By Moira Bailey Jill Smolowe and Jeff Truesdell
Updated December 24, 2012 12:00 PM

Usually when families dig into video archives to take a stroll down memory lane, it’s an occasion for fond stories and good-natured ribbing. But despite a young niece’s excited cry of “Uncle Shawn, you’re on TV!” Shawn Russ could only cringe as he sat at a reunion of his adoptive family last July watching 20-year-old footage of himself talking about his history-making decision to file a petition for termination of parental rights-what the media called a “divorce”-allowing a court to let him sever ties with his negligent mother in order to join the Russ clan. While his niece saw what was right in front of her—Shawn, at 11, being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and others-Shawn saw what was missing from the screen: images of a boy celebrating a birthday or opening a Christmas present. “My story is universal,” says Shawn, now 32. “Just like any child, all I really wanted was a family.”

His groundbreaking legal journey to find one gave rise to a landmark court ruling, two made-for-TV movies-and a family he could call his own. But though the boy once known as Gregory K. has long since relaxed into the embrace of his adoptive parents, George and Lizabeth Russ of Leesburg, Fla., his life remains complicated. “Winning the trial and being given a family that loves me wasn’t the answer to everything,” Shawn told PEOPLE on the 20th anniversary of the court ruling, in his first interview in 17 years. “I’ve been on a quest just to be ordinary.” Among his obstacles: the public outing of his personal life, his escape into alcohol and drugs to numb chronic depression, and the death of his biological mother before they reconciled. In recent years he’s come to terms with his demons, but, Shawn says, “I’m still fighting to find myself and my place in this world.”

For the first 11 years of his life-spent in Colorado, Florida and traveling on the road-there was no place, and no one, Shawn, then Gregory Kingsley, could reliably call home. “My life was crazy: living in abusive homes, living in cars, living in homeless shelters,” Shawn says. “I didn’t even know my biological mother that well.” Raised by an alcoholic father during most of his early years, he had to sneak collect phone calls to his mother, Rachel, who had given birth to him at 18. Around age 8, he went to live with her and his two younger brothers after his father, Ralph Kingsley, assaulted a girlfriend. The arrangement lasted only months. “She placed me in foster care,” he says. “It took 28 years to come to terms with feeling abandoned by my mother.”

After he was farmed out to a boys’ ranch, “I happened to see Shawn in a room, reading a book,” says George Russ, 69, a retired attorney and child-rights advocate. He didn’t know at the time that he and Shawn both had been raised by alcoholic fathers, but “something about Shawn rang a bell,” George says. Though he and his wife already had eight children, he moved quickly to bring Shawn home. On his second visit, says George, “he asked us to adopt him.”

Still, adjustment to life in the Russes’ boisterous Mormon household wasn’t easy. “I was a fully formed individual at 10,” says Shawn. “But they never turned their back on me. It developed my understanding of what a family is.” Unaccustomed to household rules, and even childhood itself (“He did not know how to ride a bicycle,” says Lizabeth), Shawn suffered from “terrible self-esteem,” says George. And just as he was settling in, Rachel announced she wanted him back-provoking Shawn’s legal battle. With the teen years came friends the older Russes found unsavory and experimentation with drugs that led to two marijuana-related arrests. “He taught me how to love unconditionally,” says Lizabeth, 64. “That was hard for me.” Often Shawn felt misunderstood. “The fame came from a bad past,” he says. “It wasn’t an accomplishment of mine.”

Shawn dropped out of community college, then two years ago moved out of state, deliberately distancing himself from the small town (but not the tight-knit Russ family), where he still felt the weight of his old identity. He was selective in choosing those to tell about his past. But as he did, he found they shared their own burdens. “I realized everybody has some type of pain they’ve been through,” he says. “I was normal.” Today he lives in Webster, Mass., where he works the overnight shift in a factory etching glass doors. No longer suffering from depression, he says part of his healing has been coming to terms with his regret that after the court case, he never again spoke to Rachel, who died in 2006. “She loved me,” he says. “My mother was human and she made mistakes.” He has no contact with or knowledge of his biological brothers.

Shawn has yet to meet the woman who could help him realize his greatest dream: to become a dad. Still, “I’ve never seen him this happy,” says his brother Brandon Russ, 27. “Shawn has made a tremendous change for the better.” Fueling that change? “I’ve realized I should be proud of what I did,” Shawn says of his landmark case. “It wasn’t an easy thing for an 11-year-old boy to do.”