by Alan Tomasi
“It’s not what you find, it’s that you find.”by Jeanette Yoffe
So you know you are adopted and want to find your bio-parents. Here are the steps I took to find my wife’s bio-parents. While there are a lot of DNA testing companies, I did all of my research using AncestryDNA even though I had 23andMe and had exported her DNA results to Family Tree DNA (FtDNA) and GEDmatch. To find your bio-parents using Ancestry you will eventually need a subscription. This runs about $200 per year but you can drop it once you locate your bio-parents. If you have the money you can also do 23andMe, but it isn’t necessary.
I’m in California and each state has different laws regarding accessing adoption records, so you will find discrepancies in what I’m writing based on which state you live in. Also, depending on your competency on the Ancestry site, you may find this too confusing and may need to involve someone to help you.
Step 1 – Purchase an Ancestry DNA Kit here
Don’t delay as the kit takes about a week to get to you, then the results don’t come in for around 8 weeks after you mail it in. It is just a simple saliva test, just follow their directions. For elderly, have them scrape their tongue with their teeth before spitting as there isn’t a lot of DNA in saliva and there is less in the elderly. The kit cost around $100. There are adoption groups which donate kits if you can’t afford one. If you can’t afford one, then you may not be able to afford the Ancestry subscription, which is required to be able to do research. DNA testing of deceased people for Ancestry is not possible.
Step 2 – Send away for your non-identifying adoption paperwork from you birth state
In California it takes a long time to get the results, so you need to get this going. In California, it is CDSS Form AD904 from the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) Don’t forget to check the box on the back stating that you want this information. I found my wife’s bio-parents before the adoption information came in, but you may need it in order to narrow the results down based on the age of the potential bio-parents.
In California, if a licensed California adoption agency maintains your adoption file, the CDSS will return your notarized form along with the address of the agency, so that you may mail the notarized form directly to them (and wait again).
Step 3 – Join the Closed Facebook Group DNA Detectives
Here are the links to this group:
To join the group you will need to fill out a short questionnaire. Also, closed means that any communication you have within this group won’t be visible to your Facebook friends. This group is run by a group of people who volunteer their time and they do not take donations, so be nice to them. If you need help they will assign you a free ‘search angel’ (one of their members) based on your birth state. For us in California, this was Heather MacPherson (https://www.facebook.com/heather.macpherson.12). She has access to the microfiche birth files and can look up the last name of your bio-mom against your sealed birth records.
On birth certificates, there is the original sealed birth certificate, which can’t be obtained without legal intervention (in most states) and your amended birth certificate, which you should have. At the top of your amended birth certificate are some numbers, a State File Number and a Certificate Number. With these numbers Heather can look at her files and find the last name of your bio-mom.
We made the bio-mom match based on finding a family name on the California Birth Index of someone in my tree. I just looked up on the California Birth Index for girls born on my wife’s birthday in our county. There were about 260 of them, but only 7 had the mother’s last name and no first name for the child. Assuming that these were adoptees, I just happened to recognize one of them based on the tree I had already started (which was based on an earlier 23andMe DNA test). Here is the link to the California Birth Index: http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=5247
Here are some other notes and adoption sites on the internet and Facebook:
NPE stands for a non-paternity event, meaning an individual is not the child of the father shown in the family’s “paper” genealogy. An adoption which was kept secret is considered a NPE.
There are some secret groups on Facebook that you have to be added by administrator for NPEone being Lost and Found (https://www.facebook.com/groups/GenealogyLostandFound/)
Search Squad works for free and helps you determine who on your ancestry tree you are related to. DNA Detectives recommends them all of the time.
Step 4 – After Getting AncestryDNA Results
At this point you will need to get a subscription to Ancestry if you haven’t done so already. You should link your DNA to yourself.
So now let’s go over what you see on your AncestryDNA results. Under ‘DNA Matches’ you will see three classifications:
- Shared Ancestor Hints
- Starred matches
- 4th cousins or closer
In order to see any ‘Shared Ancestor Hints’ you will need a tree which is the main purpose of this paper. The Ancestry program will mine (extract from) your tree and the trees of other members, make connections and then show you how you are connected. This is what you are looking for. Without ‘Shared Ancestor Hints’ you won’t find your bio-parents.
‘Starred matches’ just lets you mark people. I used this to separate the paternal from the maternal sides as that became apparent, by consistently marking one or the other. You can also add notes to everyone. My notes are “Name. Relationship.” So for example “Jane A Smith. Maternal 2nd cousin 1x removed.”
The last segment doesn’t do you much good. So you are related, unless you know how it doesn’t do you any good. I never used this group for research except for getting your first ‘Mirror Trees’ going which we will discuss later.
Below ‘DNA Matches’ you will see ‘DNA Circles’. It will say that you currently don’t have any. There is nothing you can do to get them aside from building your tree. This is an automated feature of Ancestry and divides your relatives up between paternal and maternal. These results rely on your ‘Shared Ancestor Hints’, so it probably won’t come in until after you have found your bio-parents.
There are two main ways to work on your tree, one is on a computer using the internet and the other is via your smart phone using an app. For the app us the Ancestry one and not the AncestryDNA one. The app image should be the brown background with the green leaves. Both the computer and the app have advantages. On the hint leaves only the computer lets you see Ancestry Hints of other people’s trees.
Step 5 – Export your DNA
These are all free sites and it doesn’t hurt getting your DNA out there. Family Tree DNA (FtDNA) will say you need to pay but look hard and you will see that you don’t. FtDNA has some good trees which you can use for building yours.
Step 6 – Start Building Mirror Trees
Ok, here is where it starts getting a bit more complex. If you get confused there are a lot of articles on DNA Detectives and the internet in general, here are two:
Start a tree. Pick a simple name for your tree such as YourLastName Family Tree. Make it private and non-searchable. You want to do this while you are doing research so you don’t confuse others. Once you have found your bio-parents then you should make your tree public and searchable. As a security feature of Ancestry, even though your tree is public no one from the outside can see living people unless you share your tree and give them permission.
By mirror tree, that means just copying (actually re-building) other people’s trees that you are related to. Most people say to have separate research mirror trees, but I don’t agree. The reason being is that you can’t combine them later. So only have one tree and build separate mirror trees on your single tree, what I call floating trees. To do this I created a relative then broke that relationship so that person was floating (in my tree but not tied to me) then build a tree off of that person. The only way to break a person off of a tree is to establish a fake relative off of you, such as a sibling, then go to “Family” then click “Edit” then click the red “X” then “Delete Relationship Only”. Then that person you just created won’t be tied to you and will be “floating” in space so to speak. You have to remember the name of a key person in each floating tree because the only way to find the floating trees is through the search function. I had a few of these floating trees going and as you figure things out you start connecting them.
So how do you find other people’s trees? Use your ‘4th cousins or closer’ and/or FtDNA. Relatives with no family tree or a locked tree (there is an image of a lock after the tree) don’t do you any good. Try to find a close relative with a big tree, but try to not go above a 3rd cousin. If you find someone with a big locked tree you can try writing them, asking them to share it with you, preferable with the setting so you can see living people. I did a lot of work on my small iPhone but for building a tree I used multiple devices so I could have someone else’s tree up on one and inputting to my tree on another. There is no easy way to cut and paste, I found manually input the easiest.
What you are looking for is common ancestry that you share with others. The more floating trees you have (each one being based off of another relative’s tree) the more changes you will have of accomplishing this. You are looking for two different people (dad and mom) and when you start you won’t know which one is in which floating tree. You could potentially have a bunch of floating trees and have them all be for the same parent, you just don’t know when you start. When you get into it you can go to the DNA tab, select a person, go to ‘Matches’ and see who else they are related to in order to start determining which side they are related to, paternal or maternal.
One you get a floating tree established you can plug your DNA into relatives as this sometimes helps Ancestry make connections. You need to leave your DNA plugging into someone else for a few days for Ancestry to do its thing, but I would never leave it plugged into someone else for more than a week. If you find this confusing I don’t feel that it is necessary so you can skip this. If you elect to try this, go to the DNA tab, then ‘Settings’, then under ‘Family Tree Linking’ and select a relative.
As connections start becoming apparent, you can figure out your great great (Ancestry calls it 2nd great) grandparents. I connected my wife to her 2nd great grandparent by making dummy relatives, “Father”, “Grandparent”, etc. As I got closer to finding her father, I would eliminate the dummy relatives and when I got down to grandparent then I just started connecting her to prospective fathers looking for a connection on the mother’s side.
Remember that when you build trees you have to develop the spouse’s side too so you can triangulate on the current “target” whether it be a parent or grandparent. Bigger families obviously slow you down, specifically once you have the grandparent because then you have nothing left to triangulate on. I built my tree with help from other relatives (one actually gave me handwritten trees), obituaries (just from searching the internet), Find A Grave, Facebook & Quanki and I didn’t use any paid services other than Ancestry and 23andMe. Obituaries are wonderful as you not only get to learn about the person but they also usually list the family members.
So to sum up, you can do it, it just takes a lot of effort. It took me 4 months of hard work every evening to find my wife’s bio-dad. During this process I added around 4,000 people to my tree.
After you find your bio-parents you can set up two sets of parents on Ancestry (once you start getting closer), biological and adopted, but you have to make one primary, which for research purposes, is your bio-parents. You can only do this on your computer, not on your smart phone app. To do this open up your profile and click on ‘Edit’ on the upper right then ‘Edit Relationships’, then click on ‘Add Alternate Father’ and ‘Add Alternate Mother’.
Hope this helps, Alan.