How Professional Genealogists Use DNA to Find Adoptees’ Biological Parents

An orphanage in 1895 New Orleans (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When the process of adoption became more formalized in the United States in the 20th century, a system of open vs. closed adoption arose. In open adoptions, adopted children either grew up knowing of their adoption and knowing the identity of their biological parents, or retained the option to acquire the information regarding their biological parentage later in life, if they so wished. In closed adoptions, the identity of the biological parents remained a secret that, often, only the biological parents themselves could break. Adoptees who wanted to know the identities of their biological parents after a closed adoption had few options in those days, and those options were at the mercy of the laws in the state in which the adoption had taken place.

Today, the consumer DNA testing revolution has changed all that. By depositing a simple cheek swab or a vial of saliva into a box and dropping it in the mail, many adoptees easily discover their biological parentage, especially if their parent or sibling has already taken a DNA test with the same company (such as Ancestry, 23andMe, or FamilyTreeDNA). However, many adoptees open up their list of DNA matches only to see an endless ocean of distant cousins whose varied names mean little or nothing to the adoptee.

Adoptees in this situation often turn to professional genealogists for help at this point. Seemingly magically, the genealogist parses through the list of matches’ names and comes up with the names of the adoptee’s biological parents. But, how?

Identifying adoptees’ parents through DNA results takes a lot of hard work, but the method itself is elegant in its simplicity. The genealogist first looks at the ancestors of each of the client’s matches. The genealogist wants to find a common ancestor that several of the client’s matches share. For instance, in the client’s list of DNA matches, there might be an Adam, a Betty, a Charles, a Darlene, an Earl, and a Faye. When the genealogist traces the parents, grandparents, and so on, of Adam, Betty, and Earl, they might find that these matches all share a set of great great grandparents by the name of Smith. When the genealogist traces the parents, grandparents, and so on, of Charles, Darlene, and Faye, they might find that these matches all share a set of great great grandparents by the name of Johnson. This indicates that the client also descends from the Smiths and the Johnsons.

If Adam, Betty, and Earl are all related to each other, but not to Charles, Darlene, or Faye, and if Charles, Darlene, and Faye are all related to each other, but not to Adam, Betty, or Earl, then this can indicate that one of these clusters is related to the client on the client’s father’s side, and the other cluster is related to the client on the client’s mother’s side. Once the genealogist identifies a set of paternal ancestors and a set of maternal ancestors, the genealogist merely needs to build out the family tree of all of the descendants of the paternal ancestors (e.g., the Smiths), and the family tree of all of the descendants of the maternal ancestors (e.g., the Johnsons). If the genealogist discovers that a Smith and a Johnson are in the same place, at the same time, at the right ages, and in the right life-situations in order to have a child with one another, then those two individuals become prime suspects for the client’s biological parents.

Family Tree Pedigree Chart (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This kind of a lead can never represent 100% certainty. The genealogist must always confirm it with additional evidence. The gold standard of proof is, of course, asking the suspected biological father or mother to take a DNA test to see if they match as parent-child to the client. If the suspected biological parent has passed away or does not wish to test themselves, it may help to contact another child of the suspected biological father or mother and ask them to take a DNA test, to see if they match as a half-sibling of the client. Finding photographs of the suspected biological father or mother can also help increase confidence in the identification, if the client shares certain, distinct, physical characteristics with the suspected biological parent. Sometimes, the genealogist can deduce the identity of a biological parent by process of elimination. For instance, if the genealogist has narrowed the biological parent’s identity down to a set of siblings, the genealogist might rule out one or more siblings based on their not being of child-bearing age at the time of the client’s birth, or not being in the right geographic location to conceive the client, or not being the right sex, etc.

This process can take a long time and a lot of hard work, and it requires the right tools. Many family trees cannot be reliably built without paid subscriptions to numerous databases and sources (genealogy websites, digitized newspaper repositories, military record databases, church records databases, etc.), nor without knowing one’s way around courthouse record vaults, libraries, and microfilm reader machines. Even with access to the sources, it takes expertise and experience to make the right connections and avoid genealogical mistakes that might send one down the wrong branch. When it proves too challenging, don’t give up: ask a professional genetic genealogist for help. You deserve to know your biological parents’ and ancestors’ identities. Knowing about your biological family’s medical diagnoses and causes of death is a key component of preventative health care in this day and age. Knowing about your biological family’s personalities and life stories can help you understand your own potential and come to terms with your own struggles.

Are you an adoptee who wants to use DNA testing to find your biological parents? Contact Josiah Schmidt today for a free consultation!

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