Identifying Unknown Parents and Individuals Using DNA Matching

There have been a lot of questions recently about the methodology used by people searching for unknown parents and other unidentified individuals. I covered this technique in concept recently at a conference as part of an overview presentation. In this article, I’m addressing only this topic and in more detail.

What is the methodology that genealogists use to identify unknown parents? It’s exactly the same process used to identify unknown Does, meaning unidentified bodies as well as violent criminals who have left DNA, such as blood or semen, at a crime scene.

How is Identifying Unknown Individuals Different from Genealogy?

Genealogists are interested in discovering their ancestors. Generally, genealogists know who their parents are and most of the time, their grandparents as well. Not very many people can tell you the names of their great-grandparents off the top of their head – not unless they ARE genealogists😊

Genealogists interview family members and access family sources, such as photos, Bibles, boxes of memorabilia and often extend their family another generation or two using these resources. Then, to gather additional information, genealogists turn to publicly available sources such as:

Constructing a Tree

Genealogists utilize software to create trees of their ancestors, either on their own computers with software such as Family Tree Maker, Legacy, RootsMagic or the free tree building software from MyHeritage. They then either synchronize or duplicate their tree on the public sites mentioned above which provide functionality such as “hints” that point to documents relevant to the ancestors in their tree. Additionally, they can access the trees of other genealogists who are researching the same ancestors. This facilitates the continued growth of their tree by adding ancestors and extending the tree back generations.

While tree-building is the goal of genealogists, the trees they build are important tools for people seeking to identify unknown individuals.

The Tree

Generations tree

In my tree, shown in the format of a pedigree chart, above, you can see that I’ve identified all 16 of my great-great-grandparents. In reality, because I’ve been a genealogist for decades, I’ve identified many more of my ancestors which are reflected in my tree on my computer and in my trees at both Ancestry and MyHeritage where I benefit from hints and DNA matches.

Genealogical pedigree charts are typically represented with the “home person,” me, in this case at the base with my ancestors branching out behind them like a lovely peacock’s tail.

While I’m looking for distant ancestors, adoptees and others seeking the identities of contemporary people are not looking back generations, but seek to identify contemporary generations, meaning people who are alive or lived very recently, typically within a generation.

Enter the world of genetics and DNA matching.

Genetics, The Game Changing Tool

Before the days of DNA testing, adoptees could only hope that someone knew the identify of their biological parents, or that their biological parents registered with a reunion site, or that their court records could be opened.

DNA testing changed all of that, because people can now DNA test and find their close relatives. As more people test, the better the odds of actually having a parent or sibling match, or perhaps a close relative like an aunt, uncle or first cousin. My closest relative that has tested that I didn’t know was testing is my half-sister’s daughter.

You share grandparents with your first cousin, and since you only have 4 grandparents, it’s not terribly difficult to figure out which set of grandparents you connect to through that first cousin – especially given the size of the databases and the number of matches that people have today.

The chart below shows my matches as of June 2019.

Vendor

Total Matches

Second Cousin or Closer

Family Tree DNA

4,609

18

MyHeritage

9,644

14

23andMe

1,501

5

Ancestry

80,151

8

You can see that I have a total of 45 close matches, although some of those matches are duplicates of each other. However, each database has some people that are only in that database and have not tested at other companies or transferred to other databases.

Situations like this are exactly why people who are searching for unknown family members take DNA tests at all 4 of the vendors.

Stories were once surprising about people who tested and either discover a previously unknown close relative, or conversely discovered that they are not related to someone who they initially believed they were. Today these occurrences are commonplace.

Matches

If you’re searching for an unknown parent or close relative, you just might be lucky to receive a parental, sibling, half-sibling or uncle/aunt match immediately.

An estimated relationship range is provided by all vendors based on the amount of DNA that the tester shares with their match.

Generations Family Tree DNA matches

My mother’s match page at Family Tree DNA is shown above. You can see that I’m Mother’s closest match. My known half brother did not test before he passed away, and mother’s parents are long deceased, so my mother should NEVER have another match this close.

So, who is that person in row 2 that is also predicted to be a mother or daughter? I took a test at Ancestry and uploaded my results to Family Tree DNA for research purposes, so this is actually my own second kit, but for example purposes, I’ve renamed myself “Example Adoptee.” Judging from the photo here, apparently my “adopted” sibling was a twin😊

If the adoptee tested at Family Tree DNA, she would immediately see a sibling match (me) and a parent match (Mom.) A match at that cM (centiMorgan) level can only be a parent or a child, and the adoptee knows whether she has a child or not.

Let’s look at a more distant example, which is probably more “typical” than immediately finding a parent match.

Let’s say that the “male adoptee” at the bottom in the red box is also searching for his birth family. He matches my mother at the 2nd-3rd cousin level, so someplace in her tree are his ancestors too.

People who have trees are shown with gold boxes around the tiny pedigree icons, because they literally are trees of gold.

Because of Family Tree DNA’s “bucketing” tool, the software has already told my Mother that the male adoptee is a match on her father’s side of her tree. The adoptee can click on the little pedigree icon to view the trees of his matches to view their ancestors, then engage in what is known as “tree triangulation” with his other close matches.

From the Perspective of the Adoptee

An adoptee tests not knowing anything about their ancestors.

Generations adoptee

When their results come back, the adoptee, in the red box in the center, hoping to identify their biological parents, discovers that their closest matches are the testers in the pink and blue ovals.

The adoptee does NOT know that these people are related to each other at this point, only that these 7 people are their closest matches on their match list.

The adoptee has to put the rest of the story together like a puzzle.

Who Matches Each Other?

In our scenario, test takers 2, 3 and 8 don’t match the adoptee, so the adoptee will never know they tested and vice versa. Everyone at a second cousin level will match each other, but only some people will match at more distant relationships, according to statistics published by 23andMe:

Relationship Level

Percentage of People Who Match

Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, half siblings, half aunts/uncles and 1st cousins

100%

2nd cousins

>99%

3rd cousins

90%

4th cousins

45%

5th cousins

15%

6th cousins and more distant

<5%

You can view a detailed chart with additional relationships here.

Tree Triangulation

By looking at the individual trees of test taker 1, 4 and 5 whom they match, the adoptee notices that John and Jane Doe are common ancestors in the trees of all 3 test takers. The adoptee may also use “in common with” tools provided by each vendor to see who they match “in common with” another tester. In this case, let’s say that test taker 1, 4 and 5 also match each other, so the adoptee would also make note of that, inferring correctly that they are members of the same family.

The goal is to identify a common ancestor of a group of matches in order to construct the ancestor’s tree, not a pedigree chart backwards in time, as with genealogy, but to construct a descendants’ tree from the ancestral couple to the current day, as completely as possible. After all, the goal is to identify the parent of the adoptee who descends from the common ancestor.

Generations adoptee theory

In this case, the adoptee realized that the pink test takers descended from John and Jane Doe, and the blue test takers descended from Walter and Winnie Smith, and constructed descendant trees of both couples.

The adoptee created a theory, based on the descendants of these two ancestral couples, incorporating other known facts, such as the year when the adoptee was born, and where.

In our example, the adoptee discovered that John and Jane Doe had another daughter, Juanita, whose descendants don’t appear to have tested, and that Juanita had a daughter who was in the right place at the right time to potentially be the mother of the adoptee.

Conversely, Walter and Winnie Smith had a son whose descendants also appear to have not tested, and he had a son who lived in the same place as Juanita Doe. In other words, age, opportunity and process of elimination all play a role in addition to DNA matches. DNA is only the first hint that must be followed up by additional research.

At this point, if the adoptee has taken either Y or mitochondrial DNA testing, those results can serve to either include or exclude some candidates at Family Tree DNA. For example, if the adoptee was a male and matched the Y DNA of the Smith line, that would be HUGE hint.

From this point on, an adoptee can either wait for more people to test or can contact their matches hoping that the matches will have information and be helpful. Keep in mind that all the adoptee has is a theory at this point and they are looking to refine their theory or create a new one and then to help narrow their list of parent candidates.

Fortunately, there are tools and processes to help.

What Are the Odds?

One helpful tool to do this is the WATO, What Are the Odds statistical probability tools at DNAPainter.

Using WATO, you create a hypothesis tree as to how the person whose connection you are seeking might be related, plugging them in to different tree locations, as shown below.

Generations WATO

This is not the same example as Smith and Doe, above, but a real family puzzle being worked on by my cousin. Names are blurred for privacy, of course.

Generations WATO2

WATO then provides a statistical analysis of the various options, with only one of the above hypothesis being potentially viable based on the level of DNA matching for the various hypothetical relationships.

DNAPainter Shared cM Tool

If your eyes are glazing over right about now with all of these numbers flying around, you’re not alone.

I’ll distill this process into individual steps to help you understand how this works, and why, starting with another tool provided by DNAPainter, the Shared cM tool that helps you calculate the most likely relationship with another person.

The more closely related you are to a person, the more DNA you will share with them.

DNAPainter has implemented this tool based on the results of Blaine Bettinger’s Shared cM Project where you can enter the amount of DNA that you share with someone to determine the “best fit” relationship, on average, plus the range of expected shared DNA.

Generations DNAPainter Shared cM Project

You, or the test taker, are in the middle and the relationship ranges surround “you.”

For example, you can clearly see that the number of cMs for my Example Adoptee at 3384 is clearly in the Parent or Child range. But wait, it could also be at the very highest end of a half sibling relationship. Other lower cM matches are less specific, so another feature of the DNAPainter tool is a life-saver.

At the top of the page, you can enter the number of matching cMs and the tool will predict the most likely results, based on probability.

Generations 3384

The relationship for 3384 cMs is 100% a parent/child relationship, shown above, but the sibling box is highlighted below because 3384 is the very highest value in the range. This seems to be a slight glitch in the tool. We can summarize by saying that it would be extremely, extremely rare for a 3384 cM match to be a full sibling instead of a parent or child. Hen’s teeth rare.

Generations parent child

Next, let’s look at 226 cM, for our male adoptee which produces the following results:

Generations 226

The following chart graphically shows the possible relationships. The “male adoptee” is actually Mom’s second cousin. This tool is quite accurate.

Generations 226 chart

Now that you’ve seen the tools in action, let’s take a look at the rest of the process.

The Steps to Success

The single biggest predictor of success identifying an unknown person is the number of close matches. Without relatively close matches, the process gets very difficult quickly.

What constitutes a close match and how many close matches do adoptees generally have to work with?

If an adoptee matches someone at a 2nd or 3rd cousin level, what does that really mean to them?

I’ve created the following charts to answer these questions. By the way, this information is relevant to everyone, not just adoptees.

In the chart below, you can view different relationships in the blue legs of the chart descending from the common ancestral couple.

In this example, “You” and the “Other Tester” match at the 4th cousin level sharing 35 cM of DNA. If you look “up” the tree a generation, you can see that the parents of the testers match at the 3rd cousin level and share 74 cM of DNA, the grandparents of the testers match at the 2nd cousin level and share 223 cM of DNA and so forth.

Generations relationship table

In the left column, generations begin being counted with your parents as generation 1. The cumulative number of direct line relatives you have at each generation is shown in the “# Grandparents” column.

Generations relationship levels

Here’s how to read this chart, straight across.

Viewing the “Generation” column, at the 4th generation level, you have 16 great-great-grandparents. Your great-great-grandparent is a first cousin to the the great-great-grandparent of your 4th cousin. Their parents were siblings.

Looking at it this way, it might not seem too difficult to reassemble the descendancy tree of someone 5 generations in the past, but let’s look at it from the other perspective meaning from the perspective of the ancestral couple.

Generations descendants

Couples had roughly 25 years of being reproductively capable and for most of history, birth control was non-existent. If your great-great-great-grandparents, who were born sometime near the year 1800 (the births of mine range from 1785 to 1810) had 5 children who lived, and each of their descendants had 5 children who lived, today each ancestral couple would have 3,125 descendants.

If that same couple had 10 children and 10 lived in each subsequent generation, they would have 100,000 descendants. Accuracy probably lies someplace in-between. That’s still a huge number of descendants for one couple.

That’s JUST for one couple. You have 32 great-great-great-grandparents, or 16 pairs, so multiply 16 times 3,125 for 50,000 descendants or 100,000 times 16 for…are you ready for this…1,600,000 descendants.

Descendants per GGG-grandparent couple at 5 generations Total descendants for 16 GGG-grandparent couples combined
5 children per generation 3,125 50,000
10 children per generation 100,000 1,600,000

NOW you understand why adoptees need to focus on only close matches and why distant matches at the 3rd and 4th cousin level are just too difficult to work with.

By contrast, let’s look at the first cousin row.

Generations descendants 1C.png

At 5 descendants per generation, you’ll have 25 first cousins or 100 first cousins at 10 descendants per generation.

Generations descendants 2C

At second cousins, you’ll have 125 and 1,000 – so reconstructing these trees down to current descendants is still an onerous task but much more doable than from the third or fourth cousin level, especially in smaller families.

The Perfect Scenario

Barring a fortuitous parent or sibling match, the perfect scenario for adoptees and people seeking unknown individuals means that:

  • They have multiple 1st or 2nd cousin matches making tree triangulation to a maternal and paternal group of matches to identify the common ancestors feasible.
  • Their matches have trees that allow the adoptee to construct theories of how they might fit into a family.

Following the two steps above, when sufficient matching and trees have been assembled, the verification steps begin.

  • Adoptees hope that their matches are responsive to communications requesting additional information to either confirm or refute their relationship theory. For example, my mother could tell the male adoptee that he is related on her father’s side of the family based on Family Tree DNA‘s parental “side” assignment. Based on who else the adoptee matches in common with mother, she could probably tell him how he’s related. That information would be hugely beneficial.
  • In a Doe situation where the goal is to identify remains, with a relatively close match, the investigator could contact that match and ask if they know of a missing family member.
  • In a law enforcement situation where strong close-family matches that function as hints lead to potential violent crime suspects, investigators could obtain a piece of trash discarded by the potential suspect to process and compare to the DNA from the crime scene, such as was done in the Golden State Killer case.

If the discarded DNA doesn’t match the crime scene DNA, the person is exonerated as a potential suspect. If the discarded DNA does match the crime scene DNA, investigators would continue to gather non-DNA evidence and/or pick the suspect up for questioning and to obtain a court ordered DNA sample to compare to the DNA from the crime scene in a law enforcement database.

Sometimes DNA is a Waiting Game

I know that on the surface, DNA matching for adoptees and unknown persons sounds simple, and sometimes it is if there is a very close family match.

More often than not, trying to identify unknown persons, especially if the tester doesn’t have multiple close matches is much like assembling a thousand-piece puzzle with no picture on the front of the box.

Sometimes simply waiting for a better match at some point in the future is the only feasible answer. I waited years for my brother, Dave’s family match. You can read his story here and here.

DNA is a waiting game.

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I receive a small contribution when you click on the link to one of the vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

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Genealogy Research

GedMatch Implements Required Opt-In for Law Enforcement Matching

GedMatch has provided an autosomal suite of tools for genealogists that isn’t offered elsewhere for several years now. Their basic service is free but their advanced tools, known at Tier 1, are subscription. GedMatch is comprised of two individuals, Curtis Rogers and his partner. I know them both and have for years.

Every serious genealogist uses or has used GedMatch because it’s the only place that provides the unique blend of tools they offer. In addition to testing at or transferring to multiple vendors, GedMatch is an integral part of fishing in every pond.

However, GedMatch has been under fire for a year.

Law Enforcement Kit Matching

In April 2018, GedMatch made news, and eventually the New York Times, when the database was utilized to catch the Golden State Killer (GSK). I wrote about that here.

GedMatch felt that they were unable to stop the uploading of forensic kits, meaning kits created from evidence left at crime scenes, so they chose to embrace working with law enforcement to catch violent criminals and identify victims whose DNA is obtained from their remains.

How often does this really work?

In the fall of 2018, a paper titled Re-identification of genomic data using long range familiar searches was published by Yaniv Erlich et al and stated:

“Here, we leveraged genomic data of 600,000 individuals tested with consumer genomics to investigate the power of such long-range familial searches. We project that half of the searches with European-descent individuals will result with a third cousin or closer match and will provide a search space small enough to permit re-identification using common demographic identifiers. Moreover, in the near future, virtually any European-descent US person could be implicated by this technique.”

This certainly gives law enforcement reason to believe that if they could upload evidence kits from violent crime scenes and victims, that they could be identified. The cases solved since that time have proven the paper’s statement to be accurate.

Legally, this is known as “probable cause” and would provide law enforcement with a valid reason to petition the court for a search warrant to order that forensic kits be allowed to be uploaded to identify murderers and rapists. It’s likely that they can be identified, which would justify the issuance of a search warrant.

A few months later, in January 2019, Family Tree DNA began allowing law enforcement to upload kits of murderers, rapists and cases of abduction in addition to deceased unidentified victims after screening and approval on a case by case basis. The Family Tree DNA Law Enforcement Guide is here and their Law Enforcement FAQ is here.

I don’t think a comprehensive list exists of the cases solved since GSK, but I know it’s in excess of 30. Not all solved cases have been revealed at this point.

The Kerfuffle

Within the genetic genealogy community, allowing law enforcement to upload DNA kits in order to identify the perpetrators of crimes and unidentified victims has caused an uproar, to put it mildly. Said another way, it has divided the community in half in an ugly way with both sides feeling they are on morally sound and superior ground.

Although surveys published in this academic article show that more than 90% of people are in favor, some of the genetic genealogy community influencers feel otherwise and specifically, that without every person in the data base giving individual consent for this type of matching, that law enforcement matching is unethical. Some are reasonable and will discuss the situation civilly, and others, not so much.

I disagree, in part, because other types of searches such as for biological parents that can have devastating consequences are viewed in another light entirely with many of these same people employed in the search for unknown parents. These searches using the exact same techniques and databases have resulted in destroyed families and murders.

In one case, Michael Lacopo’s mother murdered her father after Michael identified the father using DNA. You can read Michael’s story, here. There are also other very ugly incidents that I’m not at liberty to discuss.

Law enforcement searches for matches to identify criminals, on the other hand, lead to the apprehension of violent offenders.

I shared my opinion in the article, Things That Need To Be Said: Victims, Murder and Judgement.

Every time a new case is solved and hits the news, the outrage begins anew, culminating this past week when Curtis Rogers allowed law enforcement to utilize GedMatch for the identification of a person who broke into a church in Utah and assaulted the elderly 71 year old organist who was practicing in the church alone, strangling her from behind and leaving her for dead. You can read about the assault here.

Had the organist died, it would have been within the GedMatch guidelines, but because she did not, this was technically a breach of the GedMatch terms of service – although in one place their guidelines said “violent crimes” and from my perspective, there is no question that this event qualifies. Thank goodness the 17 year old perpetrator has been identified and is being dealt with before he actually does kill someone.

Regardless, this episode in addition to other recently solved cases culminated with a number of community “influencers” removing both GedMatch and Family Tree DNA from presentations and openly discouraging the use of both companies on Facebook, in blog articles and in other venues. In other words, a boycott and censure, effectively.

Some of the “influencers” have been repeatedly working with BuzzFeed, as in this Buzzfeed story about the Utah case, yet others called for a more balanced approach that would not destroy the resources, companies and community built over the last two decades. Shannon Christmas wrote a balanced article here as did Maurice Gleeson here.

What Happened?

Yesterday, GedMatch sent e-mails to law enforcement providers and a few others, stating that they were changing their terms of service. The contents of the e-mail have been posted on social media, but I’m not comfortable publishing the exact verbiage, other than to say that GedMatch has proceeded, both initially and now, with the best interests of everyone at heart.

Curtis Rogers is concerned that the extreme paralytic division and resulting polarization  is in essence threatening genetic genealogy as a whole.

Extrapolating from that, if the “influencers” manage to kill GedMatch and Family Tree DNA, not only will the community have lost incredibly important resources that are not and cannot be duplicated elsewhere, law enforcement will have lost extremely valuable resources for identifying both criminals and victims. In other words, everyone loses.

Therefore, GedMatch has implemented a new opt-in policy for law enforcement matching.

GedMatch’s New Opt-In Policy

Effective immediately, GedMatch has set all kits, of everyone in their database, to opt-out, meaning that now no kits at all can be used for matching by law enforcement unless users specifically opt-in. Here’s the GedMatch announcement on their webpage after you sign in.

GedMatch LE opt in change.png

This means that if you are at GedMatch, no kits in your account can now be utilized for law enforcement matching. This is clearly a devastating blow to law enforcement, in part because every database is biased towards whatever the default value is. People either don’t read or don’t bother to make changes. Many have abandoned their accounts or died.

GedMatch has already added an opt-in capability meaning that everyone will have to select “opt-in” to make their kit available for law enforcement matching.

The new GedMatch new Terms of Service are here.

Please Opt-In

We are much better as a society with the likes of John Miller, identified through GedMatch, who raped and murdered 7 year old April Tinsley put behind bars where he can’t damage anyone else. DNA identification has also provided closure to many families whose relatives have been missing for years, such as Audrey Lee Cook and Donna Prudhomme who were killed in the 1980s and whose remains were identified using the Family Tree DNA database.

I hope everyone will opt-in, and quickly, so we can rebuild the data base available to law enforcement for matching.

GedMatch LE opt out.png

Viewing the list of kits that I manage on GedMatch, you can see that my kit is listed with a red X through police BY DEFAULT, even though I never made that selection. Your default is “NO” as well.

Clicking on the pencil enables viewing and changing my profile.

Enable Law Enforcement Matching

Here are the steps necessary to enable law enforcement matching.

GedMatch profile.png

Update – note that I’m told that the options above, with LE and no LE have been positionally swapped – so please read, not just follow my pattern.

Notice my default status is “Public, no LE access.” LE means law enforcement.

GedMatch LE opt in.png

In order to change my status, I must BOTH click the radio button that says “Public, with LE access” AND click Change.

This is a 2-step process and if you forget to click change, you’ll think you enabled LE matching, but you didn’t.

Other options include:

  • “No public access” at all, which means that you cannot utilize the kit for matching
  • “Research” which means you can use the kit for matching, but no one else can see your results in their match list.

After the change, your kit should show the status as “Yes, opt-in LE access,” shown at left, below.

GedMatch opt in success.png

Please take the time to change your kits to “Public, with LE access” at GedMatch to enable matching to law enforcement kits to get the criminals off our streets and identify victims, providing closure to families.

Family Tree DNA

Please also upload your kits to Family Tree DNA for the same reason. At Family Tree DNA, currently if you are in the US you are opted in automatically, and if you are in an EU country you were opted-out automatically due to GDPR regulations. EU users since March 12th when the initial opt-out occurred should check their status. You can change either option after signing in by clicking on “Manage Personal Information,” then “Privacy and Sharing.”

The DNA file transfer and matching are both free. Here are instructions.

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some (but not all) of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

Things That Need To Be Said: Victims, Murder, and Judgement

moccasin

Unfortunately, the events that have unfolded during the last few months relative to using genetic genealogy data bases in order to identify murder victims and perpetrators of those murders have divided the genetic genealogy community.

Polls show that most people are in favor of this usage, some polls approaching 90% in favor. Within the community, the opinion is divided, with many of the leaders on opposite ends of the spectrum for various reasons.

I’d like to discuss this division and the inherent judgement – as rationally and as unemotionally as this topic can be.

I’m not going to list cases or examples. There have been many since the first case identified through genetic genealogy, the Golden State Killer, broke in May of 2018. At that time, the GSK case was plastered all over every news outlet, but today the announcements are less dramatic, approaching routine, often only covered in the local news. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. These cases have become normalized in the same way that discovering unknown parents or siblings has in the past couple of years. It’s a daily unremarkable occurrence now – unless it happens to you of course.

GedMatch was utilized to solve the earliest cases.

In late January, Family Tree DNA announced that they too are allowing law enforcement uploading, implementing a more restrictive approach than GedMatch wherein controlled, pre-screened and registered forensic samples can be upload after approval by law enforcement for matching and will be tracked internally by Family Tree DNA. These cases all involve violent crimes meaning unidentified victims, murder and rape. You can read their Law Enforcement FAQ here and their Law Enforcement Policy here. As opposed to early click-bait news articles, Family Tree DNA has not and never did “turn over” their data base to the FBI and neither did GedMatch. Forensic kits work the same way everyone else’s kits work – and nothing more. Please also note that this matching and identification process is the exact same process created several years ago within the community to identify unknown parents.

Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage do not support law enforcement matching.

If you don’t want your kit utilized for law enforcement matching. You can opt out of matching at GedMatch by selecting the “research” option where you can see matches to the kit, but other people can’t see you.

At Family Tree DNA, all European Union customers are now automatically opted out but can opt-in, and all non-EU customers have the option of opting out by turning off law enforcement matching if they don’t want their kits to show as a match to law enforcement kits.

I don’t think there’s a soul alive that will argue that we don’t want rapists and murderers apprehended and off the streets. We individually and as a society want them to be identified and held accountable for their crimes. In some cases, the perpetrators are living freely and don’t appear to have committed additional crimes, but still, they need to pay for what they did. Depriving another human of their life or raping them is simply not acceptable. That’s how the justice system in the US works and the job of law enforcement to find those who break the law and bring them to justice.

Another aspect of forensic DNA matching that has gone largely unmentioned is that if a person is wrongly convicted of a violent crime, and DNA evidence from the scene remains, DNA matching can also exonerate the innocent. DNA matching technology has improved dramatically in the past decades, moving from the 26 CODIS markers to the 700,000+ SNP markers utilized today for genealogy matching.

The Great Divide

However, the great divide is whether or not law enforcement should be allowed to upload forensic samples extracted from the victim or taken from other evidence at the crime scene (such as blood or semen, for example) to genetic genealogy data bases in order to identify these people – and in what circumstances.

In a recently solved case, a live-born baby abandoned intentionally to freeze to death by his mother in a ditch in 1981, in the northern US, in February, was identified which also identified the parents. This case has illuminated a huge divide in the community.

It has also surfaced something I had never really thought about, illustrating why we need to attempt to remain free from judgement, as much as possible. By this, I mean that we need to listen to the points of all parties involved, weigh what they are saying and try to understand their perspective. That doesn’t mean we need to change our minds, but we do need to see if the “opposing counsel” has points that need to be considered. Unfortunately, when it’s a topic we feel strongly about, it’s so easy to rush to judgement.

Sometimes the problem is a lack of education or understanding.

The Legal Process

It recently came to light from a discussion that someone outside the US had no comprehension of how the US law enforcement process works. In the US, there are three distinct stages:

  • Investigation and gathering of evidence – This is where DNA matching is BUT ONE CLUE in the investigatory steps of whether a crime occurred and who should be charged. When the investigators are finished, they may arrest someone, book them into jail, and send the paperwork to the prosecutor who will decide what charges, if any, are to be filed against that person.
  • Prosecution – From the time the charges are filed, the prosecutor’s job is to present the evidence to the court that a crime was committed along with any extenuating circumstances. The attorney for the accused person presents the evidence to favor them, such as an alibi, an insanity plea, or evidence that they are somehow mentally incapacitated.
  • Courts -. While they are awaiting trial, the judge will decide if the person arrested can post bail in order to be released from jail while awaiting their trial date. Different factors are taken into consideration. Whether or not they are a flight risk and the severity of the crime rank high among the criteria. Ultimately the person is either convicted or found not guilty of the charges. If they are found not guilty, it’s all over. If they either plead guilty or are found guilty of some or all of the crimes with which they were charged, then the sentencing phase begins wherein the judge decides what punishment fits the crime and considers any extenuating circumstances. For example, when someone is found guilty but insane, they won’t serve time in prison, but will be remanded to a psychiatric facility for treatment instead. Many factors are involved with sentencing including victims’ statements, statements from the families of the victims, extenuating circumstances and any requests for leniency.

The person from outside the US thought that the DNA evidence automatically just convicted the person. Even people in the US may be reacting emotionally, without understanding the steps in the legal process designed to be as fair and equitable as possible.

This is Intensely Emotional

Over the last several weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to talk individually with many community members. I’ve come to realize that these cases bring to the surface issues of rape, murder, incest, parental abandonment and child abuse (including sexual) by parents and family members that people continue to love anyway. Needless to say, this situation creates extremely conflicting emotions and resurrects long-buried pain for many.

Almost everyone I’ve talked to has their own intensely personal and oftentimes gut-wrenching reason for feeling the way they do about the situation at hand. The revelations have been as astounding as they have been heartbreaking and are a true testament to the triumph of the human spirit. People can and do survive, but not unscarred. Most people hide those scars – sometimes from everybody and sometimes forever.

When I hear their stories, I suddenly understand WHY they personally feel the way they do, even if I don’t agree. It takes the edge off of the purely academic discussion of the technicalities of why or why not these data bases should or should not be utilized.

Suffice it to say, that cow has left the barn. They are being utilized and probably were before we knew it. It’s much better to have a process in place and consumer knowledge that it’s occurring, allowing people to make their own participation decisions.

Do I wish this process had been handled a bit differently? Yes, certainly, but this is literally the frontier – the leading bleeding edge. I’m afraid that if someone hadn’t taken the bull by the horns, it would never have happened because the topic would have been debated into oblivion. There is simply no way to achieve an agreement from polar opposite yes/no positions involving topics this emotional.

I’m actually surprised that this didn’t happen sooner, because the technology has been available for years.

There are some people who stand to benefit personally from one position or the other or have an ax to grind. After eliminating anyone with obvious opportunistic motivations or bias from the mix, the rest of the people have a very valid reason for feeling the way they do. People’s feelings can’t be right or wrong – whether or not I agree with them.

We don’t need to demonize the individual to disagree. It’s OK to disagree without attacking others and still respect them as individuals and remain on speaking terms. Perhaps the understanding we gain will even deepen our appreciation for them and what they have endured. Agreement isn’t required for that to happen.

It benefits us all to row in the same direction, together. We have the same love, genetic genealogy.

My Own Perspective

I am a supporter of utilizing the tools at our disposal for identifying the victims and perpetrators of violent crimes, defined as rape and murder. I would personally be comfortable adding aggravated assault in cases such as where an 80+ year old woman was beaten nearly to death in a robbery, but that’s not my call to make.

For now, I would be happy to simply process the backlog of the hundreds of thousands of rape kits that have never been tested and identify the plethora of cold case unknown murder victims that include many children.

This is very personal to me for a variety of reasons. I’m going to share one of them with you.

Here’s where I take the deep breath.

My child was kidnapped more than 30 years ago and was missing for several weeks. Even today, just thinking about or typing this, I can feel my chest tighten, my heart rate elevate and my blood pressure rise. There are simply no adequate words.

My child was one of the lucky ones, “recovered” several weeks later in another state roughly 1000 miles away.

The word terror doesn’t even begin to describe my emotions.

There was not one minute of one day that I didn’t very clearly know that my child might never come home.

That my child might already be dead, buried in some shallow grave I would never find.

Or with animals gnawing on their tiny body.

Maybe starving.

Maybe hurt but not dead…yet.

Maybe floating bloated in some river someplace.

Or, that they might be being used in the child pornography industry or even worse, tortured in snuff movies. (If you don’t know what that is, just trust me and don’t google it.)

If you sit down for one minute, put yourself in my position and think about this as your own child, or grandchild, you will understand fully why I fully support the use of genetic genealogy databases for the identification of victims and those who victimize.

Even if I didn’t support this position, it’s a done deal now. It’s already been happening for almost a year.

In the case of the mother who abandoned the baby to die in the freezing cold – if there are extenuating circumstances that should be considered in terms of the mother’s behavior or mental condition, they will be revealed at the trial and taken into consideration.

If a rapist or murderer should receive leniency or be judged mentally incompetent in other cases, that evidence too will come before the judge. Let’s not conflate the investigation and gathering of information and evidence stage with the prosecution and sentencing after a perpetrator either pleaded guilty or was found guilty. We should NOT stop investigating and identifying victims and perpetrators because some of the people who committed these crimes might have extenuating circumstances. The evidence must stand on its own – all of it, together as a whole.

Here’s the important part. Without the genetic genealogy data bases, the victims and perpetrators of these cold cases would never be identified. My child could have been one those bodies. I will never forget. Every time a new victim is identified, I’m grateful all over again that it’s not my child but so glad for the families to finally have closure.

At the same time, as we talk to and read what our fellow genetic genealogists have to say, we must realize that while they aren’t telling you their personal story, many of which are simply far too intimate and painful to divulge, they have them just the same and those experiences inform their opinions. They may be writing or speaking from a place of great sorrow and betrayal, from a place of anger or from a place of healing – but they are speaking from an extremely personal space. All you are hearing is their opinion based on things you don’t understand.

It’s possible to empathize, and still disagree.

I can tell you with no hesitation whatsoever that if my child had not been found, I would go to the literal ends of the earth for the identification of their body AND for the conviction of their kidnapper/murderer.

Every time I read about an unidentified body, I remember those days, so seared into my memory that I can never forget.

So seared in that I still, to this day, have nightmares and wake up terrified – awake for the rest of the night.

So seared into my brain that 3+ decades later I still can’t even talk or write about this without crying. I don’t mean an escaped tear – I mean full on tears-streaming-down-my-face embarrassing ugly-crying.

Every.  Single.  Time.

So seared into my memory that today I still utterly despise the kidnapper with every ounce of my being.

That said, I was truly one of the lucky ones, as was my child.

I can’t offer these less fortunate families their family member back, bring their child back to life or un-rape them, but I can help to offer them closure and justice by including my DNA in both data bases. I fervently hope my DNA can help.

At this point with the technology and data bases available, it would be negligent of law enforcement NOT to utilize the available tools to identify victims and their murderers. As a society, why would be not embrace this opportunity so long as people have the opportunity not to participate if they wish?

In or Out?

My DNA absolutely stays in the databases.

I was rather shocked at first, last May when the GSK case first broke, and I didn’t know what to think, truthfully. Over the ensuing months, my position has become clear in my own mind, especially as I’ve seen the results pour forth.

My biggest regret is the division within the community that this has caused.

My fear is the knee-jerk over-regulation that may follow based on inaccurate reporting, fear and a rush to “do something.”

It’s Your Decision

As strongly as I feel about this topic, I encourage everyone to listen to the different perspectives and not stand in judgement of the people voicing those opinions. We don’t know what that walk in their moccasins looked like. It may have been and may still be torturous. We often move on, only to have the thin scab ripped off when emotional situations involving the most primal bond of nature, mothers and their entirely dependent babies, rape and murder surface.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been individually affected by these horrific crimes, meaning rape or murder – either personally or someone within their family. If you think your family is exempt, it’s probably because the victim has never divulged what happened.

When all is said and done, you’ll need to make your own personal decision about how to handle your DNA according to your life’s journey, conscience and moral compass. You can leave it in the data bases if it’s already there, transfer it in to both to support law enforcement matching, or you can opt out entirely. Make the decision that’s right for you. The good news is that with an off-on toggle switch, you can change your mind in either direction at any time.

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Please note that I am a member of the Citizen’s Panel formed in late February by Family Tree DNA to provide feedback on ethics and policy questions. I provided a list of questions, concerns and suggestions to Family Tree DNA after their initial law enforcement announcement in late January and before their recent update on March 12th. The Citizen’s Panel is an entirely volunteer (uncompensated) position and I serve along with:

  • Katherine Borges – Director of ISOGG (International Society of Genetic Genealogy)
  • Kenyatta Berry – Professional genealogist, host of PBS’s Genealogy Road Show
  • Dr. Maurice Gleeson – Genetic genealogist, speaker and organizer of the Genetic Genealogy Conference in Ireland, and FamilyTreeDNA volunteer Group Project Administrator
  • Dr. Tim Janzen – Family Practice physician, long-time genealogist, genetic genealogy lecturer for Oregon’s local ISOGG group and other genetic genealogy conferences, and FamilyTreeDNA volunteer Group Project Administrator
  • Amy McGuire – Lawyer and Leon Jaworski Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Baylor College of Medicine
  • Bob McLaren – An early adopter of genetic genealogy and FamilyTreeDNA volunteer Group Project Administrator