Getting Started in an Unknown Parentage Search

DNA has great power to connect adoptees and others with unknown parentage to their birth families. And while there are occasional reports of someone taking a genealogical DNA test and being matched immediately to a birth parent — face it — that’s probably not going to happen. More commonly, a search for biological family takes time, money, knowledge, patience, and a lot of work. If you are an adult who is searching, my goal is to teach you how to minimize those investments. This post is meant only to get you started with testing; it does not describe what to do with your DNA results once you have them.

 

DNA Testing Strategy

Your DNA testing strategy will depend on how much you can afford and how quickly you want to find your birth family. I know, the answer is probably “As little as possible … and NOW!” Your strategy must also consider how much effort you are willing to invest personally in both learning how to use DNA results and good old sweat equity. My advice here will help you balance the trade-offs in cost and time, make the most of your DNA results when they come in, and position you to seek help from others if you need or want it.

First, a bit about the types of DNA tests and the companies that offer them. The most important tests for unknown parentage searches examine autosomal DNA (abbreviated atDNA) and Y chromosome DNA (Y-DNA or yDNA). Both kinds of tests will “match” you to people who share DNA with you, meaning that they are related somehow. Everyone has atDNA, and we inherit it from both parents. That means it can help find relatives on both your mother’s and your father’s side. Y-DNA, on the other hand, is what makes a man male; only men can do this kind of test, because women don’t have Y-DNA, pretty much by definition. For men, the test might lead you to your birth father’s surname, as surnames tend to be inherited in the same way as Y-DNA (father-to-son).

There are three big players in the genealogical testing market: AncestryDNA; 23andMe; and Family Tree DNA (a.k.a. FTDNA). There are also some new kids on the block, like MyHeritage and Living DNA. Each company has its own database of people who have taken the test and who can be matched to you if they are related. If you’re searching, the main thing you want is to find close relatives — the closer the better — and that’s more likely to happen with a company that’s tested millions of people than with one that’s only tested a few thousand. For that reason, my recommendations are based heavily on the sizes of the respective databases. (Note: I earn a small commission if you purchase through the links in this post. The cost is the same for you. Click here for more information.)

 

When Money Is No Object (Total Cost: US$1000 or more)

If you can afford to throw out all the stops and don’t have the time or energy to learn how to use the various databases, build hypothetical trees, and interpret the data, consider hiring a professional to do the heavy lifting. I offer these services, as do other reputable searchers. A professional can also advise you on which tests are most appropriate for your particular situation. (See the next section for an overview.) There is no formal accrediting body for this type of work, so be sure to ask for references and check the reputation of whomever you hire. Costs will include the DNA tests themselves as well as the hours your researcher invests in your case, and will vary by how complicated your search is.

 

D-I-Y (Total Cost: US$500 or More)

If you can afford multiple tests but want to conduct your own search, do the following.  Bear in mind that there is a steep learning curve and the whole endeavor may take hundreds of hours of labor over months or years.

 

  • Purchase the atDNA test from AncestryDNA (US$99 plus shipping). You do not need to subscribe to Ancestry.com yet; a free membership is fine.
  • Purchase the atDNA test from 23andMe (US$99 for ancestry only, $199 for ancestry + health reports; plus shipping).
  • Optional: Purchase the the atDNA “Family Finder” test from Family Tree DNA (US$89 plus shipping).
  • If you are male, purchase the Y-37 test from Family Tree DNA (US$169 plus shipping).
  • Join an online support group for unknown parentage searches. Facebook has some great ones, including DNA Detectives (for help with DNA-based searches), Search Squad (for non-DNA assistance), and DNA for the Donor Conceived. Read the success stories, ask questions, and learn everything you can in anticipation of your own results.
  • Buy The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine Bettinger (US$20).
  • If you were adopted, request your adoption file or non-identifying information (see below) from the state in which your adoption took place (cost varies).
  • If you know one of your biological parents, ask them to take the AncestryDNA and 23andMe tests, too. Their results will help you sort your maternal matches from your paternal ones (US$198–298 plus shipping for the two tests).
  • Log into your free Ancestry.com account and start building a tree with yourself as the starting person. Name the tree something like “<Your Name> Research Tree”, so that if you seek help from someone else down the line, they’ll easily be able to tell whose tree it is and its purpose. Enter what you know for your birth parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. Even without names (call them e.g.,  “mother”, “father”, “maternal aunt”), you can enter birth years, physical descriptions, education or career facts, and any other details in the nonID or shared by your known parent. I recommend scanning in the nonID paperwork or any notes you have taken and uploading it to the research tree so it’s easy to find later.
  • In your research tree, go to Tree Settings (click on the tree name), then Privacy Settings, and make sure it is set to “Private Tree”. Check the box to “Also prevent your tree from being found in searches.” You can change these privacy settings once you have identified your birth parents. For now, keep it on the QT.
  • When your AncestryDNA results arrive, sign up for a subscription at Ancestry.com (2-week free trial, then US$99 for 6 months or US$189 for a year for U.S. records).
  • Download your raw DNA data from AncestryDNA (DNA: Settings: Download Raw DNA Data) and consider uploading it to the following sites: GEDmatch, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, and DNA.Land. I say “consider” because you should read and understand the Terms of Service at each site before you transfer into its database. Transferring into other databases increases your chances of finding close matches who might be the key to your search. All of the transfers are free, although GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA offer additional features for a small charge ($10/month at GEDmatch, one-time fee of $19 at Family Tree DNA).
  • If you get stuck, consider a phone consultation with a professional searcher to get you back on track (US$50–100).

 

Searching on a Shoestring (Total Cost: US$150 or more)

If the thought of $500 makes your heart sink, you can triage by focusing on the essentials first and adding additional tests and subscriptions only when your search stalls. This strategy may take longer to find your biological family, but it may save you money and lets you spread the costs out over time.

  • Purchase the atDNA test from AncestryDNA when it’s on sale. The best times in the US are around National DNA Day (April 25), Mother’s Day (mid May), Father’s Day (mid June), and Thanksgiving (late November). You can also try the discount code FREESHIPDNA, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. (As low as US$69; the DNA Detectives Facebook group has a link to a $79 price).
  • Join an online support group dedicated to unknown parentage searches. (See above.)
  • Check out The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, by Blaine Bettinger, from your local library and read it.
  • If you were adopted, request your adoption file or non-identifying information (see below) from the state in which your adoption took place (cost varies).
  • Log into your free Ancestry.com account and start building a tree with yourself as the starting person. (See above.)
  • When your DNA results arrive, download your raw DNA data from AncestryDNA (DNA: Settings: Download Raw DNA Data) and consider transferring it to the following sites: GEDmatch, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, and DNA.Land (see above).
  • Clear your schedule.  Sign up for the 2-week free trial subscription at Ancestry.com and spend all of your spare time copying the trees of your closest matches into your research tree and using the records at Ancestry.com to “grow” their ancestral lines back to the year 1800, if you can. Cancel the trial the day before the 2 weeks are up to avoid charges.
  • When the free trial ends, call Ancestry.com at 1-800-262-3787 and ask for the Insights membership for US$49/year. An Insights subscription will let you see the public member trees of your DNA matches but does not give you access to records like censuses, the Social Security database, etc. It is only available over the phone.
  • Consider using your local public library or Family History Center for free access to Ancestry.com’s resources. FamilySearch is also a great resource.
  • Consider buying the 23andMe test, a Y-37 test from Family Tree DNA (only if you’re male), or a 6-month subscription to Ancestry.com only as needed.
  • If you get stuck, consider a phone consultation with a professional searcher to get you back on track (US$50–100).

 

What Not to Do

There is no need to do a mitochondrial (mtDNA) test. They are rarely useful for an unknown parentage search.

 

Traditional Records

DNA is a powerful tool, but it’s not the only one in our toolbox. Here are some steps to pursue while you’re waiting for your DNA test to arrive and for the results to be processed.

First, if you were adopted, request information about your adoption from the state or agency that handled it. Some U.S. states (AL, AK, CO, CT, DE, HI, IL, KS, ME, MA, MO, MT, NH, NJ, OH, OK, OR, RI, TN, VT, WA) now provide identifying information about birth parents, including original birth certificates, in most cases. Other states will send you a summary of information provided by your birth mother that does not identify her (a.k.a., non-identifying information or “nonID”) but can provide valuable clues that will help in your search.

Next, register in and search the online adoption registries. Registries are online databases that attempt to match adoptees with biological family members who are searching for them. A few of them are listed below, alphabetically. You should also do an internet search for “adoption registry” plus the state or country in which your adoption took place to find registries specific to those locations.

You can find more resources for adoptees at DNAadoption.com.

 

Summary

The information here should get you started in a DNA-based search for biological family at a level of investment that fits your needs.

Good luck!

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