Many people have reunited with children, siblings and biological parents with the help of DNA technology. You may have heard their stories and decided that now is the time to do your own search.
Because DNA search is connecting humans, and possibly initiating human relationships, each person’s experience will be different. Your search may be filled with exciting moments of discovery, painstakingly slow moments of waiting, emotional absences, and hopefully some long-wished-for answers. It’s important to prepare yourself for the many possible outcomes as well as how you will respond if a match is found. Here are some best practices you can follow to protect yourself before you begin and throughout the process.
Before you start, do your homework
In this case, your homework is a lot of looking within. Consider your goals:
- What are you hoping for if you connect with a family member: social/medical background, family history, to know they’re okay, a relationship?
- How do you envision future contact with your birth family?
- What kind of boundaries do you want to establish when you connect?
- What information are you comfortable sharing? Write it down and keep it in front of you to avoid getting caught up in the moment and sharing more than you originally planned.
It’s important to keep in mind that your goals might not match the goals of the person you connect with. So another part of your homework is preparing for positive or negative reactions from your current family members, your birth family and your birth family’s family. It is helpful to identify someone who can support you as you go through this journey. Along with personal connections, you can also look for support groups in your area.
Maintain some of your confidentiality
Throughout your life, you have probably pictured what your birth mother, your birth father or your child is like. But the unfortunate truth is those pictures may not be reality. It is really important to remember that though you are connected by DNA, you do not know this person, their personality, or how they will react to the news. While it’s only human to want to share a lot with this person who is also your family, it is important to take steps to protect yourself in the beginning of the relationship.
Before you connect, take an inventory of what information is on the internet about you. It is common for individuals to find a connection on a DNA website and then look up that name on Facebook. Look at your privacy settings on Facebook, Instagram, or any other social accounts you may have. Consider making your accounts private until you are certain you want to share all of your life with this person (and their family). A simple Google search of your name can also help you determine if there is anything else out there that you may want to keep private.
It is also helpful to create a separate email and use this as the first form of contact information you provide (rather than your address, phone number or an email you have to check daily). It is very possible that the level of communication your birth family is interested in will be what you want as well. But if this person desires a different level of contact, or responds in an unhealthy way to the discovery, or you become overwhelmed by the reunion experience, having a separate email allows you to “press pause” by ignoring that email account for the time you need.
If you are a birth parent, consider sharing your story now
We understand that what we are suggesting is hard, but if you are a birth parent, please consider sharing your story with your family now. Each year that goes by it may be more difficult to share your past. But, as difficult as it may be, we find that when a birth mother or father shares their adoption history directly with their family—husband, wife, parented children, siblings—it can be received much more warmly.
Please know, we would never breach your confidentiality. But even if you’ve signed a nondisclosure and told your agency that you are closed, it is still possible for an adoptee to find you now that DNA technology is available.
The chances are higher that adoptees will connect with their birth families. Even if you do not complete a DNA test, your sister, daughter, or uncle might. If you communicate with your family before a DNA match happens, you are taking control of the situation.
If at all possible, reach out directly to your birth parent
If you are an adoptee completing a DNA search, you may connect with a “cousin” or match that is close but not a parent. If at all possible, refrain from contacting that person first and disclosing your adoption story. As you are all too aware, adoptions were typically closed all the way into the 1980s, and while open adoptions are encouraged and more common, many adoptions are still closed today. There is a high possibility that family members of your birth mother or birth father do not know that they placed a child for adoption. We’ve witnessed families enter turmoil when an adoption is discovered via DNA and the birth parents were unable to tell the families themselves.
Please take the long view. If you really want to establish a positive, secure relationship with your birth parent, you may need to take things slowly. You may get immediate answers from your aunt or the parented child of your birth parent, but it may also sever your relationship with your birth parent. If all you want is information, then you might be okay with this. But it is really hard to understand what led your parents to choose adoption years ago, and to give them the benefit of the doubt and the space to process reunion now can often benefit everyone involved.
So, how do you do this?
If you don’t connect directly with your birth parent via a DNA test, try another means to finding them. Contact your agency and see if you can gather more information from your file, or if they can complete a search.
If your agency doesn’t have information, and the distant DNA connection is your only option, use vague language when reaching out, things like: “I’m hoping we can find the missing connection between us” or “I’m trying to piece together my family tree.” Things that don’t directly mention adoption. The person you’re contacting may figure it out on their own, but if there is a way to avoid outing a birth parent, it’s worth the extra caution.
Use intermediary services
Finding family is emotional and personal. Intermediary services provide the buffer and distance to allow you to process it all. We hold the tension of differing needs between you and the person you’re trying to connect with. We also maintain confidentiality until everyone is ready to share more information. As a neutral party, we can be the sounding board that allows you and your birth family to process your thoughts, wishes and fears before talking to each other.
The space helps. We have worked with birth mothers who were not sure they wanted to connect, but over time they talked with us and warmed up to the idea. Eventually, they decided they were ready to write a letter, or even begin direct contact. This is not to say everyone always opens up, but intermediary services have helped many families through the process.
If you were adopted through Children’s Home, LSS, or any of our contracted post adoption agencies, we can provide intermediary services. If cost is a concern, please ask our post adoption staff about our Adoption Support Fund. In FY2018, we provided 50 people grants to cover post adoption costs.
For more information
We have a few free webinars about DNA search and reunion. Finding Family: Our Journey of Search and Reunion is a conversation with Liz and Tammy, two sisters who connected through a DNA match. Recorded in 2016, DNA Testing and Adoption: What You Need to Know covers the basics of DNA testing and speaks with an adoptee who is also an adoptive parent about her experience. We also recorded an updated webinar, Post Adoption Tools: DNA and Social Media, to provide updates from the 2016 webinar because of the evolving technology.
Please contact our Post Adoption team for information about intermediary services and our Adoption Support Fund.
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