Finding Family: A Route to Your Biological Roots

Helping adoptees find their roots and their families

Bennett Greenspan’s intention wasn’t to help adoptees when he began Family Tree DNA in 2000. In fact, the idea for the genetic genealogy service was born from a paper trail roadblock he’d come up against in researching his own family tree and trying to confirm if folks he’d found were distantly related relatives. But an offshoot of his service, he discovered, is helping adoptees find their roots and their families. And it all starts with a swab.

Family Tree’s clients entrust Greenspan and his team, which includes the testing lab at the University of Arizona, with a cheek sample – hence the swab – that contains the key to unlocking their genealogical history: their DNA. The lab does some sophisticated analysis, comparing chromosomes against what he considers the world’s largest database – bolstered no doubt by partnership with the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project, a multi-year genetic anthropology study to map human migration patterns using DNA samples from hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Clients are then connected to  biological family members on Family Tree’s database, and are also provided with their ethnic makeup.

Greenspan has inadvertently liberated the way for those of us whose surname – the very piece of information other people’s family search starts with – belie our biological ties.

You can imagine with the connectedness that we currently enjoy, finding family this way even through once, twice or thrice removed cousins doesn’t take long. Greenspan and one of Family Tree’s genealogists recently worked with a man to find his biological parents. His mother had kept his birth a secret until they were connected through a common relative on the database. And the man went on to connect with his birth father who had never even known of his existence – his parents had been together only once, lived in different states and didn’t maintain a relationship after their encounter. Greenspan understands that connecting birth families is a powerful thing that can also be delicate territory.

“I think that all of this needs to be used in a way that causes zero harm. And I’m very, very sensitive to that,” he avows.

He is also mindful of the special circumstances adoptees face in their search for their birth roots and has a keen interest in helping them fill out their “origin story.” He’s been embraced by the adoption community in the U.S. with an invitation to speak at next year’s National Adoption Conference (organized by the National Council for Adoption).

As an adoptee myself, I’ve always been curious about my birth family and especially my ethnic background, I ask Bennett if someone can take the Family Finder test for the Ethnic Percentage results only. He’s surprised that I don’t want to be connected with familial matches but understands that I’m not yet ready and assures me that the testing can be done without signing the release to be matched and connected with other related users. If at some point I change my mind, I can grant Family Tree to connect me with birth relatives via email. Baby steps.