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DNA Testing and Adoption: How DNA Testing Kits Are Changing Search and Reunion

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Widespread and accessible DNA testing kits have impacted search, reunion and confidentiality for birth parents, adopted individuals and their family members. Learn about the impact of DNA testing on adoption and what to do if a test reveals a birth relative.

Over the past decade, consumer DNA testing kits have become widely available. Many people enjoy using these kits to research their family tree, connect with relatives or seek insights about their health and medical background. However, more accessible ancestry DNA tests have also introduced a range of complex considerations for birth parents and adoptees. Consumer DNA testing makes it easier to find and connect with birth relatives. And while many people have made wonderful connections through DNA services, it raises issues around confidentiality in adoption. 

Nina Friedman, Director of Post Adoption Support at The Cradle, has seen the impact DNA kits have had on people involved in the adoption process — from adoptees to birth parents and other family members. She shares insights on the history of confidentiality in adoption, the best way for adopted individuals and birth parents to approach using DNA kits, and the importance of having a strong support system if you decide to contact a birth relative.

History of Confidentiality in Adoption

In decades past, when closed adoptions were common, birth and adoptive parents did not have any contact with one another. Identifying information was not shared between them, and the expectation was that information would remain confidential. With the shift to open adoption in the 1980s and 1990s, information is shared between birth and adoptive parents, and they often meet each other prior to placement with an expectation of on-going contact. 

“[In these cases] there is no need for a search down the road because [adoptive families] know who the birth parents are and the birth parents know who the adopted parents are,” Friedman says. 

Many states and adoption agencies, including The Cradle, have created registries and search programs to facilitate information sharing and post-adoption connections. Registries enable birth parents and adopted individuals to share information by mutual consent — meaning both parties must be open to sharing personal details. These services are available to those involved in closed and open adoptions but are more often used by those in closed adoptions. 

“Identifying information from our records is confidential,” Friedman says, “If a birth parent or an adopted person contacts us and indicates they are open to contact and/or sharing their information with the other person, we can do that through our Mutual Consent Registry.”

Considerations for Adoptees Using DNA Testing to Search for Birth Parents

If someone is considering searching for birth parents, Friedman recommends exploring options with an adoption-competent counselor and discussing motivations, expectations and possible outcomes of a search. 

There are a few considerations Friedman typically walks through with adoptees who are considering DNA testing to search for birth parents or other birth relatives. 

  • Explore your motivations and expectations: Friedman often asks, “What do you hope to get out of making a connection? If you find someone and a connection is made, what kind of a relationship are you looking for?” 
  • Consider the birth parent’s feelings: Consider how a birth parent or other birth relative may feel about being contacted without prior notice or intent on their part. Depending on their individual situation and when the adoption occurred, a birth parent may welcome this connection or want to retain their privacy. 
  • Prepare for different outcomes: Friedman encourages adoptees to prepare themselves for all scenarios. “Will the other person also want to connect?” she asks. “What if the person being sought is no longer living or you learn information about them or the adoption that you weren’t prepared for?” 
  • Reach out to your support network: It is important to have a reliable support network to help process any information you uncover through DNA testing. In addition to a network of supportive family and friends, an adoption-competent counselor can offer resources and help navigate the situation.

What Are Some Common DNA Testing Services for Adoptees?

While there are several reputable DNA testing kit brands, Friedman notes that most people use 23andMe and Ancestry.com. “23andme provides more medical and genetic information than the other options,” she says. “Many adopted people who are seeking that type of information, in addition to making a connection, chose that program.” Ancestry.com has the largest database so by choosing it, there are more people to compare one’s DNA with. Some people use more than one service. 

Friedman also recommends people upload their results to GEDmatch — a service that allows people to connect even if they have used different brand DNA tests.

Adoption-Competent Counseling and Support

Using DNA testing to seek out birth relatives is a complicated issue, and there is no easy answer as to whether it is right for a given situation. While it can be beneficial to have an additional avenue for facilitating connection, reaching out following a DNA test may violate someone’s desire for privacy. That is why Friedman urges individuals to reach out to a counselor before going down that path. “It’s always important to be mindful of the bigger picture,” she says. “[We] help people see things from all different perspectives.” 

Whether you are considering a search or have already made a connection, The Cradle’s post-adoption support team is here to guide you through all the steps of your search and reunion journey. Schedule a 30-minute phone consultation with a post-adoption social worker through this online form to get started.

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