Sacramento. The kids went to live with their grandmother.

I didn't understand my mother's mental illness. We'd go see her and I would cry when the huge steel doors would slam, separating us. [She would come home for visits] and would braid my hair and take me to Chinatown on a shopping trip. She was moved around; we lost track of her in 1978. We've made calls, searched the Internet—we can't get any information from the state. I want to hug her and say, "I am okay. I have great kids. Thank you for giving me life."

FINDING MISSING RELATIVES
About 250,000 people in the U.S. live in group homes or state institutions with no family contact—something Jeff Daly wants to change. After 46 years, the Larkspur, Calif., filmmaker found his mentally disabled younger sister, Molly, whom his mother had institutionalized as a child. Their story appeared in PEOPLE's Oct. 29, 2007, issue.

Working with nonprofit ArcLink, Jeff and his wife, Cindy, created a relative-search database; that, along with the Dalys' networking efforts, has fostered more than 100 reunions. Such success pleases Jeff, who now regularly visits Molly, 54, in the Hillsboro, Ore., group home where she lives. "Our relationship," he says, "grows every day." www.thearclink.org/findfamily/

PAMELA ROSE
Nampa, Idaho, 48 Seeking her son Gary Scott Wells Jr.

I had four children. Scottie [on top in snapshot] was diagnosed with severe hearing, eyesight and motor deficits. I had emotional problems—I'd had an abusive childhood. They took all my children away. I later reunited with three. Scottie's the open hole in my heart. The last time I saw him—he was 4—was the first time he put a sentence together: "I saw the deer cross the road." The last I heard, he was a ward of the state of Utah, but they told me they have no record of him. My Scottie is turning 31. I don't even know if he's alive.

KEVIN HOPKINS
Springfield, Va., 53 Seeking his stepsister Janet Schaefer

She had Down syndrome. Kids would call her "reject" and "retard." I would jump to her defense and run them off. We would sit together in the backyard swing for hours and she would sing songs she made up.

Kevin was 10 and Janet 13 when their parents married. A year later, the couple divorced and Janet's father put her in an institution; he later died of a heart attack. Kevin's link to Janet was broken and recent efforts to find her have failed.

It doesn't matter how much money, how many cars you have. Nothing in this world matters except family.

JENNIE SHIELDS-CROWLEY
Santa Monica, Calif., 48 Seeking her brother Michael Shields

He was sweet—I remember us waiting for the cakes out of my Easy-Bake oven. He was always rebelling and fought constantly with my dad. In 1972, when he was 17, he was found praying in a farmer's field. He was high. [When the police came,] he tried to take the officer's gun away. [A few months later,] he was released and was sent to a state mental hospital. They gave him a blanket diagnosis. My mother was devastated. Michael was locked away, drugged, abused. He became crazy.

After Jennie's mother died in 1994, she lost track of her brother, who had been moved to a group home.

Every time I see a homeless man, I look closely into his face. Is that my brother? It could be.

CHARLIE
Southeastern Pennsylvania, 43 Taken away as a child

I was born with a cleft palate. My parents didn't know how to take care of me. So the state took me. At the group home, I only remember two family visits—once, everybody came. It was their way of saying goodbye.

At 8, Charlie was adopted. Today, he's married with four kids; he is a systems analyst.

It wasn't my parents' fault. The state could have helped them. I was recently diagnosed with a sleep disorder. I'm looking for my mother because I need my medical history. I hope this doesn't sound cold, but I don't want to be reunited. I've lived my life—she's not my mom.

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