Looking for and Contacting Birth Family Members

When I ran the article title DNA Testing Strategy for Adoptees and People with Uncertain Parentage, one commenter asked how one goes about putting together the pieces of the puzzle, and then how does one go about making contact?  What do you do, or say, to increase your likelihood of being successful?

I am probably the all-time worst person to answer this question, because I intensely dislike telephone conversations and especially in awkward situations.  My family has had a few of those awkward parentage situations, mostly having to do with my father and grandfather, both “ladies men,” and I’ve been both rejected and hung up on more than once – so you don’t want advice from me on this topic.

I turned to someone with a track record of success – not only in terms of putting together the convincing evidence about the missing parent – but in terms of preparation for contact, approach and actually making the contact.

Diane Harman-Hoog, with www.dnaadoption.com was kind enough to write this article.

DNAadoption page

Diane works with adoptees and others seeking their biological parents every day.  She is a retired technology professional, so transitioning her skills to a genetic genealogy puzzle was the perfect fit for Diane.  In addition to working with a team who has developed the specific search techniques, sometimes in spite of some of the vendors we have to work with, Diane has created an educational venue and teaches others the techniques and how to help themselves.

Diane is summing up a significant process here, in just a few paragraphs.  If you’d like to know more about these techniques, please visit http://www.dnaadoption.com and take a look at their class offerings.

Many people call Diane and the people at DNAAdoption search angels – that’s because they truly are.  Not only are they reuniting families, when the family wants to be reunited – but Diane and her team are providing the adoptee with a history, something they have never had.  Thank you so much Diane – for this article and for everything that you and the folks at DNAadoption do.

From Diane Harman-Hoog

We at DNAadoption are having a great deal of success with reuniting birth family members with adoptees and with others who have lost track of a father, for example.

One of the first things an adoptee should do is try to get their non-identifying birth information, if available, through their adoption agency.  Many times this alone can be used in a traditional search even without DNA.  If they have non-id that is older than 5 years, we recommend they apply for an update. We at www.DNAAdoption.com can help if they don’t know how to go about this process.

The DNA Search Process

The world was a lot easier before Ancestry decided to ignore what we all felt were hard and fast principles of the search – meaning providing the tester with chromosome match information – the chromosome number and start and stop locations of matching DNA. We collected chromosome data and “In Common With” genealogy data, ran them through our programs with resulting spreadsheets that group overlapping DNA into sets and then noted which people in that set were ICW with others in the set.

A definition or two is in order here. I prefer to tell students that ICW means blood related. Overlapping means any part of the chromosome segments that overlap, they do not have to be the same length.

Identification by Triangulation

We can have two people with starting and ending addresses on a particular chromosome which makes us think that they received the segment from the same ancestor. However, nature plays a little joke with us on that part, because there are two sides to the chromosome and each side has the same address sequence. On one side, the addresses increase going one way and on the other side, they increase going the other way.

When we identify people who look like they have overlapping chromosomes then if they are blood related with each other, then the segments came from the same ancestor. The very small segments are probably not indicative of family heredity but are environmentally caused genetic strings.

I use this example of blood related. You are blood related (ICW) with all your matches as you are the very bottom of the relationships and related to both sides. You maternal grandmother is probably not blood related or ICW with your paternal grandfather. In most cases, they come from different families.

In general, the longer the segment the closer the relationship, but when the prediction is closer than second cousins, we start to look at the total of all the segments over about 6 cM (centimorgans) that overlap.

Then we look for common ancestors using the trees of those two individuals. Next is triangulation where three people match on the same segment. That is because every one of your matches overlaps with your DNA segments and is always ICW with you. So two plus one gives us the three to triangulate.

In order to look for common ancestors on the trees, you need 3 things:

    • Overlapping DNA segments
    • ICW status between the same individuals
    • And some tree information from each party.

Expanding trees

We get as much of the tree that we can for each person and then we have to go to work expanding the existing tree. First the tree must go up in the traditional genealogical manner, you, your parents, your grandparents etc. You also treat any matching person the same way so you get a normal looking genealogical tree. If this is a 2nd cousin match, take the tree back to at least 3 generations past the great grandparents.

Then comes the really tedious part. You come back down the tree identifying all the offspring and all of their offspring down to the years where you would expect the grandparent or other unidentified person to be living. As you go down the tree (towards the present), you must also add each spouse for each of the offspring and go up their ancestry a ways to see if they might also be related. By the time you get down to the actual candidate of the father, you would hope to find that both his mother and father are related to DNA matches of yours.

The difficulty often comes from two directions, incomplete trees that you just cannot fill in and completing the most recent generations. At that point we have to rely on Google searches and obituaries to make the final identifications.

In essence, the DNA identifies who you are related to, triangulation identifies groups of people who share a common ancestor, and their trees will lead you to the identification of both that common ancestor and hopefully, your parent.

If this is a little sketchy, the full course takes 4 weeks and I am trying to summarize it here. Some searches only take a tree or two but I have also done ones that took 200 trees (and five years).


Then Ancestry came along and is refusing to give us the chromosome numbers. This is particularly bad for adoptees who rely upon those numbers to confirm or deny the relationships.

So we deal with it in this manner. We have a DNA software Client for ancestry called DNAGedcom from the DNAGedcom site. It reads your Ancestry DNA account and generates a match list of all your matches and an ancestors list of all the ancestors of those matches. A more recent addition is also an ICW list to show us which matches are ICW with which other matches.


Whenever possible do everything you can to encourage these matches to download onto Gedmatch.

Another trick, after you transfer the kits to Gedmatch, is to use the report on Gedmatch, named “People who match one or both of 2 kits”. This report takes the gedmatch # of two individuals and measures them against each other. If I run it against my brother, Ken, and my maternal cousin, Jon, I will get three different lists. The first list is of kits that both Jon and Ken match. Since our mother and Jon’s mother are sisters, then we can assume that these are maternal matches for both Jon and Ken. The second list shows kits that only Jon matches, that would be from his father’s side of the family and the third list shows only kits that Ken matches so that would be cousins that Ken matches who are not maternal but from our father’s side.

It must be understood that using DNA analysis is not an exact science but a learned art as DNA inheritance can be capricious. We are working with probabilities and averages here. We cannot say that there are 169 cM of DNA shared, so the match is a second cousin, but rather, the match might be a second cousin.

Now we play the odds. We match ancestors from the ancestors list and as a start call them Common Ancestors.  So if both Ancestry trees have Pierre LeBlanc born in 1769  in Louisiana and both Pierre’s have the same parents we call them common ancestors until proven otherwise. The odds are actually fairly high if the two families are ICW with each other.

We cannot just say that a child of Pierre LeBlanc is absolutely in Jon’s direct line but we will expand the trees and trace individuals down. If they eventually start lining up with other DNA match descendants we will accept that it is direct line. However, of course NPEs are always a concern and there is no way to completely protect from that eventuality.


Contact Time

As you continue the search now, with live people, do not use the word “adoption” until you are certain of the relationship with the person you are speaking to. This includes people like a librarian, as well as possible relatives. Some people feel strongly about not assisting adoptees in finding a birth family. One of my clients let it slip to a first cousin. That was the end of the relationship. We really needed information that cousin had.

So now we have built trees down and have three males who were in the correct vicinity at the correct time for conception. Each of these males has one line descending from a DNA match, but only one has the other parent also descending from a DNA match!

Our tree has developed to include possible common ancestors from all three tests and gedmatch.

We try to obtain up-to-date contact information which in these days of cell phones is harder to get than it used to be.

The only person we encourage to make contact is the adoptee or another birth family member who is looking. None of us will do it for them. If contact is refused then at least they have talked to the person once.

Whether we are down to the exact level or perhaps only to a cousin or aunt or uncle, we advise proceeding with caution. We advise the contact to be made on the basis of DNA information and asking for help with a family tree. A lot of detective work goes on before a phone call is made to confirm the suspicions – at least as much as possible. We check where people were at that time, or did a woman have a child born at a time that would mean that this child could not have been hers. What was their life like?  Do most facts line up with the non-ID information? It is possible that the non-ID is fictional but we assume that most of it is right until we prove otherwise.

Making the Call

If a man is calling the person we are pretty sure is his birth mother, the conversation will go something like this. ”I am looking to fill in some members of my family tree and DNA testing shows that we might be related. I am quite sure I am related to the Woolworth line from talking to other matches. I want to be sure you have my contact information in case you think of something that might help me after we talk, email is –, my phone number is –. I was born on October 1, 1963 in Syracuse NY. Does that mean anything to you?  (Hoping for a positive indication.) Yes I was adopted, My adoption papers are hard to read, but my birth name might have been Dennis. The state has given me a little information about my birth mother, she was 26 and in secretarial school. Her mother was 56 and her father deceased. She had a sister and two brothers.”

Hopefully by then she is in tears.  Most birth mothers have been praying to be found. If she is unhappy then he should give her some time. He has provided contact information for himself. Also he should send her a little card afterward, thanking her for her time and provide a picture of himself and his family, along with his contact information.

Good luck to you all.

Diane Harman-Hoog

You can contact Diane at harmanhoog@gmail.com



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13 thoughts on “Looking for and Contacting Birth Family Members

  1. I think I remember reading this before from their site. Thanks for reminding me, although this week has been the best week, which started from last week. Last week, found out my mother’s original birth name, only to find out she knew of her birth name. But what she didn’t know were her parents names, which I told her what was listed on her birth certificate (we are still waiting to access her adoption files). And then this week, I found relatives of her half-siblings, a son and a granddaughter. Turns out she is with her nephew (since yesterday) and she had no idea, or they both had no idea that they were related, except that when they met for the first time (not sure when that was), this newly discovered cousin of mine told my mother that she reminded him of another aunt that he has. The other cousin I found, the female, said the same thing about my mother after sending her photos, that my mother looks just like her half-sister.

    But now I’m wondering, are they really half-sisters? Or full sisters? My mother turns out comes from a family of 9, and only one of them was not given up for adoption, although my biological grandmother married 3 times, yet she had 9 children!

    It’s one thing to try to reach out to these relatives, but it’s another when I find out we’ve already crossed paths! My mom and her nephew and me coming in contact with this cousin because of my own adoption, and turns out her grandfather is my mother’s brother.

      • Thank you! Yes, I can’t believe it, after my mother admitted to being adopted back in Aug. 2014, just 11 mos. after she volunteered to get DNA tested (now I understand why she did that), and after a few months of successfully triangulating, actually waiting for the right matches to come along & now finding family members & making connections, it’s all coming into place now. I still have my mother’s biological father’s side to figure out since I know, based on DNA, that the man listed as her father was not her biological father. But so far, it’s all turning out great!

  2. Sometime ago I remember asking about this very emotional and delicate subject. I feel your guest commentator answered all my questions and more. It is as if this article was written for me personally, but I know it was written for the many others out there that are facing this same situation. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Thank you both.

    Diane, Thank you for the great suggestions. I especially needed the advice on the first contact. Could I also use a variant of helping my contact expand their tree if I’ve noticed a spot where they hit a brick wall, that through my DNA, I found a breakthrough?

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  5. Dear Roberta!

    Dou you have any tips / advise on contacting distant cousins, found by means of “regular” genealogic research (no adoption, no DNA)? I wrote hundreds of email and Facebook messages, even messages through Ancestry, Myheritage, Geni. And the response rate is like 5-10%. Any suggestions to increase the percentage?


    • My cousin has had a better success rate than anyone I know, and I’ve asked her to reply to you. My rate is about what yours is, slightly higher at FTDNA, lowest at 23andMe and in the middle at Ancestry – but not terribly high anyplace. I think the older the test the better the chance that the person has lost interest, and a lot of the new Ancestry tests are people who just want to know their ethnicity – aka – the kilt ad.

      • Dear Roberta,

        what I had in mind is not the “possible” cousins found through DNA testing, but “documented” distant cousins, found through “regular” genealogical research. Although, the approach should be similar, I guess.


    • In that situation, I find good old ‘snail mail’ is the only way to go. And if they are elderly and you want a reply, it’s helpful, not to mention considerate to include that old SASE to expedite the likelihood of response. Many don’t utilize facebook much, and the site can be confusing to folks who may never even see your message. I personally know elders who have no idea what a friend request is or how (or if) they should respond to it, so typically it’s ignored. Email addresses may or may not be good, if you can find a postal mailing address, it will always be your best bet. It’s my first choice option and I believe I have only ever once not gotten a reply back (even get replies in the negative – i.e. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I’m not the Bob Jones you are looking for) LOL

  6. Hi, Mantvius! I did a google search of your email address and found your post on this site. Per GEDMATCH, it looks like we are distant cousins. Not sure how far back you went to try to contact, but I would love to connect! ~Mike

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