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Using DNA To Trace Your Birth Family By Dr. Maurice Gleeson
Posted by IRISH ROOTS on 25 April 2019

A recent international survey of 1200 adoptees revealed that over 50% of them had been able to find a sibling or a parent through the use of DNA. In fact, 8% of them found their parent or sibling waiting for them as soon as they opened their results. [1] The survey was conducted between October 2016 and April 2017, and since that time the number of people in the DNA databases has increased from about 8 million to about 12 million. So the 2017 figures are already out of date. And by the time the databases reach a projected 25 million by 2020, the percentages will increase even further.

It is going to become easier and easier for adoptees to find birth family in the database. This was the key message in a Commentary on the 2016 Adoption Bill submitted by members of the ISOGG Ireland group in June last year to the Irish Government. [2] I subsequently met with representatives of the Department of Child & Youth Affairs and impressed upon them the increasingly important role that DNA will play in helping adoptees trace their birth family.

Ireland has experienced many inter-country adoptions over the last decade or so (e.g. from Russia, China, Africa) and as these children grow up, many will want to know their “ethnic makeup” and where does their DNA come from. They may even want to use DNA to reconnect with birth family in these various countries.

I have helped quite a few adoptees use DNA in this way. And over the past year, many of them have been referred to me by Adoption Agencies within Ireland, indicating that social workers are appreciating the importance of this new technology for the work they do.

There is also an emerging interest among the mothers who gave these children up for adoption, many of whom are now in their 70’s and 80’s. Even if their child does not immediately show up in their list of DNA matches, at least their results will always be there so that if their child joins the database many years after they themselves have passed on, their DNA sends a message that they took the trouble to look for the child they had to give up. That will be a great source of comfort for many adoptees.

Not surprisingly, this work is a real emotional rollercoaster for everyone concerned and not a journey to be undertaken lightly. Having a support network, getting professional help, preparing what you will say to your new-found family, dealing with upsets and surprises … these are all elements of the journey that need to be considered before going down the DNA route. Remember, for 8% of adoptees, their first batch of results will contain their parent or sibling. The reconnection is instant.

It should be emphasized that DNA is only one part of the equation – genealogy is the other part. And the two go hand in hand. If there is no instant match to immediate family, then some standard genealogical work will be necessary. And this may extend to months or years. In 2017, the average amount of time needed to find a birth parent was about 2 years. But this timescale will decrease as the numbers in the databases increase. Recently I was able to trace the African family of an Irish mixed-race adoptee. And in a few years time, this will be commonplace. It is simply a waiting game.

There is a lot of help and support to be found within the genetic genealogy community for adoptees or birth mothers wishing to take the DNA route. There is the DNAadoption website and associated tools (at http://dnaadoption.com and http://dnagedcom.com), the Adopted Project at FTDNA (https://www.familytreedna.com/landing/adopted-project.aspx), and a variety of inspirational YouTube videos such as that by my good friend (and first customer) Winnie (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hw8G1JCr47w).  The ISOGG Wiki has a useful signposting page on adoption (http://isogg.org/wiki/Utilizing_DNA_testing_to_break_through_adoption_roadblocks) and there are a variety of groups on Facebook with specialised “search angels” devoted to offering free longterm help & support to adoptees – DNAadoption, Search Squad, & DNA Detectives (the latter has over 78,000 members). So if you are interested in undertaking this journey, there are some very dedicated people just waiting to help you.

In addition, the techniques used to help adoptees also work for anyone who has unknown parentage, be that an illegitimate grandmother, a British Home Child, or a foundling.

There are various ways in which DNA can be used to help trace birth family. Firstly, if you are male, you will have a Y chromosome (as all men do) passed down to you from your genetic father, who in turn received it from his father, and so on back along the continuous direct male line. The family name is also passed along this direct male line, and so testing your Y-DNA and reviewing your list of matches, can often give a clue to the family name of your biological father. What you hope to find is a preponderance of just the one surname among your list of matches. That surname could very well be the surname of your biological father and this information leads on to a new avenue of enquiry. You really become a detective in this game!

Currently, there is a clear signal for your genetic surname in about 10-15% of cases, but this percentage is increasing all the time as more people test. The starting point is to do the Y-DNA-37 test with FamilyTreeDNA (US$149 via the Adopted Project).

Autosomal DNA (atDNA) testing is the mainstay of adoptee research. This explores all your ancestral lines, back to about the level of your 64 great great great great grandparents. This takes us back to common ancestors in the mid-1700s (but not much further than that). I usually recommend that people start with Ancestry (US$79) as they have the largest database (as well as online trees), and thereafter transfer the data for free to FamilyTreeDNA, Gedmatch, MyHeritage, and LivingDNA (the latter will be introducing cousin matches in mid-2018). Thus you are fishing in five “genepools” for the price of one. If you still haven’t cracked the case after 6 months in the other databases, you can always test with 23andme (US$99) in the hope of finding “the Big Fish” therein.

In the next article we will look at some practical tips and techniques that you can use with your autosomal DNA results to solve that adoption mystery. All in all, this work is often very gratifying for all concerned and a wonderful application of genetic genealogy. If you feel like volunteering to help, please contact the DNAadoption group via their website (http://www.dnaadoption.com/index.php?page=contact-us).

 

[1] The “Adoptee Testing Survey 2016” was conducted by Blaine Bettinger and is available here … https://www.facebook.com/groups/DNADetectives/permalink/1200136676724114/

[2] The ISOGG Commentary on the proposed Irish Adoption Bill can be found at https://isogg.org/w/images/1/1e/Adoption_Bill_2016_-_ISOGG_submission.pdf

This article first appeared in issue no 105 of Irish Roots magazine.  To subscribe to Irish Roots magazine please visit:- www.irishrootsmagazine.com 

To contact Dr. Maurice Gleeson for a consultation or to explore one of his online courses please visit:- http://dnaandfamilytreeresearch.blogspot.com/

 

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