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Adoption Search: Using DNA Tests to Find Birth Families

Using DNA Tests to Find Birth Families


Getty Images/Cultura/Liam Norris

To begin the search for your birth family, pull together everything you have on the adoption, including names, certificates, paperwork, family stories...anything. Add to that by applying for non-identifying information and/or adoption records from any relevant agencies if it is available to you. Then join online reunion registries, support groups, and other resources for adoptees and birth parents. You can find more information and resources for beginning your adoption search in the article on How to Find Your Birth Family. The more places you share and search for information, the better the chance for a reunion—especially if your family member is also looking for you.

Using DNA Testing in Your Adoption Search

In addition to traditional adoption search techniques, DNA testing is starting to have real success in reuniting adoptees with their birth families. To use DNA testing as a tool in your adoption search:

  1. Take a DNA test. All adoptees, both male and female, can benefit from an Autosomal DNA (atDNA) test which can be used to search for potential relatives along all branches of your family tree.

    If you're a male, then a Y-DNA test (at least 37 markers) may help you to locate a male relative in your direct paternal line (someone who descends from your father, paternal grandfather, etc.). Females do not have a Y-chromosome, but can ask a male family member to test for them, if any are known.

    Both males and females can take a Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test, but this is much less helpful for adoption searches, as mtDNA changes very slowly and most matches will be too far back in the family tree to be useful for locating biological relatives. If you do choose to have the mtDNA test done, then choose the full mitochondrial sequence (FMS) for best results, as it may be able to help you determine your ethnicity. 
  2. Test any known biological family members. If you have any known living biological relatives then you may want to encourage them to test as well. This will help you more easily determine which side of the family each of your potential "cousin" matches is on—maternal or paternal.
  3. Test with and/or upload your results to as many relevant companies as possible. Most adoptees have their atDNA tested through FamilyTreeDNA-FTDNA (Family Finder Test), 23andMe (Relative Finder Test) and AncestryDNA (atDNA only). In some cases you can test at one company and, once your results are back, download the raw data and upload to the other companies for a reduced rate. FamilyTreeDNA even offers discounted group pricing through their Adoptees DNA Project. Learn more in the article Which DNA Testing Company Should I Use?
  4. Upload your raw results to third-party databases. The non-profit genomics website GedMatch allows DNA testers to upload their raw data (autosomal) from FTDNA, 23andME, and AncestryDNA in order to compare it data voluntarily uploaded by other testers. Not all adoptees will use this site, but this may help to pick up additional potential matches—especially if you haven't tested with all three of the major commercial companies offering autosomal DNA tests. GedMatch also provides tools for making deep comparisons between genealogies and DNA test results to help identify possible hidden ancestral connections with distant cousins. If you're a male who also took a Y-DNA test, then the Y-Search database offers similar options for Y-DNA results.
  5. Educate yourself. Unless you get very lucky and a close match (such as your birth mother or a sibling) has also tested, you're going to really have to dig into the guts of your DNA results in order to "triangulate" in on your possible relatives. You're going to learn about technical-sounding methodologies such as "phasing" and "chromosome mapping," and learn how to utilize a variety of (mostly free) third-party DNA tools developed to help you streamline the hard work of autosomal DNA matching and analysis. 

    DNAAdoption is a great place to start—offering guidance, tutorials, classes, tools, forum support, and more for individuals using DNA in their adoption search. A number of genetic genealogists post DNA tutorials and step-by-step instructions on their blogs. Don't miss Your Genetic Genealogist by CeCe Moore, DNAeXplained by Roberta Estes, and The Genetic Genealogist by Blaine Bettinger. If you find yourself getting frustrated, then check out the stories of DNA-inspired adoption reunions by genetic genealogist CeCeMoore on her Adoption and DNA blog.


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