Matches: How DNA Can Help You Find Your Family

Advances in DNA science and testing have exploded recently, with DNA being utilized for previously unthought-of situations—catching criminals, identifying remains, finding biological family for adoptees, or furthering genealogical research.  Despite these varying uses, the process of finding “matches” is the same for all of them.

I started learning how to use DNA while trying to find my birth family.  I have known I am adopted for as long as I can remember.

In February 2017, I went to RootsTech in Salt Lake City with a friend who raved about DNA testing.  I bought a kit since they were on sale, spit in a tube, and sent it off.  I was more interested in learning about my ethnicity than finding birth family, at first.  However, when I got a list of people who shared DNA with me I got very interested in figuring out the puzzle of my biological family.

Alyson Johnson on right, with her brother (Chuck) on the left, birth mom, Donna, in back, and birth father, Ron, in front. Photo by Chuck Chance

Alyson Johnson on right, with her brother (Chuck) on the left, birth mom, Donna, in back, and birth father, Ron, in front.
Photo by Chuck Chance

I spent time learning how to use DNA to find people, and figured out who my birth parents were in July 2017.  They lived 6.5 miles from the house I grew up in. It took time to process the information emotionally, so it was several weeks later that I sent them a letter (they married after I was born.)  Six weeks went by with no response.  I was going to visit my mom who raised me, so I mailed them a postcard, letting them know I would be in town if they wanted to meet me.  Ten days later my birth mother called and said she’d love to meet me.

Naturally, it was a very emotional reunion.  My birth mother gave me medical information for both sides of my family, and I discovered I had a full-blooded brother 13 years younger than me.  He did not know about me, and it took some time for them to tell him, but I got to meet my birth father and brother on my 53rd birthday.

I have now found my new mission in life—I am a volunteer search angel and help other adoptees find their birth families.  I also teach free DNA classes in the community.

When looking for “lost family”—whether search for people separated from family at birth or extending your family tree back further in time—here are some tips to help you in your research:

1 – Ethnicity estimates are just estimates!  Segments of your DNA are compared by computers to samples of DNA from reference populations around the world and an estimate is made based on which populations those segments most closely match.  As technology improves, your estimate will change.

2 – Shared DNA is not an estimate!  The unit of measurement for DNA is centiMorgan (cM). The more cMs you share with someone, the closer your relationship to them. Do not rely on the testing company’s estimate of your relationship to a match.  Use DNApainter.com/tools/sharedcmv4 to determine possible relationships based on the cMs you share.

3 – Use the information in your matches’ trees to get clues for your own tree.  ALWAYS verify information in other people’s trees.

Adoptees will need to reverse engineer a tree from a close match, meaning they need to identify the common direct-line ancestors of several of their matches, then build their trees forward by finding all the descendants of that couple.  Having non-identifying birth background information will help adoptees to know when they have found the “right” people.

Those doing genealogy will look at the trees of more distant cousins for information that can give them clues to investigate to extend their family lines.

DNA testing has become a remarkable, accessible, and reasonably priced tool for those trying to find and identify relatives.

The Beehive

The Arizona Beehive is a complementary East Phoenix Valley LDS lifestyle and living publication, published six times a year, featuring content on people to meet, places to explore, events to attend and businesses to patronize.

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