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New Support Group for the Emotional Side of DNA Discoveries

Thank you to Severance Magazine for featuring this interview by Severance Magazine editor, B.K. Jackson with Traci Onders, Search Specialist - Adult Adoptees & Birthparents at Adoption Network Cleveland. The interview can be seen online at Severance Magazine, published on January 26, 2021.

Individuals searching for biological family have new resources from Adoption Network Cleveland—a peer support group for the emotional journey and one-on-one assistance from a search specialist

Recognizing the challenges facing individuals who experience DNA surprises, Adoption Network Cleveland (ANC) has launched the DNA Discoveries Peer Support Group, a virtual peer support program focused on the emotional impacts of the journey. It kicks off with a special panel on February 2 facilitated by ANC’s search specialist, Traci Onders, that will feature an individual who’s discovered misattributed parentage, a donor-conceived person, and adoptees who have found birth family. Onders spoke with us about the program and the personal journey that led her to working with ANC.

How did you come to Adoption Network Cleveland and how did you become interested in this work?

I started as program coordinator for adult adoptees and birthparents in 2016. I’d begun volunteering at Adoption Network Cleveland (ANC) prior to that because its mission was personally important to me. Adoption Network Cleveland advocated for adoptee access to records in Ohio for more than 25 years, and finally in 2013 Ohio passed legislation that opened up original birth certificates to adult adoptees. It’s hard to imagine this would have happened without the steadfast determination of ANC, and as an adoptee, I wanted to give back to the organization that made it possible for me to request and receive my original birth certificate. ANC is a nonprofit organization and has a reputation for advocacy rooted in understanding, support, and education—a meaningful mission to me.

I was born to a woman who had been sent to a home for unwed mothers to hide the shame of pregnancy from the small town in which her family lived. There was no counseling available for the grief of relinquishing a child, and she was told to go on with her life and forget about it. These homes no longer exist; we know now how awful and hurtful this practice, rooted in shame, is.

My birthfather died a year later in a tragic accident. He was also an adoptee, raised as a son by his maternal grandparents. I will never know if he knew who his father was, but thanks to DNA, I do.

I first searched for my birthmother more than 20 years ago after my children were born. Pregnancy and childbirth made me want to know more about the woman who carried me and gave me a deep understanding that she made decisions that had to be extremely difficult and painful in a way that I had not previously appreciated. I had complicated pregnancies and no medical history for myself or my children. As a mother, I felt compelled to know and understand more about both my history and my beginning. At that time, I discovered that the agency that handled my adoption, Ohio Children’s Society, had destroyed its records. I had no information at all to work with, and my search hit a brick wall. It was important to me that I connect with my birthmother in a way that was respectful. I didn’t know if she had told anyone she’d relinquished me, and I was concerned that if I hired a private investigator, the PI might use tactics that I wasn’t comfortable with or make a possible secret known to others, and that this somehow might hurt my birthmother or her family. Until I could request my original birth certificate in 2015, I didn’t have many options. In 2015, adoptees were finally able to access their original birth certificates in Ohio, and when I did this, it named my birthmother. I also discovered that I have a maternal half-sister. My birthmother and I reunited very shortly after that. I was finally able to learn her story and to gain a more complete and ongoing medical history. Knowing these things and my relationship with her have been blessings in my life that for many years I did not imagine would be possible. A few months later I met the extended family, and their warm welcome touched my heart.

My search for my birthfather led me to test my DNA at Ancestry and 23andMe. I‘d been told who he was, but since he died very young, I did not have the opportunity to connect with him or understand his story. Using DNA, I was able to confirm what I’d been told, which allowed resolution that I might not have been able to find in such ambiguous circumstances. He was a kinship adoptee, and I was able to determine his parentage.

I learned that although he died when he was twenty-three years old, he’d had three children with 3 different women—that I have two paternal half-brothers, both born to different women. The first died as an infant. The second brother took a DNA test to learn his ethnicity. He discovered misattributed parentage—that the man who raised him and is on his birth certificate is not his biological father and that I am his paternal half-sister. We don’t know if his father knows, or even if his mother knows for sure. He doesn’t want to discuss this with them, and that’s his decision.

At ANC, we use DNA to help adoptees solve for unknown parentage, and my own search made me acutely aware of how much in recent years DNA was tearing down brick walls and helping connect people who might otherwise never find each other. It also made me particularly sensitive to the fact that some of these discoveries can be quite earth-shifting for people.

As my work in this area grew, I was promoted to search specialist to greater focus on assisting those in search, utilizing both traditional methods and DNA. ANC provides support and guidance throughout the journey of search—before, during, and after—and has for more than 30 years. I came to appreciate how many people outside the adoption community were also touched by DNA discoveries.

My own personal history of search and reunion gives me an important connection with the people I work with because I can truly understand how these questions can consume one’s thoughts and time. I can relate to the frustrations, the joys, the sadness, the loss, the quest for knowledge when one doesn’t know their “chapter one,” the feeling of having to write “medical history unknown—adopted” every time one fills out medical forms or sees a new healthcare provider. Having reunited with my birthmother, I know the roller coaster of emotions that reunions can bring. I have a deep respect and understanding of the birthparent’s experience because of my work with many birth families and also my connections to my birth family.

Through my own journey, I have come to realize many things about adoption. It’s a lifelong journey and not a one-time transaction. My work helping others separated by adoption to find each other—whether it is adoptees searching for birth family, birth family searching for adoptees, or more recently people that have DNA surprise discoveries—has revealed many complexities and similarities. When we shine a light on these discoveries, we find the impacts of secrets, shame, infertility, racism, money, power, privilege, mental health, abuse, neglect, domestic violence, trauma, addiction, grief, loss, religion, social class—to name a few. For me, it’s important to advocate for progressive practices and reform in adoption and child welfare.

The DNA Discovery Peer Support February 2 panel discussion is a joint endeavor by Adoption Network Cleveland and Adoption Knowledge Affiliates. Can you describe the nature of the collaboration? 

Adoption Network Cleveland founded in 1988 and Adoption Knowledge Affiliates founded in 1991 have a lot in common. Both organizations were founded by adoptees with a vision to bring together adoptees, birthparents, adoptive parents, and professionals in an effort to increase knowledge, service, and understanding. Both have been impactful organizations over the years. With the pandemic and our world going virtual, ANC and AKA partnered to host a joint virtual conference in October 2020, combining conferences each organization had planned and been forced to cancel in the spring.

At ANC, we had been discussing how to better meet the needs of people who were coming to us with DNA discoveries—not only adoptees but those with misattributed parentage, individuals who are donor conceived, and others. Adoption Knowledge Affiliates started its DNA Discovery Peer Support Group in Sept. 2020, and ANC planned to start one in 2021. Adoption Network Cleveland and AKA are collaborating for the panel discussion on Feb. 2, and from there each will individually hold its own DNA Discovery Peer Support groups. People who might find more than one meeting a month helpful might like to have options.

How was ANC’s DNA Discoveries Peer Support group developed and conceived and why it was felt to be necessary?

At this point, the majority of searches we assist with have a DNA component. In addition, we’d like to increase the engagement of people with DNA discoveries beyond adoption-based situations. We have expertise in this area and would like to be a resource in a broad variety of situations. People are finding biological family or are being found; and they’re finding new information about their core identity, such as ethnicity, birth order, unexpected relatives, and more. There can be a wide range of reactions by those being found and those searching.

Many of the issues that folks are working through with a DNA discovery are the very same core issues experienced by the adoption community, such as loss, rejection, guilt and shame, grief, identity, intimacy, and control.

We felt uniquely positioned to offer support and guidance in a manner similar to what we have been doing through our General Discussion Meetings, which are open to anyone touched by adoption and/or foster care. Adoption Network Cleveland started holding these meetings more than 30 years ago, so we bring deep knowledge and the meetings evolve to meet current needs. More information about those meetings can be found here.

Adoptees who are using DNA to make these discoveries are excited to find new information and new relatives. It can be important to remember that we don’t know what this discovery might mean for the person on the other side, such as in the case of misattributed parentage for example, where someone might be learning that the man that raised them isn’t their biological father.

We wanted to create a safe place for people to speak about the emotional impact of these discoveries, in a confidential environment with people who have walked a similar journey and truly understand.

Are the groups being held via Zoom? Are they virtual as a consequence of COVID-19 or will they remain open to people from any location when virus restrictions lift?

We will be using Google Meet, which is a lot like Zoom. The DNA Discovery Peer Support Group and our General Discussion Meetings are free, but advance registration is required so that one can receive the link for the meeting. The meetings are on the second Tuesday each month, 8-10 PM Eastern Time. Registration can be found on our calendar. We plan to assess and see once it’s off the ground if the meetings will remain structured virtually. Personally, I see this continuing as a virtual group if there is a demand.

How do you envision how these groups will go? Will each group meeting be facilitated? By you? What’s the goal and desired outcome?

Our group will be focusing on the emotional impact of DNA discoveries. This is something that all discoveries have in common, and this will be a place where people can really connect and provide understanding, another perspective, and support. Our DNA Discovery Peer Support Group and our General Discussion Meetings are facilitated by experienced volunteers who are supported and overseen by our staff. I will be assisting with the DNA Discovery Peer Support Group as needed, and, as a search specialist, I am available for individualized guidance, one-on-one search assistance, and support. The experienced volunteer facilitation team members chosen for the DNA Discovery group are both adoptees with their own personal DNA discoveries. The group they lead is shifting from being one of ANC’s six monthly General Discussion Meetings to meet this specific need.

Our goal with the DNA Discovery Peer Support Group is to provide a safe and supportive environment where people feel open to discuss a major life event—finding out new information about themselves and their identities. One does not need a connection to adoption to attend these meetings. We will be focused on supporting people throughout their journey and helping them to connect with others who truly understand how earth-shifting this can feel, how others have worked through their own discoveries and the accompanying emotions. We understand these types of discoveries are not a one-time event, they are lifelong journeys. Connecting with others who have walked a similar path can help to normalize what can be an overwhelming experience.

What do you believe are the most significant issues, the most pressing concerns, for which people need support after a DNA Discovery?

Every situation is individual and unique, so it’s hard to generalize. However, the core issues that arise are very much the same that we know from adoption and permanency: loss, rejection, guilt and shame, grief, identity, intimacy, and control.

DNA testing has the power to unravel decades-old secrets and can make individuals question their ideas of family, or religion, or even morality. I am a firm believer that everyone has a right to know their genetic heritage, but that does not mean anyone has a right to a relationship, as that is something for both parties to determine. Many people who take a DNA test do not think they will receive a result that might include a surprise such as a different ethnicity, or a new sibling, a different parent, an unknown child, a niece, or cousin. Discoveries can also include learning one is adopted (late-discovery adoptees) or donor-conceived. These can be a very powerful experience and can upend long-held beliefs.

In what ways do you believe peer support makes a difference? How does it help?

Connecting with others who have been there and understand can be normalizing and healing.

We have followed a peer support model for our General Discussion Meetings for more than 30 years with great success. We’ve welcomed those with DNA discoveries to these meetings as technology has evolved. It can be extremely valuable to hear the perspectives of other individuals who have walked a similar journey and truly understand. I’ve seen people make wonderful connections with each other and learn insights that might not have happened anywhere else. Peer support offers a place to work through some of the core issues such as loss, rejection, grief, identity, shame, and guilt. Hearing how others work through their journeys provides a variety of options as we consider connecting with relatives and offers a chance to see how people have gained a sense of control over the experience of discovery, and not have it control them. Peer support also offers an opportunity for people who are farther along in their journey to give back.

What limitations are there, if any, to peer support? 

Peer support is not meant to take the place of therapy, and individual therapy can be a very powerful and healing experience. Accessibility can be a limitation for some.

In addition to the peer support group, ANC also offers a Monday evening speakers group. Can you tell us more about that?

Adoption Network Cleveland is a leader in bringing the adoption community together to create a network of support and advocacy. In this critical and uncertain time for all of us, we are pleased to offer a Monday Evening Speaker Series full of topics that are of interest to a broad audience impacted by adoption, kinship, and foster care. More information and recordings of past presentations can be found here.

Learn more about the DNA Discovery Peer Support special February 2 panel and the ongoing group here. And for information about other programs and events, click here.

Look for Adoption Network Cleveland on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter @adoptionnetcle. Look for Adoption Knowledge Affiliates on Facebook and on Instagram @aadoptionknowledgeaffiliates.