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Taking DNA test for fun reveals unexpected family

Karen (center) pictured with her sister Carol and her brother Ed.

“My whole life, I felt like my mother had a secret,” reflected Karen, long-time Adoption Network Cleveland advocate. As a child welfare professional, Karen has had a professional relationship with Adoption Network Cleveland for many years, but when she unexpectantly discovered that secret, she also found a group of supportive individuals at Adoption Network ready to help.

Growing up in a small town in Ohio, Karen described her family as close-knit and “average” with her mother working at the local grocery store, father working as an electrician, and a sister twelve years older. She had a strong understanding of her Swedish background and felt a deep sense of pride in her cultural heritage. 

When Karen’s sister, Carol, suggested three years ago that they should take an Ancestry DNA test, Karen was hesitant. What information besides being Swedish could a DNA test bring her? Still, Karen and Carol took the test just for fun. 

Two days before Christmas, Karen received shocking results: 40% Swedish, 40% British, and 20% German. The website also connected her with a close DNA match she didn't recognize, a user listed under a screen name but little other identifying information.

Surprised by the lack of Swedish DNA, she called her sister and Carol shared her own results: 98% Swedish. Carol’s results matched her with distant relatives all bearing their father’s last name of Anderson and had no connection to the mysterious user listed on Karen’s results.  The results revealed that Karen and Carol only shared enough DNA to be half-sisters. 

The sisters were confused and initially rejected the results. After a second DNA test from a different company confirmed these findings, Karen began to realize that she and Carol had different biological fathers. 

Initially, Carol rejected this conclusion, remarking that, at the time of Karen’s birth, “I was 12 and I don’t remember any problems with the family.” Their parents’ relationship was strong and both sisters agreed that their mother having an affair was highly uncharacteristic. 

Karen searched for answers, but with both of her parents deceased, she could not find an explanation for the DNA results. Karen’s knowledge about ANC’s Search Assistance program and that ANC has had much success helping adoptees understand their DNA results and how to use the results to find birth family prompted her to reach out to Traci Onders, our Search Specialist. Karen was hopeful that Traci could help her better understand what her results could tell her. Karen admits that the loss of identity and DNA connection to her father was more painful than she expected. She also started attending our General Discussion Meetings and says she, “found the network to be super helpful in affirming these feelings of shame, loss, and questions of identity.”

For the next few years, Traci and Karen worked to piece together the puzzle around Karen’s genetic identity. The initial connection shown on her DNA results was eventually confirmed as Karen’s DNA match half-sister.

Through working with Traci, Karen discovered the identity of her biological father who was a manager at both the store Karen’s mother worked at and the business where Karen’s DNA match half-sister's mother worked. Because they have both passed away, there is no way of knowing the story around the relationship between Karen’s mother and her biological father, just that her mother became pregnant and that she kept it a secret.

Through her search, Karen found four other living siblings. The closest was a brother named Ed, who lives close by in Ohio. Traci helped Karen navigate the process of contacting Ed and when he called back, he acknowledged, “something happened with a woman that my dad worked with... you’re what happened. If you are my sister, I just want to say, ‘welcome to the family.’”

Karen travelled to meet Ed and after he took a DNA test, they confirmed their relationship. The two have since formed a close bond, frequently meeting up for a meal and conversation. Karen has also reached out to her other siblings with varying success. “Several of my new siblings that I have established relationships with have been incredible, they have embraced both me and Carol” she remarked. 

What started as a fun activity to explore her genealogy led to Karen finding new family members and having a new understanding of her identity. Looking back, Karen says she always felt disconnected from her father’s side of the family, thinking that something was wrong with her because she didn’t share the same traits that Carol did with her father. She describes the discovery of her new relatives and their similarities as incredibly healing, “I’ve accepted parts of myself that I’ve never been able to accept because now I know who I am.” 

This journey of self-discovery has been complex, to say the least, for Karen. She frequently gets asked if she regrets finding out this information and finds it difficult to give a solid yes or no answer, as her feelings fluctuate. “It’s been the greatest challenge of my life, but it’s also been one of the greatest gifts,” she commented, “it’s my story, it’s a hard one, but it’s my story and I am extremely grateful to know it.”

Picture: Karen (center) is pictured above with her sister Carol and her brother Ed.


If you are interested in searching for birth family, whether you are a member of the adoption constellation, experienced a DNA surprise, or are donor-conceived, please contact Traci Onders, Search Specialist, at traci.onders@adoptionnetwork.org or (216) 482-2323.

Learn more about our Search Assistance program

Learn more about our virtual DNA Discovery Support Group, the first Tuesday of every month at 8 pm ET.