While DNA testing and genetic evidence are certainly useful for breaking down challenging historic brick walls, the implications of DNA testing can also hit closer to home in the modern era when it comes to adoption research.
In cases of adoption, unknown parentage or misattributed parentage, genetic genealogy methodologies enable identification of close biological ancestors whose identities might otherwise remain unknown, and which represent immediate brick walls for any genealogist dealing with such a scenario in their immediate family tree.
In this series of blog posts, we explore tips for successful genetic genealogy searches dealing with adoption research, unknown parentage, or misattributed parentage.
Approximately 7 million Americans (or 2% of the population) are adopted, and about 140,000 children are adopted each year. Meanwhile, nearly 60% of the U.S. population has had a personal experience with adoption, meaning that they themselves, a family member, or a close friend was adopted, had adopted a child, or had placed a child for adoption. Though the statistics, processes, and documentation may vary, adoption is a common practice in many countries around the world. As a result, many genealogy researchers have recent obstacles in their family trees due to cases of adoption either for themselves or their immediate ancestors.
Genetic genealogy research is an important research avenue for adoptees or their descendants seeking to learn more about their biological ancestry. Even so, researchers should recognize document research avenues that might aid in the effort. Following are nine tips for using documentary and genetic evidence to identify biological parents in a case of recent adoption.
1. Gather as much background information, context, and records as you can to start your adoption research
To successfully identify an adoptee’s biological parents, it is first essential to obtain as much information as possible regarding the context of the adoptee’s conception and birth. This often involves seeking as much documentary evidence as possible.
Interview Those Involved
Individuals involved in the adoption process might be interviewed. The adoptee themselves may have heard information from their adoptive parents. Adoptive parents may be able to share some information regarding the biological parents. If adoptive parents are deceased or are unwilling to share information or if they do not have information to share, there are still some documentary research avenues that might be pursued.
Depending on the state, adoptees, and in some cases their immediate family members, may be entitled to original birth certificates, non-identifying information from the adoption agency or the court that handled the adoption, or even the adoption file itself. These records can be immensely helpful for learning information about biological parents and their extended families. Even if non-identifying information was obtained previously, it may be worth requesting again as what is considered non-identifying can be subject to the interpretation of the worker handling the request. Also, an adoptee might consider working with a mutual consent registry to possibly connect with a biological parent. Some states sponsor an official registry, and other organizations maintain some registries.
In some international adoptions, records from the courts or agencies that processed the adoption can sometimes be obtained. Additional documents that might be sought include immigration records, naturalization records, passports, orphanage records, and original civil registration records from the country where an adoptee was born.
If researching a historic adoption, keep in mind that confidentiality was not applied to adoption records until about 1920. If an adoption occurred prior to widespread sealed/closed adoption laws, there may be public records relating to an adoption through the court, or newspaper legal notices. Even if records were sealed at a later date, those records are sometimes made available after a certain number of years. In cases where there are still restrictions on access to adoption records and original birth certificates, be sure to consider other sources such as orphanage records, newspaper notices, or agency records which may not be subject to the same restrictions.
In addition to the records discussed above, conception analysis is important for establishing context. Full term pregnancies typically range between 247 and 284 days of duration from conception (ovulation) to delivery with 80 percent of pregnancies lasting between 256 and 280 days. Based on this information and bearing in mind the background information recorded in non-identifying information from an adoption file (which sometimes includes duration of the adoptee’s gestation), conception dates can be estimated. Also, remember that an adoptee’s birthplace was not always the same as the place of conception.
2. Be open minded regarding the accuracy of background information
While it is important to get as much information as you can regarding the context of an adoption, you should also keep in mind that not all information may be correct. Information on original birth certificates may have been falsified. Details from non-identifying information files can be incorrect. Background provided by adoptive parents and others can also be incomplete or false. These differences are sometimes due to intentional efforts to mislead or conceal information on the part of a biological parent, adoptive parent, or other party involved in the adoption process such as cases where a bio-mother attempted to conceal her identity, an agency participated in unethical practices in arranging the adoption, or an adoptive parent is actively discouraging a search.
However, differences between expectations and reality can also be due to simple misunderstandings, miscommunications, or lack of knowledge. Adoptive parents may not be fully aware of the circumstances of an adoptee’s birth or may have been told false information about the bio-parents. A biological mother may have misidentified the biological father and provided information about the incorrect individual in interviews with social workers. Even in these cases, if the information is not entirely correct, the background information is still helpful in providing some clues and may include a grain of truth.
Use “Known” Parents for Research
Sometimes background information can reveal the identity of one or both of an adoptee’s biological parents. In these cases, it is still beneficial to extend the ancestral lines of “known” parents using document evidence to ensure that their family tree aligns with the family trees of genetic cousins. In some cases, a named parent on an original birth certificate or the parent described in an adoption file may not be the biological parent, or information regarding the parent may have been falsified. Extension of the family trees of “known” parents helps researchers detect such scenarios.
3. DNA Test at multiple companies
Autosomal DNA Testing
When attempting to solve a case of adoption, genetic genealogy testing can help. We recommend starting with autosomal DNA testing at each of the major DNA testing companies: 23andMe, Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage (note that MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA accept transfers of raw data from other testing companies). Raw data might also be transferred to GEDmatch, Geneanet and other companies that accept transfers of data. Each company maintains separate databases of tested customers and it is never known where the closest and most important genetic cousins might have tested. Other types of DNA can also be helpful for adoption searches.
X-DNA (which is tested as part of autosomal DNA tests) can sometimes help narrow the search for common ancestors between an adoptee and a genetic cousin. 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch all report on shared X-DNA between matches.
For male adoptees, or direct paternal descendants of male adoptees, Y-DNA can be helpful for identifying potential surnames or direct paternal origins for a biological father (Y-DNA is inherited along the direct paternal line – the same inheritance pattern as surnames in some countries). FamilyTreeDNA offers Y-DNA testing and 23andMe reports on broad Y-DNA haplogroup categories which can sometimes be used for evaluating relationship scenarios to close genetic cousins.
Mitochondrial DNA Testing
For male and female adoptees, or for direct maternal descendants of female adoptees, mitochondrial DNA testing can sometimes aid in learning about a biological mother or direct maternal origins. FamilyTreeDNA offers mitochondrial DNA testing and 23andMe reports on broad mtDNA haplogroup categories which can sometimes be used for evaluating relationship scenarios to close genetic cousins.
4. DNA Target test others
In addition to testing yourself or the adoptee, it might be beneficial to test others to aid in your genetic genealogy search. If a test taker is the adoptee themselves, then it can sometimes feel like there are no targeted testing options. However, adoptees might consider working with genetic cousins to target test their older relatives in order to pinpoint the nature of a relationship. For example, if an adoptee has a close genetic cousin who does not yet have any other tested close relatives, they might work together to target test aunts, uncles, parents, cousins, and other relatives of the genetic match to determine which branch of the match’s family tree is the source of share DNA with the adoptee.
Often through genetic genealogy analysis, adoptees can narrow a list of bio-parent candidates down to a handful of individuals. To further determine the identity of a bio-parent, it may be necessary to target test living descendants or other close living relatives of those individuals.
5. Try to distinguish paternal vs. maternal relatives
In adoption cases, genetic genealogy analysis can quickly become overwhelming because adoptees are often searching for two unknowns: a biological father and a biological mother. As a result, all genetic cousins are potentially pertinent to the search and if there are a large number of them, then the search can quickly become overwhelming.
Sorting DNA matches based on their relationships to each other is a great approach for any genetic genealogy case, but it is particularly important in adoption cases. At the most basic level, efforts should be made to try and distinguish relatives of one parent from relatives of another.
If an adoptees parents have different ethnic origins, ethnicity estimates can sometimes help in this process. Y-DNA, mtDNA, and X-DNA evidence can also aid in this effort. AncestryDNA recently began separating match lists into parent 1 and parent 2 categories.
Other companies which provide segment data regarding genetic cousins (23andme, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage and GEDmatch) can also be used to identify genetic cousins who are sharing DNA in the same chromosomal regions but on different sides of a test taker’s family tree. Organizing genetic matches in this way can make the search more straightforward and feasible.
6. Collaborate with genetic cousins
As mentioned previously, in adoption searches, collaborating with close genetic cousins can be an important targeted testing opportunity. Even beyond these benefits, collaborating with genetic cousins can save time in researching and extending family trees for key genetic matches. They may be aware of bio-parent candidates in their extended family. They may be able to provide information to help extend their family tree enabling identification of common ancestors with shared matches and identification of ancestral candidates. Further, by building a relationship with these genetic cousins, you may be able to gain an ally in your search. Communication with bio-parent candidates from within their own family may be more successful than cold-call attempts from outside their family.
It can be nerve-wracking to contact close genetic cousins and bio-family. For more recommendations on establishing contact, see our blog post on how to contact your birth parent or sibling or this blog post on how to get responses from your DNA matches
7. Be patient with yourself, your matches, and others in your collaboration efforts
As important as it may be to establish contact with close genetic cousins and bio-family, these efforts can certainly be emotional and stressful. We recommend taking it slow so that you, your bio-family, and your genetic cousins have sufficient time to process new information that can be life-changing. Keep in mind that you may have had several months or even years to process knowledge of your adoption, while it may be the first time that some of the people you are contacting have heard or learned about your experience and existence. For you and for them, consider some of these resources for DNA surprises in a family tree.
If you don’t receive immediate responses from the individuals you have contacted, give them some time before following up. Don’t assume that no response is a rejection. Particularly for genetic cousins, they may not have received or seen your communication through the company messaging system. You may have attempted contact through an outdated address, phone number or email. They may not regularly check their social media accounts. Alternatively, they may just need time to process the new information and decide how they are going to move forward.
8. Use DNA and documents in adoption research to find the right people in the right place at the right time
Once common ancestors and relationships are identified for clusters of genetic cousins, then researchers can begin the process of searching for connections between ancestral candidates and finding individuals who were in the right place at the right time to be the source of shared DNA with DNA matches.
In adoption research, be sure to focus on the conception date and context rather than the birthdate and birthplace as the two are often different. In some adoption cases, it may be possible to narrow down a pool of candidates to a set of siblings on one side and a set of siblings on the other side. It may even be possible to narrow down further based on Y-DNA, mtDNA and X-DNA. Even so, there may still be several candidates.
If targeted testing and collaboration efforts are unfruitful or impossible, consider narrowing a pool of candidates down further by comparing what is known about a family against non-ID information or other background context. Also try narrowing a pool of candidates based on geographic proximity and life situation at the time of context. For some ideas on how to do this, review our blog on finding the right people at the right place at the right time. While it may not always be possible to prove the identity of a biological parent with DNA, it may be possible to use document evidence to identify the most likely candidate from a particular family.
9. Have a professional genealogist review your adoption research work
Searching for biological parents in an adoption research case can be a stressful and emotional journey in self-discovery. Contacting bio-relatives can be nerve-wracking. Results of contact with bio-family can be joyous or heart-breaking. Because of these considerations you will want to make sure that you are as confident as possible in your conclusions in a bio-parent search before contacting bio-parents, siblings, or other relatives.
Our project packages offer an excellent opportunity for a professional researcher to review previous work you may have performed and identify other scenarios you may not have considered. Even if you have arrived at a valid conclusion, you will want to make sure that your reasoning is written in a clear and well communicated manner to put newfound family members at ease in their questions and concerns. Our experienced and professional genealogists at Legacy Tree have found that bio-families of an adoptee are often extremely interested in reviewing our reports to better understand how they were identified as close biological family of a client. By working with a professional researcher, you can move forward in contact with confidence, and you can make sure that you have correct and proven answers in the important search to identify your biological parents.
For assistance with your adoption research, or to verify the information you have found, contact the experts at Legacy Tree Genealogists.
 Adoption Network, “U.S. Adoption Statistics,” https://adoptionnetwork.com/adoption-myths-facts/domestic-us-statistics/, accessed August 2021.
 A.M. Jucik et al, “Length of Human Pregnancy and contributors to its natural variation,” Human Reproduction (Oxford, England), 2013 Oct; 28(10): 2848–2855, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, accessed December 2022.