When an adoptee decides that they would like to begin searching for their birth family, many people will chime in with advice. A common bit of wisdom is to “take a DNA test”, but is this good advice? In this post, I’ll discuss whether Ancestry DNA can help someone find their birth parents, exactly how it might help, and some of the limitations of DNA testing that are relevant to adoptees.
Over the course of the past few years, I have had the opportunity to assist numerous adoptees, including my husband, in their search for their biological families using DNA as the primary tool. The experience was different for each person, and my goal in this post is to share some of what I learned throughout the process. I hope that this post helps you understand what a person who is looking for their biological family can expect from DNA testing.
Can Ancestry DNA help someone find their birth parents?
DNA testing with a company like Ancestry DNA can be an exceptionally useful tool for an adoptee looking for their biological parents. A DNA test can be helpful for finding living relatives, including close relatives, which can provide very detailed insight into our family trees. Living relatives can often assist in providing family context, background, and valuable information to adoptees about their biological parents.
How can DNA testing help adoptees find biological family?
There are many ways in which a DNA test can help an adoptee connect with, or learn about, their biological family. Sometimes, it’s very straightforward. Other times, it takes research and some time. The primary way in which a DNA test is able to assist in the search for biological family is through the DNA match list – not the ethnicity estimate.
Adoptees may find that their family has been searching for them
Occasionally, adoptees may find that their parents have done DNA testing. Sometimes, the biological mother is interested in connecting with their child and has done a DNA test with the hope that someday her child will do a test and find them as a match. Other times, a biological father didn’t know that they had a child and did a test not knowing that there was a potential for a child to show up as a match. There is always the possibility that both parents knew about the adoption and have both done a DNA test looking for a potential connection.
Another scenario that you might encounter is that other family members, like siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, know that they have a family member who was adopted out of the family and have done a DNA test with the idea that they may eventually locate this person. I know for sure that this occurs because it has happened in my own family, though we still have not found our cousin (I’m still hoping he will do a test someday!).
When you get your DNA test results back, you’ll find that you are provided with a very long list (generally, pages and pages) of DNA matches. These DNA matches are your living relatives, and are all related to you in different ways. Some will be from your mother’s side of the family, and others from your father’s side of the family. You will share a common ancestor with each DNA match; some will be very recent common ancestors (i.e. a grandfather), and others will be distant (i.e. a great-great-great-great grandfather).
The closer DNA matches will help in learning about who your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are. Many of your DNA matches will have family trees posted on their accounts, and by looking through their family trees, and communicating with your matches, you will be able to spot patterns.
Adoptees may find close relatives on their DNA match list
For example, if you had two first cousins show up on your DNA match list, you can feel fairly confident that you share a grandparent with them. If they both have a family tree connected with their results, you can see the names of their grandparents. If they are first cousins to you, then you will share one set of grandparents with them. The next step would be to determine which children of the grandparents is your biological parent, knowing that you can exclude the parents of your cousins as potential parents.
If the matches don’t have trees posted to their account, it’s always possible to send them a short message introducing yourself as a close relative trying to determine the connection (I usually recommend not mentioning adoption in the first message). The match will often reply with a few surnames, etc, which you can then use while you search through your other DNA matches.
It’s a process of logic, elimination, and determination. You will learn a lot about your family going through the process, but how easy or difficult it will be depends on your own unique situation. And this leads me to my next point.
Even distant relatives can help you figure out your family tree
Even though it is beyond the scope of this post, there are some advanced strategies (such as triangulation) that can help someone who has no close or even relatively close relatives who have done DNA tests. It takes a lot of work and much more time, but it can be done.
Finding biological parents through DNA usually isn’t always easy
To summarize, DNA is always a very helpful tool (maybe even the most helpful tool) that adoptees can employ to locate biological family, including parents. As with all tools, the ease with which the task can be accomplished depends on the difficulty of the project and the skill of the person who is using the tool.
How quick and effective DNA testing will be will depend on lots of factors:
- Where your biological family is located. If your parents or grandparents were born in another country, it’s possible that you might not have as many cousins who have done DNA testing. This shouldn’t dissuade you, however, since DNA testing is growing in popularity around the world. As more and more people do a test, the greater the chance that a relative will show up as a DNA match. When my adoptee husband (born in another country) did a DNA test, he only had 3 DNA matches that were a 4th cousin distance or closer. Three years later, he has more than 50 – and we expect the number to keep growing. He has also transferred his DNA results to other websites to get additional matches, which has been an excellent strategy.
- How knowledgeable you are about DNA testing and understanding how your matches are related to you. There are dozens of excellent websites, including mine (shameless plug!) that can help you understand how to find out how you are connected with your DNA matches. Most of my articles are written for absolute beginners, so make sure you check back here if you do end up testing.
- Your skill level in genealogy. DNA can’t provide all of the answers, it can only serve as a guide. This means that DNA results, including matches, are best used in tandem with family tree/genealogy research.
- Pure chance. You won’t know unless you do a DNA test, but there is always the chance that one or more of your close relatives (half-siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins or even parents or grandparents) has already done a DNA test, and your questions can be answered within minutes. For example, I have a relative-in-law whose father was adopted as a baby. Once his dad’s DNA test results came back, it took less than 15 minutes to figure out who both of his parents were. It was just luck, though. He had so many close relatives who had tested that he was able to easily spot the pattern, which matched exactly what he had been told about his adoption.
Ancestry DNA is best for finding biological parents
If you are interested in doing a DNA test, you might wonder which company is best. Ancestry DNA is, by far, the best company to test with for someone who is looking for biological parents. There are two reasons:
- Ancestry DNA has the biggest commercial database of DNA testers. This means that there is a higher chance that you’ll find close relatives on Ancestry’s site.
- Ancestry is well-known as a website for family tree research, and it’s also very easy to build a tree and attach it to results. The result is that more people will have a family tree on Ancestry, and you’ll be able to learn more about your family’s history from the trees of your DNA matches.
Once you do your Ancestry DNA test, you’ll be happy to know that the excitement and learning doesn’t stop there. Most DNA testing companies allow you to download your results and upload them to other sites, and Ancestry is no exception. You can transfer your DNA data to sites like My Heritage DNA (for free) and Family Tree DNA (also free!) to find even more DNA matches and possibly that lucky match who will really help you learn what you are interested in finding out about your biological family.
If you want to get your Ancestry DNA test today, you can use the following link. I’ll get a very small commission at no extra cost to you, and it helps me support this website – so thank you!
Discovery the story AncestryDNA® can tell
I hope that this post helped give you a realistic view of the type of information that a DNA test can tell someone who is looking to identify their biological parents, how a DNA test can do this, and which DNA test is most helpful for finding living family. If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or would like to share your experience using DNA to look for family, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.
Thank you for stopping by!
Dennis J. Cox
Sunday 11th of September 2022
A qualified "YES!" However, I was only seeking the identity of my birth father rather than as an adoptee, though my mother's husband did adopt me following their marriage but only after two half-siblings came into the picture. For reasons unknown my mother would never identify my biological father even though his name was clearly known since it appeared on my baptismal record. It was not until I followed the advice of my wife's sister-in-law, submitted a sample to Ancestry through which I was able to identify a 1st cousin on my paternal side who put me in contact with paternal half-siblings. If I had not chosen to submit a sample for DNA testing, with the attendant results, I never would have discovered a whole other family that has proven to be warm and welcoming. Will it work for everyone? Probably not. Will results lead to disappointment? Possibly. Is it worth the risk? Most definitely.
Thursday 20th of January 2022
I'm adopted. Ancestry DNA provide the name of my biological father. All my matches are on my father's side No info on maternal. How can there be not one person I match on maternal side
Sunday 8th of March 2020
My biological father was a GI serving in England during WW11. I didn’t know his name but traced him through Ancestry.com. He died in 1985 and I have a half brother and sister still living. The half brother 5 months older than me died last year. I haven’t contacted my half siblings as our father obviously was unfaithful to his wife and they might well be upset to know they have a 75 year old half sister in England. Also their mother is still alive in her 100th year.