So where does one start on this journey?
The realization of wanting to know of your birth family is a mixture of feelings and thoughts depending on your perspective.
Perhaps you are an adoptee. You know nothing about your roots, who your biological relatives are, and what they might be like. It may be a natural curiosity about if they look or act like you. It may be a question of their biological nature. Are you made up of a blend of your adoptive parents nurturing and your genetic relatives nature? It may also come down to questions regarding your potential medical predispositions from your birth mother or father. There are lots of reasons to want to know more about where you started.
One goes through a myriad of decisions, thoughts, and extremely personal justifications that finally bring you to the conclusion that you just simply need to know.
Sometimes you might have the aid of a friend, a relative, a spouse, or are simply going about this journey alone. Unfortunately, you are not alone in this pursuit. There are millions of us looking. Once you start to dig into the subject you are overwhelmed with a lot of terms you may be unfamiliar with. This is where people, like us, attempt to define a path and set of tools to guide you along your way.
Traditional Searching - Adoptee Rights Laws
This may start as reaching out to the adoption agency or individual who assisted in a private adoption. If it was an adoption agency and you are an adoptee you can reach out to them and request your birth parents non-identifying information; depending on the state.
What is non-identifying information? It is information from the original interviews with the birth mother. It is called non-identification because identifying Information is usually redacted from the document that would make it clear who your birth family specifically was. Often there is information in there that may be useful to your search. If you already have your non-id but it is more than three to five years old, you are encouraged to request it again. It is possible that a more recent non-id can have new information.
Some states offer the ability to sign a waiver to allow anyone trying to contact you, that you give them permission to do so. However, not all states are the same. Some may offer little, or what they do offer takes so long to acquire, people can become discouraged from even trying to attain it.
Once you have information from your states social services, adoptee, or scraps of paper you may have been afforded to you from your adoptive family, or private attorney who handled the case, you have some choices. You can take what you have and attempt to search for these individuals on your own. You can also reach out to people to assist you on your traditional search.
These links (AAC, Adoption.com and Childwelfare.gov, Adopteerightslaw.com) can help with finding out the laws pertaining to your specific state and how many might allow for the request of non-identifying information; or even your original birth certificate (OBC) depending on recent changes in legislation.
Genealogy alone does not always help. Considering you may have no clue where to start. Sometimes you might have enough information about your birth parents and where they were born or how old they might have been at your birth to start a tree. Places like Ancestry.com or Familysearch.org might have historical records that can help narrow down the list of people born during a certain date and from a specific state that can help; even some birth indexes can help. Yet knowing how to use these records to build out a possible trees becomes a challenge when someone knows very little about Genealogy; which basically is the building of family trees of your ancestors substantiated by documentation or other official records.
DNA Testing Methodologies
Why do people turn to DNA testing to try and find their birth parents? The simple answer is that performing DNA testing helps one scientifically prove a biological relationship exists between two people. However, the further out our individual cousins fall on the familial cousin chart the weaker it becomes to trust the results in ways in which we want them to help.
Before understanding how to read DNA results, you first have to learn the differences between the different DNA testing companies. The types of DNA testing companies that we recommend that you use are, what some of us refer to as, "the big three". They are AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, and 23andMe. All three offer what’s called an autosomal DNA test. There are even more up and coming DNA testing companies; like MyHeritage. Each company has a unique database of potential cousins in their results.
The autosomal test analyzes your entire genome—all 23 pairs of chromosomes—as opposed to only looking at the Y-chromosome or mitochondrial DNA (which makes other types of tests gender specific). Your autosomal chromosomes carry genetic information from both your parents that are passed down through the generations. Results may vary, but most offer the ability to see fairly accurately about five generations back. Yet, it is never really clear which side the cousins in your DNA results are from; your birth mother or birth father. That takes time to work out which side seems to belong to one group of people and another (maternal or paternal) with practice.
Out of all three of these companies, Family Tree DNA, allows you to perform very specific DNA testing on the Y-DNA (paternal) and mitochondrial DNA (maternal) side, in addition to the autosomal DNA test (they call Family Finder). However, for searching the immediate family neither of these other tests are worth much attention as do autosomal DNA testing can initially.
There are special circumstances where Y-DNA testing for men can help identify a possible father’s surname as men seldom change their last names from marriage to marriage throughout the generations.
The basic idea behind autosomal DNA tests is finding cousins who are not only related to you genetically but also related to one another. A genetic genealogical term called, “Most Recent Common Ancestor” (MRCA) is used when we attempt to learn of the two (or more) cousins who are related to one another and you share a MRCA in their family trees.
DNA results are only the first step in attempting to find our birth relatives. Without genetic cousins who have relatively well documented genealogical family trees, it makes it that much harder to find the MRCA between them. We use genetic genealogy to help with our research. Genetic genealogy is the use of DNA testing in combination with traditional genealogy and historical records to infer relationships between individuals.
Let’s show a break down of two cousins family trees.
The above example shows two separate family trees. The one on the left shows a "3rd Cousin" who you may have recently found in the results of an autosomal DNA test. The family tree on the right shows a "2nd Cousin" you found in a similar autosomal DNA test with a different company. Both these cousins were contacted and provided you with links to their family trees. Searching through the names, you found that they both share a male relative with the same name and birth date. However, their wives are not the same. This clue can still help. The male with the same name that they both share is their "Most Recent Common Ancestor" (MRCA). Since they both are related to you and each other, it is very likely this is also your MRCA too!
If we build out a genealogical family tree of our own on the MRCA forward in time using clues from these cousins, and documentation that might be revealed through companies like Ancestry.com, we may very well be on the trail of either your birth mother or father somewhere below this shared relative.
For adoptees, the type of evidence that might help us is the non-Identifying information that we may have attained from the adoption agency that placed us. For instance, if we know the age of our mother and father from that date we were born, we can now estimate the year our birth parents were born. In doing so, we can focus on any of the children of this MRCA for individuals with a birth year that might match our birth parents.
We can provide more details, suggestions, and instruction on how to work with DNA testing, and the expectations and question you may find from testing with each of the three major DNA companies. One of the more common methodologies we use, not dissimilar to what was just described above, is the Pendulum Methodology.
If you bravely want to tread more deeply into the subject on your own, the International Society of Genetic Genealogy has an excellent wiki here.
Click here for an Adobe PDF file that attempts to depict a visual breakdown using genetic genealogy to potentially find biological family members through triangulation. I am also including a PDF document from Richard Hill written recently called "Seven Guidelines for Adoptees", available on this link.
Birth parents and DNA
While a birth parent can get DNA testing done, it cannot be used (in most cases) to try and reverse engineer a family tree as described above (for the adoptees). In your case, you will be putting your own DNA results out there, available to be found if your biological child were to ever try and use DNA testing to find you. We encourage birth parents to do this. We would also suggest describing as much as you can about yourself and any medical predispositions you or your biological family have in whatever area can be seen by public matches at each DNA company. Find out how they can keep your DNA test on file for an indefinite period of time. This way you might be able to leave bread crumbs behind should you ever end your search, move to another geological location, or even pass away. As grim as that sounds, leaving something behind to be found can still bring some birth parents peace of mind that they have done all they can to help.
Search angel assistance
We have designed a search angel form that can be used as a first step to work with us on your journey. We cannot promise that we will be successful, but we will try our best to assist you as much as we can.
While there are different ways to approach finding your birth relatives, the one we use the most often is to take the information we have from an adoptees non-identifying information, rumors and scraps of paper collected by their adopted parents surrounding the adoption itself, and a DNA test from Ancestry.com.
Why start with Ancestry.com? It is one of the three major DNA testing companies we affiliate with simply because the tools surrounding their genealogical tree building, in combination with a DNA kit, is an excellent resource to begin from.
There is an investment to make subscribing to Ancestry.com. However, we have never regretted working with them. The combination of public member trees, hints, millions of public records, DNA testing, and a built in comparison tool with other like member’s trees, has the potential to be a big knock-out punch in regard to working with what little information we have. Usually the best route is to get a fourteen-day trial to Ancestry, then purchase their DNA kit that can include free shipping.
The second of the major DNA companies is Family Tree DNA (FTDNA). They offer the Family Finder test for autosomal DNA testing purposes. They also offer more specialized testing; like Y-DNA (paternal side) and Full Sequence mtDNA (maternal side) testing. It is not necessary to purchase those kinds of test kits unless we exhaust the autosomal DNA testing route first.
While there are other DNA testing companies, the last of the three major DNA companies we recommend is 23andMe. The idea is to find the closest relatives in all three testing companies and hope they are able to share access to their family tree information. In addition to what matches we find close to the first to third cousin level, finding a willing genetic cousin who will actively assist you, can expedite your search even further.
Of the three DNA testing companies FTDNA is also internationally connected to many people in their database, while AncestryDNA and 23andMe or more based on the North American clientele. No matter what the results come back, a recent immigrant to the United States may have the most challenging time finding birth relatives through DNA testing. We have found individuals who's birth parents may have migrated into the US during WWII from Europe a challenge to assist. The war created a terrible loss of life, records, and families. Making it that much harder to locate reliable information. There are some cases where the baptismal records of ancestors will become the only reliable record to go by for some birth families that lived in Europe. Language can also become a challenge, where all the records are in a foreign language and the dependency on a third party to assist us in translation becomes essential.
In the best case scenario, the results from DNA testing in conjunction with a handful of clues from the non-identifying information is enough to start a genealogical family tree on Ancestry.com based on the most recent genetically linked cousin. Building out an accurate tree that is substantiated with a good amount of documentation is well worth the effort.
So managing the economics of your search should be at the forefront of your mind. If Ancestry.com costs around twenty-dollars a month, and every test from the three major DNA companies costs around eighty to one hundred dollars a piece, you can see how it starts to add up. We have recommendations on how to lower your costs while depending on our volunteers to help you with building your family tree out.
If you rewind the clock just five to ten years ago many of this was either impossible to afford, or the DNA results were much less reliable to count on. Enough people have found value in these DNA tests to actually make it much more affordable to modern adoptees on their search for the truth. Realize the above route is the most likely way we will encourage individuals looking for their birth parents. So save your pennies and realize it is still the best route to take in this day and age.
For those willing to invest the time to teach themselves how to parse all the data from the three major DNA testing companies, there is a proven methodology from DNAadoption.com. However, it will require attaining knowledge using tools like a chromosome browser and genetic genealogy to get the best results you are seeking.