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Adoption Search: DNA Finds Birth Parents

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New DNA tests are powerful adoption search tools for adoptees looking for birth families. There are four primary autosomal DNA tests that each check more than a half million markers on both men and women. Each test can uncover biological relatives from anywhere in your family tree.

23andMe | Family Finder | AncestryDNA | MyHeritage

Each test is now priced at less than $100 and includes a summary of your ethnic ancestry. Click the above links to learn more about each test directly from the lab involved.

NOTE: My links to other sites open in new windows. If they don’t work, check your popup blocker.

Since the databases are mostly different, adoptees cannot tell in advance which one will uncover the closest, most fruitful matches. You need to do multiple tests and get into every database.

Similar in concept, each of these new tests looks at the many chromosomes where your DNA is a mixture of all your ancestors. By finding long strings of matching DNA segments, they find people who share a common ancestor with you. They estimate your relationship, e.g. second cousins, with each match. And some of your matches will have posted family trees tied to their name.

That common ancestor that connects you may have been on your mother’s side or your father’s side. The exciting thing is that these biological cousins may have the information you need to pinpoint your birth parents. Even if they don’t, there is still a method you can use to identify your family.

See my page titled How to Find Birth Parents to learn how.

DNA testing can help find birth parents despite sealed birth records and there are thousands of success stories. Today, the cost of testing has dropped dramatically. For less than $100 each, you can do the two most critical tests with the largest databases: AncestryDNA and 23andMe

Once you get your results from either test, you can download your raw data and upload it for free into three additional databases: Family FinderMyHeritage, and GEDmatch. Since you can’t know where your relatives might have tested, getting your DNA data into all the key databases is a critical first step.

Your Genetic Matches are the Key

Each testing company will give you a list of people who share significant amounts of DNA with you. Those who share the most will be at the top of the list.

If you are lucky, you will see a parent, sibling, or other close relative. Reach out to that person through the site’s contact system. If he or she is both knowledgeable and helpful, your search to find birth parents may be over.

Even if you only see distant cousin matches, a successful search is still possible.

A Proven Process to Follow

Your distant cousins must share common ancestors with you. For example, a third cousin will share a pair of great-great grandparents. But you can’t tell which pair. You need to work backwards in time to identify all 16 of your match’s great-great grandparents. Then work forward in time to identify their descendants. Your goal is to find someone who lived in the time period and place of your birth. This sounds like a lot of work and it is.

Most adoptees will have many of these distant cousin matches and there are techniques such as clustering that can help you identify common ancestors more efficiently. But you still need to do a lot of genealogical research with birth and marriage records, census records, and old newspaper obituaries. There are two ways to approach this task.

Option 1: Find Birth Parents Yourself by Learning to Be a Genetic Genealogist

Each testing company presents your DNA results differently and provides a different mix of tools for working with your matches. Plus, there are several useful third-party tools to learn and apply. Knowing how to use a computer spreadsheet is pretty much a required skill to handle all the data you need to record and manipulate.

Anyone choosing this Do-It-Yourself option to find birth parents should buy, read, and study The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy. Another great educational resource is a Legacy Family Tree webinar membership. That will let you access many hours of training in both genealogy and DNA subjects.

You will also need to subscribe to at least one genealogical records service and an online archive of historical newspapers. As you work your way down to living people (who won’t be in genealogical records), you will likely need to access paid people finder sites.

Again, luck plays a factor. But realistically you are looking at many months of diligent research.

Option 2: Outsource Your Search to Experienced Professionals

Most of us have hired an electrician, plumber, or contractor to do a project that we could theoretically have attempted ourselves. Professionals have skills, tools, and experience that we lack. And we have more productive things to do with our personal time.

You may decide to obtain answers more quickly and easily by hiring an expert. There are thousands of professional genealogists willing to research your family tree. Only a fraction of these have experience using DNA testing to find birth parents. Far fewer are truly skilled at identifying birth parents without close DNA matches.

If you partner with the right people, however, you can cut weeks off the typical timeframe.

Why Speed is Much More Important in a Birth Parent Search

For most genealogy projects there’s no need to rush. You’re only researching dead people. And their records will still be there next year and the year after that. 

In a birth parent search, we are trying to identify people whom we hope are still alive. I hear many stories of people identifying a birth parent just weeks or months after the parent has died.

And it’s not just the parents who are passing. The people who knew them and knew about a child given up for adoption are also getting older.

When comparing a Do-It-Yourself search that could drag on for months with a faster professional search, be sure to weigh the added value of speed.

 to learn more.

A Faster, Guaranteed Option for Birth Parent Searches

There is one company, Origins International, that will handle the search for you. They provide a fixed price based on your situation. And if they don’t find your birth parent or parents within 90 days, they will refund 100% of your money. You can call Origins directly at 801-500-0900 and ask for a Free Case Review.

There are six reasons why I can wholeheartedly recommend this company. Read my Birth Parent Search page to learn more.

How These Tests Help Adoption Searches

Genetic genealogy has revolutionized the adoption search process. Adoptees with little or no information about their birth families are accomplishing three things through these tests:

1. They are learning their ethnic ancestry.

2. They are uncovering biological relatives of varying degrees, some of whom may lead them to their birth families.

3. When birth parents are deceased or otherwise unavailable, they are confirming their biological relationship by testing other close relatives such as half siblings, cousins, or aunts and uncles.

To learn more about how adoptees use these tests see my Tracing Birth Parents page.

How DNA Can Confirm Found Relatives

Once an adoptee finds someone from his or her birth family, there is often a need to confirm the relationship. These genetic genealogy DNA tests are powerful enough to confirm a variety of close relationships between two people.

  • Parent-Child? Yes, for a lower cost than a paternity test.
  • Siblings? Yes, distinguishing between full and half siblings.
  • Aunt or Uncle and Nephew or Niece? Yes.
  • Grandparent-Grandchild? Yes.
  • First Cousins? Yes.
  • Second Cousins? Yes, 99% of the time.

For more information see this page on DNA Relationship Testing.

Genetic genealogist Blaine Bettinger has collected actual shared DNA data from more than 6,500 relationships. To see a summary chart of average, minimum, and maximum shared DNA for many relationships see DNA Relationship Data.

To see how different relationships appear on 23andMe review this page on Relative Finder as a Kinship Test.

WARNING: Don’t Waste Your Money

Many DNA labs that do paternity testing market the same technology as “sibling tests,” or “kinship tests” etc. Based on no more than 24 markers, they can only estimate the probability of a relationship. 

I used one of these tests during my adoption search and the results were WRONG. But I only discovered that after testing with Family Finder and 23andMe. These new test examine around 700.000 markers and can actually measure how much DNA two people have in common.

So don’t waste your money on these old technology tests.

For more information check out my page on DNA Kinship Testing.

I Have a Lot of Matches. Now What?

Unless you discover a second cousin or closer, you will probably need to use a methodology called “triangulation.” For information, time-saving tools, and support I recommend the DNA Adoption web site.

Can DNA Help Birth Parents?

It’s not only adoptees that are engaged in adoption search. Sometimes the birth mother (or birth father) may decide to search for the child they gave up for adoption.

The DNA tests described here can only work in the opposite direction if the child you gave up for adoption (or one of his descendants) takes the same test. Since more and more adoptees will be using these tests every year, the chance of that happening will increase as times goes on.

In my opinion, it would be a wonderful, loving act if birth parents who had given up a child for adoption would also take at least one of these tests. This also applies to parents and family members of children lost through forced adoption. See my Taken Children page for more on that.

While you might not get an immediate match with your child, you are setting things up so your child can find you. Then, when your child or grandchild finally tests, you will both learn about each other at the same time.

In the meantime, you can learn more about your ancestors through your previously unknown cousins that show up as other matches. To learn more about these tests from a genealogist’s point of view, see the Family Trees section.

Richard Hill’s Personal Adoption Search

Richard Hill was a pioneer in using DNA to find his birth family. Although he no longer manages this website, his words appear below and on certain other pages. For a summary of his personal story, check out the following links in this order:

1. Finding Birth Parents 

2. Parental DNA Testing 

3. Genealogy DNA Testing 

4. DNA Sibling Test 

My Story on Family Tree DNA

Like me, the people at Family Tree DNA thought my story would be of interest to other adoptees. So they interviewed me and posted a video on their web site. You can view that video now by watching here.


A science reporter from the Wall Street Journal found this web site and decided to do a story on my use of DNA in adoption search. The article began on the front page of the May 2, 2009 issue. You can read that article now by following the link on the bottom of my Birth Family Search page.

Beware of False Adoption Records

During my search I ran across several examples of “official” records that contained deliberately false or incorrect information. To see what I mean and learn how I overcame these obstacles, read my page on Adoption Records. 

Adoption Reunions

As someone who has experienced adoption search and reunion twice, I have thought a lot about this subject. Here are my thoughts on adoption reunions. 

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