DNA testing: a lifeline for adoptees searching for their roots

DNA lab by snre, on Flickr. CC Image, Some rights reserved
DNA lab by snre, on Flickr. CC Image, Some rights reserved


One of the most promising applications of DNA testing is its potential to provide information to a population with limited access to genealogical records: adoptees.  While adoptees can obtain certain records, the venture is challenging and the absence of information is a roadblock that is often impossible to overcome.  Recognizing this difficulty, genetic testing companies have increased their presence in adoption-focused forums, such as adoption message boards.  A January, 2012 article in The New York Times profiled several adoptees, including Khrys Vaughan, who at the age of 42, discovered that she was adopted and embarked on a search for her biological parents.  Upon learning that her adoption records were sealed, she sent samples to a large DNA company for testing.  Shortly thereafter, she learned the names and email addresses of dozens of distant cousins with whom she immediately connected.  For Vaughan, DNA testing provided an opportunity to find family members who would otherwise be virtually unknown to her.

In the United States, it is estimated that about six million Americans are adoptees.  According to surveys, a large majority of these adopted children and/or biological parents have, at some point, undertaken a search for biological relatives.  However, information about adoptions may be sealed, limited or withheld by family members.  Adoptees must try to locate the most vital piece of information for them – the identity of one or both of their birth parents.  An individual may try to gather facts about his biological parents from his adopted family.  For adoptees fortunate to live in a state with open adoption records, they can simply obtain a copy of an original birth certificate, which will likely contain the names of one or both parents.  If one does not reside in an open adoption record state, he can contact the agency or state that oversaw the adoption to acquire non-identifying information about himself and his biological parents. This information varies from agency to agency and will typically include medical history, physical characteristics, ethnic origin, and levels of education, but the absence of concrete identifying information can make the search arduous.

For many adoptees living in states without open adoption records, the proliferation of genetic testing has been a savior.  Some companies have collected enough DNA samples to allow adoptees to locate other blood relatives or help determine an adoptee’s ethnic and religious origins.  Other DNA testing companies conduct broader searches by attempting to match DNA to samples from existing databases to pinpoint genetic markers indicating a common ancestor.  While these tests have received some criticism for producing familial relationships that are at best tenuous, the technology for DNA matching is improving.  The two largest databases, Family Tree DNA and 23andMe, maintain databases with over 700,000 records each.  In some cases, no genetic connections are ultimately found or the adoptee is rebuffed by a relative who was not interested in acquiring new family members. But for others, like Khrys Vaughan, finding new relatives through DNA testing has been a source of comfort, healing and closure.


Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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1 Response

  1. Very interesting article. Can’t believe there are six million Americans are adoptees.

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