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DNA: A Game-changer in the search for birth relatives

The use of DNA to find an individual’s birth family has had a drastic impact on our Search Assistance program at Adoption Network Cleveland, and in searches for birth relatives worldwide.

In the past year, we have seen many unknown parentage searches find resolution — solving for unknown parentage for adoptees in Ohio and in states with closed records, such as New York and Michigan. We have assisted a donor conceived individual find the donor and he was then able to obtain important medical history information. We have helped find answers for those finding they have misattributed parentage.

There have been discoveries of full and half siblings, including my own recent discovery of a previously unknown paternal half-brother, who did Ancestry DNA to learn about his ethnicity

We have the opportunity to learn about our genetic heritage in ways never before possible. Although everyone has a right to know their genetic heritage, no one has a right to a relationship — all parties involved must be a part of that decision.

Before you decide to send your DNA for analysis, there are some important considerations:

  1. Know the risks and consequences, as well as your protections. Read the terms of each company. Be an educated consumer.
  2. Know where you stand on the “privacy spectrum”. This is a personal question and there are no right or wrong answers. 
  3. Consider why you are testing. Are you looking for birth family or DNA relatives? Do you want medical information from the test? Each company has their own strengths and weaknesses and can provide different reports and information based on your DNA. 

DNA kits can make fantastic gifts, but because the above considerations are very personal decisions that may have a huge impact on someone’s life, please discuss these issues with the recipient before purchasing a DNA kit as a gift for a loved one or friend. 

If you are looking for DNA relative matches to solve for unknown parentage, then an autosomal DNA analysis is recommended, such as Ancestry DNA. As this is being written, Ancestry DNA is fast approaching 10 million DNA results in their database. The sheer size of this database, along with powerful tools, such as shared matches and family trees, make this the most popular site for those trying to identify DNA relative matches. Ancestry DNA uses a saliva test that provides an ethnicity breakdown and an opt in to view DNA relative matches. Once you have your Ancestry DNA results, you can upload your raw data to other sites. Currently, My Heritage, FTDNA and Gedmatch allow uploads and relative match viewing at no cost. 

The next largest autosomal DNA database is 23andMe, with approximately 5 million results. 23andMe uses a saliva test and does not allow uploads of raw data. You will need to order and test at 23andMe separately if you choose to do so. You can also choose to purchase optional genetic risk health reports.

If you are a male searching for answers involving your paternal line, autosomal DNA combined with Y-DNA can be a very powerful combination. FTDNA offers Y-DNA STR testing and you can start at Y-37 and then choose to open up to Y-67 or Y-111 at a later date. 

The ethnicity estimates provided are broadly reliable and may have slight variations by company. Much more can be found about how each individual company uses reference populations to determine these ethnicity estimates, and the field is constantly being refined. As a result, some people unfamiliar with this technology may question the accuracy of the whole science. However, DNA relative matches are based on extremely reliable science. Your DNA relative matches are based on the amount of DNA shared and the size of those shared segments.

In the vast majority of cases, DNA testing alone will not yield an exact match to a birthparent. It will also be necessary to gather all information that you can from other sources, such as non-identifying information from the agency that handled the adoption, to help guide your search. Often, it is a small detail that can help give your research a direction. Genetic genealogy is used to determine possible connections with your DNA relative matches and further testing of targeted individuals may be required to prove a working theory.

When your results come in, the relationship estimates provided by each company are only estimates. You will need to learn more about centimorgans of DNA and the relationship possibilities based on the amount of cMs shared. For example, on Ancestry, my paternal half brother appeared listed as Close Family and my paternal half aunt was listed under the category of first cousin. Although many find it tempting, it is extremely important to hold back and not reach out to matches immediately with your whole story. Do your research first, and use discretion. We advocate a thoughtful and considerate approach. Adoption does not generally happen unless there are some hard circumstances involved and most extended relatives (and many close relatives) may not be aware of the private decisions made by others. Using discretion can go a long way here. It can be extremely helpful to work with someone who has experience and can provide guidance and support in your search. 

DNA analysis has been a game-changer for those searching for relatives, and I hope this brief introduction is helpful. Advances in technology have led to affordable testing, and extremely effective marketing campaigns have increased DNA result database size to a remarkable level thus leading to new discoveries daily.

Learn more about our Search Assistance Program.

Traci Onders is the Program Coordinator for Adult Adoptees and Birthparents.