Talking with Adoptee Richard Hill about Genetic Testing and Adoption Searches
A huge shout out first must go over to Lost Daughter’s Lynn Grubb for sending Richard my way. I was happy to share the upcoming adoption event of Richard Hill’s presentation on adoption and DNA for the Franklin County Genealogical & Historical Society DNA Interest Group and was even happier when he offered to send me a copy of his book.
See, I have to admit. I know nothing about the DNA test and adoption searches. I never had to know anything since there was never any question that Max was my son. Plus, I found him in 2004 when genetic testing was not yet what it is today. Of course, I do offer information on adoption searching and get asked questions all the times, so I have been wanting to learn more about it. I know this past summer in Chicago, I spent the bus ride to the Adoptee Rights Demonstration listening to Tejas Angel tell me about how she uses the DNA testing for adoption searches, but I think I was so excited I forget everything. I really welcomed the chance now to understand more.
An Adoption Book Review
So yesterday, Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA, arrived, as promised by Richard. For once, I was looking forward to getting off the computer as I would be sitting down to read. I did not get up again until I had finished it cover to cover. It’s that kind of book.
I had actually made the mistake of thinking that Richard was NOT adoption affected, but just a DNA testing professional. I assumed that the book would be about understanding how to use DNA, but instead I found myself captivated with the story of this man, a late discovery adoptee (cat was let out of the bag at age 18) and his quest for truth.
What I Loved about Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA
I hope this doesn’t come out wrong, because I mean this in a totally good way.
While Richard does talk about his feelings; this story is missing much of the drama that frequently follows adoption around. Meaning; he had good adoptive parents. He doesn’t have huge buckets of angst. There isn’t huge vats of anger or emotions to wade through. No speaking about betrayals, abuse or rejection. No Primal Wound and that’s one of the reasons that I think his story is so important.
And this is not because there is ANYTHING wrong with what any adoptee might be feeling, but because we love to glamorize adoption, to make it all about scandal and dirty secrets. We polarize it and make it so much it is not, so much it doesn’t need to be. Don’t open a can of worms. Be careful of what you might find. Leave the past in the past. It’s like we all have a bad case of reality TV shows and need to see bad behavior to make us all feel better about ourselves, but Richard is just a normal every day guy who happened to be adopted. He never even knew he was adopted. Born in 1946, he is older, a well educated, successful business man living in Michigan with his wife and kids. He has a life. He is happy.
Yet, he needed to KNOW who he was and the circumstances around his conception, birth and adoption.
And what did he find? More normal people with relatively normal lives who did the best they could with what they had at the time. He found two brothers and a sister and tons of cousins and helpful people along the way who dug back into the memories and told him what he needed to know. He found his name and who he looked like. He found open arms and truth. Nothing awful. Nothing that needed to be hidden. He didn’t have a famous grandfather. Nothing that hurt him, but rather people and truth that enriched his life and existence.
Yet, he had to spend over 30 years searching for his truth.
Richard’s story is important because it is just NORMAL. This is what we NORMALLY make human beings do in this country to find their families because the Adoptee Rights Laws in this country need to change.. This is what we reduce other people to do because they were adopted. They have to wait over 30 years, act like private investigators in their own pasts, dig up rumors and follow leads, comb libraries and phone books, write letters, travel the country and spend money, search microfiche, get DNA tests; all just to know who they look like. If our laws were different, Richard might have had the chance to meet his father. Why do laws need to “protect” us from nice normal men like Richard who want to know their nice normal families?
I think it’s a really good snapshot of what MANY adoption reunion searches and stories are like. I happily recommend Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA, to anyone preparing for a search or just wanting to read a good story. The search tips that are found make it worth its weight in gold especially for an adoption search that seems to be full of dead ends. And that’s before we even get to the DNA test parts!
How to use DNA Tests and Adoption Searches
Richard does a great job in the book of explaining how the genetic tests work. Like many of us, Richard ended up become quite an expert in using DNA for adoption searches. Being that he started using them in their infancy and has continued to grow his understanding, pardon my pun, but he benefited from being an early adopter. And that’s what I wanted to pick his brain about!
- I asked Richard Hill: When would you recommend signing up for the DNA tests during an adoption search? Should it be right from the get go now or wait until there is something to really determine or eliminate like you did with your brothers and cousins?
Our DNA Expert Answered: I would cover the adoption search basics first: Try for Original Birth Certificate, get non-identifying information, ask family members what they know, add your name to reunion registries etc. You might get lucky and not need DNA testing. While DNA testing has solved cases with no other information, the process gets easier if you have some other data to help focus your efforts.
- I asked Richard Hill: You recommend both Family Finder and the test at 23andMe. Is there a preference of one or the other or should someone just do both as a matter of course?
Our DNA Expert Answered: There is only a small amount of overlap between the two databases. So getting your DNA into both, often referred to as “fishing in two ponds,” increases your odds of getting a closer, more useful match.
- I asked Richard Hill: I noticed 23and Me is $99 for the kit, but Family Finder is $289. Is one a better value or is it a case of getting what you pay for? Or is there a chance that more people will register for the less expensive test?
Our DNA Expert Answered: 23andMe is primarily a medical test that also has a genetic genealogy matching feature (Relative Finder) similar to Family Finder. Until a few weeks ago, the 23andMe test was $299. Then the company received a huge investment of capital and started selling test kits way below cost at $99. They want to reach one million users with the goal of selling their anonymous medical data to pharmaceutical companies for research.
Yes, you will get far more matches with this less expensive test. But because the focus is on health testing, most matches are anonymous and you have to go through their system to request contact. Plus, users who tested for health reasons may not have the family trees you need. With Family Finder most matches are genealogists with extensive family trees and you get their real name and email address immediately when the match is determined. Most people get useful information from each test.
Here’s a tip for your readers. Start with 23andMe. Once you get your results, you can go to Family Tree DNA and order a third-party transfer from Relative Finder into Family Finder for only $89. That gets you into both databases for less than $200.
- I asked Richard Hill: So what’s the BEST case scenario an adoptee can hope to find?
Our DNA Expert Answered: The BEST case is to discover a sibling or another close relative among your matches. That has happened and will occur more often as the databases grow. The more common case is to get a lot of matches at the third cousin level and beyond. Then the process involves a close examination of DNA data and family trees. Using reverse genealogy and online records, you trace the family tree branches forward in time to find the branch that extends into the time and place of your birth.
- I asked Richard Hill: And can DNA testing help locate an adoptee if you are a birth parent searching? Is there is separate methodology?
Our DNA Expert Answered: Unless you get lucky and find a close match, there is no methodology for birth parents to actively find their child. But birth parents who want to be found should definitely take all these tests. By preserving your DNA in the systems, you will make it much easier for your child (or grandchild) to find you quickly once they decide to try DNA testing.
- I asked Richard Hill: Does anyone ever find that they are not related to anyone at all?
Our DNA Expert Answered: That’s an important point. Adoptees from overseas and those whose parents were recent immigrants may not get any matches. That’s because most of their cousins will still be overseas and the majority of people in the genetic genealogy databases are Americans. Some European countries and Australia are represented, but there are very few users from Africa and Asia. These adoptees can still get ethnicity information and medical information (only 23andMe does medical).
At the other extreme, an adoptee whose biological families happen to have been in the U.S. since Colonial days will have hundreds of cousin matches. Plus, many of those matches will have extensive family trees.
- I asked Richard Hill: So say you find a cousin through the tests; what do you recommend as the next step to find out from that cousin who has the “adoption secret” in their closet?
Our DNA Expert Answered: When adoptees get their DNA results, they should join the AdoptionDNA Group on Yahoo. They are a group of adoptees, genealogists, and DNA-savvy search angels who are working together to find families from DNA information. They are the ones developing leading edge tools and procedures to help adoptees get the most out of their DNA results. Introduce yourself and ask for help. It’s free. Also check the Files section for many useful resources and a methodology document. When you finally get to a close relative in your birth family, we can advise you how to proceed or you can ask one of the search angels to make the contact for you.
- I asked Richard Hill: Is there anything else an adoptee or Birthparent searching should know?
Our DNA Expert Answered: Don’t forget about the Y-DNA test for males. Family Tree DNA is finding that adopted men have a 40% chance of discovering their paternal surname (as I did). Birth fathers who gave up a son should take this test too. If that son ever takes the test, the father will show up as a perfect (or near perfect) match. Testers should definitely use Family Tree DNA as they have the largest Y-DNA database by far. Test at least 37 markers and 67 markers if you can afford it.
Richard has put together a whole DNA Testing Guide here which you may download for free. In addition to that, you can ask him questions which he answers, again like so many of us impassioned by adoption and all that it entails, he helps for free.
And don’t forget to get yourself a copy of Finding Family My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA! It really is a GREAT book, a very interesting read for adoption peeps and those non adoption affected as well.