Tonight, a reality show is dangling a prize and a parent. But real quests, though often rewarding, can also be complicated, even impossible.
By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 3, 2005
It seems clear how things will end tonight on the controversial Fox television special Who's Your Daddy?
Tears will flow as a grateful father reunites with his long-lost daughter, reality TV-style.
National adoption groups already have blasted the program, saying it turns a deeply emotional issue into game-show schlock. If the daughter picks her birth father out of a group that includes seven impostors, she wins a $100,000 prize.
Thousands of others have learned that real-life adoption searches don't always end like television shows, with tears of joy and pots of gold.
Grownup adoptees often search for years, only to find birth parents who do not want to shake hands and hug their own pasts. Many discover the only way to answer lifelong questions is to break into others' family secrets.
Because of privacy laws, sometimes searchers find no answers at all, in spite of the stunning array of clues posted every day on Internet sites. And as they search for birth parents, they risk worrying the adoptive mothers and fathers who raised them.
"People who are searching and expecting a fairy tale ending are certainly not dealing with reality," said Pat Burns of Tallahassee, who gave birth to a son who was adopted and who runs a Web site for adoption searchers. "You could find that, but there certainly are no guarantees."
Thousands of Floridians have set out to explore their own bloodlines. More than 6,000 people have signed up with a state-run adoption registry.
Adult adoptees are searching for birth parents they have never known. Birth parents are looking for the children they placed for adoption but never forgot. Brothers yearn to find long-lost brothers, and grandmothers hope to lay eyes on children they never rocked to sleep.
For Charles Robert Case, the question of who gave birth to him on April 28, 1958, at St. Petersburg's Mound Park Hospital has always nagged at him. But it never became a burning quest for him, until he learned one of his daughters has a blood disorder.
The news made him wonder: What other genetic secrets are locked inside us?
After months of searching, Case learned about two weeks ago that his biological father has been located in a northern state and is willing to make some sort of contact soon.
"I have no idea what to expect out of this meeting, or what to look for," said Case, who sells furniture and does interior design in West Palm Beach. "Answers, I guess, genetic answers, family history."
Some get help from other searchers like Bertie Hunt, an Orlando private investigator who never imagined the issue would touch her personally.
Hunt figured she knew something about finding people's histories. In her work, she vetted job applicants for corporations, searching their backgrounds for any blemishes.
But until a close family friend took her out for pizza one day in 1991, she didn't know about the secret in her own background. Her parents, who had died earlier, had adopted her and never told her. She tracked down her birth mother, only to learn she was dead, too.
"It's changed my life," said Hunt, who now conducts adoption searches full-time. She said she knows not all reunions are joyful ones, but she understands why people search.
"It's a void in their life; it's a hole in their heart. You know who your family is, right? See, they don't."
These contacts stir deep emotions. Meetings are not always easy.
Josette Marquess directs the state-run Florida Adoption Registry in Tallahassee, which matches family members. Parents, children, grandparents and siblings can voluntarily register. If their missing family member registers, too, Marquess notifies both parties, so they can contact each other.
But sometimes, even though they have previously registered, one of the parties can't go through with it.
"There are still some birth mothers that I have contacted recently who have said to me, "I'm choosing not to be reunited; I don't want my information released,"' Marquess said.
On the other hand, many reunions are welcomed and give both parties a sense of fulfillment. Burns said she works a day job to pay the bills, but running her Web site after hours is "the most incredibly gratifying work I have ever done" because the reunions mean so much to many people.
Richard Curtis began his search when he had a heart arrhythmia, and his doctor asked about his family medical history. Curtis said he didn't know his history, but decided to start looking.
He learned his birth father's name and went to Cleveland, where he searched city directories, followed the trail to a cemetery, then to a funeral home, and finally to a doorstep where he explained his story. The man who answered the door, and his wife who came up behind him, were floored by the news. Curtis was the woman's brother, a brother she never knew existed.
Over time, he has gotten to know some of the family members, but not others. Just knowing about each other required some adjustment for everyone.
"It was complicated for me. At times I was confused. At times I wasn't sure where I fit with either one of these families. All of a sudden this 60-year-old-guy shows up - What does he want? - that's the first question they asked."
But Curtis, now 69, a retired college administrator living in Ocala, said he's glad he went on the search.
"No matter what individuals find, it's important that we at least know the truth, and truth is so important in this whole issue. There aren't any more lies, there aren't any more coverups."
For him, knowing his family history "means that I have become a fully functioning person. The changes that have happened to me since that time, in terms of peace and serenity, I can't even begin to (say)."
Ruth Field Beck of Lantana has begun to search for the boy she gave birth to in Cincinnati on Valentine's Day nearly 18 years ago. At the time, she said, she was not financially able to raise a child and was "not in a real close relationship" with the father.
She's hopeful about finding her son, but realistic.
"I want him to have his medical information; I want him to know that he was always thought of, and that if he wants to have a relationship, in addition to his adoptive family's relationship, I would be happy."
She has never forgotten. Some days have passed in which she did not think of him, but not many, she says. Especially Valentine's Day. "I'd want to tell him that I love him and I always loved him and I want him to be happy. And I would hope that I would listen as well as talk."
Beck, 42, who works for a nutritional food supplements business, also would like to speak to her son's adoptive parents. She has a message for them, too.
"I feel like they've met a need in my life," she said. "And I feel like I probably also met a need in their life."