“I’m an adoptee. Can you help me find my bio parents?”
Yes, it IS possible for you to find them!
The use of genetic genealogy— defined as DNA testing in combination with traditional genealogy to trace lineages—has transformed the ability of adoptees, those with an unknown father, and donor-conceived individuals, or even the biological parents themselves, to find family members. Though it still can be a slow, arduous path, today it is far more likely that you will be successful in your search than in years past. The development of direct-to-consumer DNA testing and an explosion in the past two years of the sizes of the databases of persons who have been tested has dramatically increased the number of positive outcomes.
If you’re ready for your own search for the truth, then read on for a list of strategies.
- Gather Information
To begin the process, gather as much information as you can about your family, including documents such as an amended birth certificate, your original birth certificate, or adoption records.
Ask existing family members (including your adoptive family) for any information they are willing to share. Keep a notebook of what you discover.
If you are 18 or older, you are entitled by law to obtain “non-identifying information” from the adoption agency or state or court. This is usually information that doesn’t give away a birth parent’s identity but can still be of value to you in your search. Apply for this information by registering with your state adoption agency or by petitioning the courts. To determine what your state requires, click on the Child Welfare Information Gateway page.
In some states, you may find success in going to the county courthouse where your adoption was finalized and asking for copies of your adoption papers. On this document should be a cause (or case) number, which notes where your birth mother gave up her rights. Request a copy of the specific cause number; on it you should find your mother’s name.
Call the hospital where you were born. By providing information such as your date of birth and your mother’s name, you should be able to obtain a copy of your original birth certificate. That birth certificate offers you valuable data such as her maiden name, how many children she had when you were born, etc.
Keep in mind that your birth family may be looking for you too, so sign up for all applicable adoption registries. You can sign up at the official state registry where you were born and/or adopted. To find a link, search the words “adoption registry” and the state.
- Sign Up for Free Resources
Numerous resources are available to assist you in your search. These sites offer registries, tutorials, articles, reference material, and online classes. Take full advantage of them, especially the wonderful “search angels” (volunteers experienced with using consumer genomic test results and genealogy to find family members) on the web who work miracles daily in helping adoptees find their family.
Some free sites to join or investigate include:
- International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR)
- G’s Adoption Registry
- DNAAdoption Yahoo Group
- If you were conceived from an egg/sperm donation, join DonorSiblingRegistry.com
- Three Facebook pages:
- Search Squad
- DNA Detectives
- Priscilla Sharp- Search Angel
- About.com Adoption Search Angels
- Take THREE Autosomal DNA Tests
Both men and women can, and should, take an autosomal DNA test. If possible, get tested at ALL three major companies: 23andMe, AncestryDNA by Ancestry.com, and the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA. It will cost about $257 for all three tests combined but testing with all three companies greatly increases your chances of finding cousin matches, as each company maintains different databases of different testers. Your results will identify people with whom you share a common ancestor. They will also provide a breakdown of your ethnic ancestry.
Side note: At Ancestry, if you are not already a member, you will need to pay a $49 annual subscription fee to see full matching data and family trees of your matches. Without a membership, you CAN access and download your raw data test results, but you will need to join to access everything AncestryDNA offers members.
Side note: 23andMe, for the autosomal test only, costs $99. AncestryDNA usually costs $99 but can often be found on sale for $79. The Family Finder Test at Family Tree DNA was just reduced to $79.
If you are male, you have the added benefit of being able to take a Y-DNA test as well. Order at the minimum a 37-marker test (or preferably a higher level, such as Y-67, if you can afford it) from Family Tree DNA. The 37-marker test costs $169, though men can get a discount package of the Family Finder autosomal test and the 37-market test combined for $248. The autosomal test plus a 67-marker test combined costs $347. This STR test explores your direct paternal line (your father, then his father, and his father, etc.) and may identify a surname. For identifying unknown fathers, this test is quite powerful.
- When Results Arrive, Follow These Tips:
- Study the closest matches first (predicted first or second cousins, or closer).
Your results will be provided online via a privacy-protected account. When logged on, you will see a list of persons whom you share DNA with. They are listed with those closest genetically to you at the top of the list, and then in descending order of relevance. If your biological parents, or grandparents, or siblings, or close cousins have tested, you will be connected to them and the relationship will be identified.
Even if your closest match is only a third or fourth cousin, be patient. Every day more persons are getting tested; a closer match could get tested and show up in your database at any time. As well, comparing the online family trees of even these more distant matches may help identify surnames or persons who may be ancestrally relevant to you.
B. Study the amount of shared DNA between yourself and your matches.
The amount of DNA you share with a match is represented in centimorgans. For now, don’t worry about the definition—just know that the greater number of centimorgans (cM) you share with someone (added up across all segments you share), the closer related you two are. A parent/child match will be indicated with a cM of around 3385. Another example: 1,700 cM shared could indicate a ½ sibling, grandparent, grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, or nephew.
Following is a breakdown of shared DNA ranges for additional relationships:
1st cousins: 548-1034 cM
2nd cousins: 101-378 cM
3rd cousins: 43-ca 150 cM
4th and more distant cousins: 5-ca 50 cMs
For a better description of autosomal DNA statistics, as well as a chart of average DNA shared between relatives, take a look at http://isogg.org/wiki/Autosomal_DNA_statistics
C. Contact matches that are second or even third cousins or closer.
If you find close matches in your list, don’t hesitate to contact them—but do so with care and compassion. Keep in mind that they may not desire to be found. On the other hand, they may be ecstatic to meet you!
D. Create a family tree for yourself.
Note that your DNA cousin matches are more likely to contact you and be willing to work with you if you have a family tree attached to your account. If you don’t know your family, simply create a tree with words such as “Biological Father” and “Biological Mother” listed so that others know that you’re searching for family members. Make sure that the tree is set to public, not private, status.
E. Create a mirror tree of your closest matches.
A mirror tree is an exact copy of a DNA match’s direct lineage (or tree); a mirror image of their tree. The goal is to find Shared Ancestor Hints on Ancestry.com. The process involves creating a tree in Ancestry that looks just like that of one of your closest matches (from any of the three companies you tested with) and then attaching your DNA results to the match person’s name. Make the tree private and non-searchable. The AncestryDNA hint system will begin providing shared ancestor hints. These are your ancestors!
Three excellent blog entries describing the process are:
- Download Your Results and Then Upload to GEDMatch.com
After you receive results from a testing company, download your raw data file to your computer, and then upload the results to GEDMatch.com for free. GEDMatch is a non-testing website (supported by donations) that offers a wide variety of tools for evaluating your results. The site accepts test results from each of the three main companies listed above and may help in discovering additional cousin matches. Uploading to GEDMatch is particularly important to those of you who only tested at one or two of the companies, not all three.
As well, GEDMatch offers additional utilities that are of great value in evaluating your results.
- Take Advantage of Third-Party Tools
Above and beyond GEDMatch, there are additional third-party websites and apps that provide utilities able to extract more information from your DNA results data. Several of these are:
- Search Names Found on Public Databases
Once you determine your families’ surname or find any possible family names of living relatives, try searching the names at one of the following public information search engines. If you have an email address but not an actual name from your test results (for example, if they are listed under an alias), you can always try Googling the email address. Doing so very likely will give you more information on the person.
Here are search engines that I recommend:
For further information, I recommend a book that I just finished reading, titled “The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy” by Blaine T. Bettinger. It is an excellent and easy-to-read study on genetic genealogy. It can be purchased on Amazon here.
Hopefully, this has challenged and inspired you to get started on your search. If I can help you, don’t hesitate to contact me. You can leave a message below or contact me at julie@oakgrovegenealogy dot com (written as such to reduce spam). I must admit, I’m bad about checking this email address so leaving a message here will get a much faster response!
Excellent summary, Julie! I know a number of people searching for biological parent(s), and I know they’ve followed at least some of these steps, but perhaps there’s a new suggestion or two here for them, so I’ll be sharing. Always love your entries. Thank you!
I hope that it helps. Let me know…. I do know that I left off one recommendation from those “in the know.” That is: before contacting potential family members, screen shot any information found on them first! It may disappear if they are not wanting to be found.
Hi Julie! Your article received a very warm welcome by everyone I shared it with. And yes, I’ve also seen the suggestion to screen shot the info at the time it’s located. Solid advice! Thank you!