But as an adult, when her mother grew sick, the question became more urgent. During visits to the hospital, Beth tried to work up the courage to ask her directly: who is my real father? She would always back out at the last minute.
When Beth’s mother passed away in 2010, she feared the truth had gone to the grave. Beth reached out to her friend, Christina Pearson, who had experience tracing her own family ancestry. Together, they gathered as much information as they could from Beth’s relatives to fill the gaps in her family tree, but were led down a series of blind alleys.
Then, in February 2017, Pearson read a story online about how DNA tests were being used by adoptees to locate birth parents. Pearson, who worked full time as a schoolteacher, didn’t know anything about genetics, but found a Facebook group called DNA Detectives where people shared advice about how to use DNA to track down biological family, an approach called genetic genealogy.
In Pearson’s previous genealogical work on her own family tree, she started with known close relatives and then built the branches back in time in search of unknown distant ancestors. Genetic genealogy was the opposite. She had to take Beth’s closest DNA match from her Ancestry.com test, go back in time to find a common ancestor, like a great-great grandparent, and then build the branches forward to discover immediate relatives.
Pearson picked up the skills quickly and in a few months she had identified a man she was almost certain was Beth’s father.
In May 2017, the two friends drove from Indiana to Kentucky to ask him if he knew Beth’s mother. He said he couldn’t remember her, but Beth asked him to take a DNA test anyway, just to be sure. The results confirmed Pearson’s hypothesis. The man, who had briefly been Beth’s mother’s neighbor in the 1970s, was Beth’s biological father.
For Pearson, this experience was so profound that she began offering her services to adoptees she met online. By the end of that summer, she had closed nine cases. To date, she has helped over 200 strangers reconnect with their birth families.
Pearson is part of a community known as the “search angels”, a volunteer group who give up their time to help others find their roots. By sharing their skills online, they are also revolutionizing the young science of genetic genealogy.
The very first search angels began helping people find their birth families decades ago, as a response to the secrecy and stigma that defined the adoption process in the mid-20th century.
In the early 1980s, Priscilla Sharp joined a group called Search Triad, in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1964, she had been forced to give up a daughter born out of wedlock. The adoption records were sealed and a new birth certificate was issued. She felt as if she were rendered invisible.
Sharp waited 18 years before she started searching. All that was available from the adoption agency was non-identifying information about her daughter – height, weight, level of education – but nothing that would point her directly towards the person she was looking for.
At Search Triad, Sharp met other young mothers of the “baby scoop era”. They offered her moral support, but also practical advice on how to search through public records. Sharp learnt quickly and within four years she had been able to locate her daughter’s adoptive parents. They were reunited in 1986, just after her daughter turned 21.
While Sharp’s search ended in reunification, many of her friends did not have the same good fortune, so she decided to help others in her spare time, paying the good deed forward.
In the early 2000s, Sharp retired and took up search angel volunteering full time. By then, the internet had transformed the search experience. Public records were digitized and searchers shared their methods with each other on Yahoo forums, emailing lists and AOL chatrooms.
Though this made searching easier, the legal system was still designed to withhold information. Solving cases was an exception rather than a rule. Sometimes, Sharp would win a court order to unseal a client’s original birth certificate, only to discover that their names had been changed. “I spent hundreds of hours online searching fake names,” Sharp told me. “I became very disillusioned.”
In the mid-2000s, some adoptee advocates started posting online about how direct-to-consumer DNA testing might one day make searching easier. Sharp was intrigued. She made contact with a woman called Gaye Tannenbaum, who was working with a small group of search angels trying to figure out how to use genetic data to trace genealogy. They were making some progress, but consumer testing was still expensive and the databases limited.
Things changed in 2010, when genetics companies began to offer testing on autosomal DNA, which is inherited evenly from both mother and father. This opened up the potential for discovery on both sides of the family tree. A genealogist named CeCe Moore, who had been working with DNA since the mid-2000s while researching her own ancestry, was writing a blog about how to use autosomal testing to build out family trees. Tannenbaum and her group reached out to her. Though she wasn’t herself an adoptee, Moore was sympathetic to their cause and they started trading knowledge via online mailing lists and chat groups.
Moore and the search angels developed a new methodology for finding birth families that they called “triangulation”, which was essentially a type of reverse genealogy. It involved using the results of a DNA test to locate the closest relative match, like a second cousin, and then building a family tree back from there to find a common ancestor, like a great-grandparent. From there, they would work forward in time, slowly filling in missing pieces of the puzzle.
The new method was a convergence of Moore’s genetic literacy and the search angel community’s experience with public records sleuthing. One after another, adoptees in the group started finding their birth parents. Despite these early successes, adoption searching with DNA was still difficult. Because there were so few people on the genetic databases, searchers sometimes had to build out family trees of 40,000 people before finding common ancestors with DNA matches.
Five years later, though, DNA databases have hit critical mass. 23andMe now has 5 million customers, Ancestry.com has 10 million and GEDmatch has 1.2 million users. This means that an adoptee can feasibly take a single test and be matched with a half-sibling, ending a decades-long search for a birth family in a matter of minutes.
Sharp, who remembers the days of paper trails that went nowhere, sees DNA testing as a light shining through darkness. “When I first started doing this, I was lucky if I could solve one case per month,” she told me. “Now I’m averaging two or three a day.”
The satisfaction Sharp feels when she closes a case is not just from reuniting families. Genetic genealogy, which circumvents the sealed records that have thwarted adoptees for decades, feels like justice. “I have a saying that nature abhors a vacuum and God abhors secrets and lies,” Sharp told me. “So science came along to fix it.”
CeCe Moore’s Facebook group , DNA Detectives, is one of the largest search angel groups, with more than 100,000 members. This is where Christina Pearson learned how to do genetic searching and is now where she finds most of her clients.
For Pearson, the most rewarding cases are those where she is able to help people who have otherwise given up hope, as was the case with Mike and his wife, Vicki. Their search started in 1993, when Mike’s father handed over his adoption records. Inside, they found a paper stating that Mike was adopted from Clinton county, New York. They contacted the county’s social services but were only given “non-identifying information”. Mike and Vicki used this meagre data to sift through public records, but every time they found a promising lead, they were confronted with another sealed envelope, another redacted document.
In 2016, Vicki bought Mike a DNA kit from Ancestry.com for Christmas after hearing that they could be useful for family search. When Mike’s results came back, they contacted a few of his closest DNA matches, asking if they had any further information. None did, except one woman, who said that she might actually be Mike’s mother, but was mistaken.
For Mike, the DNA results started to feel like another dead end. But Vicki was determined. She joined DNA Detectives and posted Mike’s story. Within half an hour Christina got in touch and they were discussing details of Mike’s case. Then at 11.30pm that night, Mike received a Facebook message. “She was like, ‘this is your mom, this is her phone number and her address,’” Mike told me. “It floored me. I was like, ‘holy cow’.”
Three days later, Mike worked up the courage to call his birth mother. “I got her on the phone and asked her if the date 20 July 1966 rang a bell,” Mike explained. “She said ‘no, not really’. But I kept her talking and talking, and eventually, a little while later she said something like, ‘well actually now that you mention it, I did give a son up for adoption that day.’”
Pearson had done in less than 24 hours what Mike and Vicki had been trying to do for 26 years.
While Pearson has become proficient at the technical aspects of genetic genealogy, search angel work remains emotionally fraught. When working on Mike’s case, Pearson discovered that he had a half-brother. Mike reached out to him and in the process inadvertently revealed to a total stranger that his dad wasn’t who he thought he was. “When these things happen, I take it very seriously and try to handle it in the best way,” Pearson said. “You need the grace and sensitivity to do it appropriately.”
Mike has since visited his birth mother (who he found out has five other children with four men), and his half-brother in New York. “It was a wonderful experience and we’re hoping to be able to go back up this summer with my daughter.”
As genetic genealogy becomes more widespread, it is beginning to be used for purposes beyond family reunification. Pearson, who is now a moderator on DNA Detectives, says that after the Golden State Killer case broke last year – a cold case where law enforcement officers used genetic genealogy to identify the perpetrator – the demographic of the Facebook group has begun to shift.
“When I started two years ago, we were all here for the same reason. Now maybe 35% of people joining are interested in learning about genetic genealogy for law enforcement,” Pearson said.
The intersection of DNA testing and law enforcement has raised concerns around how genetic privacy will evaporate in the age of big DNA data. But this doesn’t particularly concern the search angel community. After having been denied access to identity due to strict confidentiality laws, those I spoke to embrace an ethos of radical transparency.
Sharp is now working with her local police department, trying to identify a serial rapist. Moore leads the genetic genealogy unit at Parabon NanoLabs, the company that helped identify the Golden State Killer.
According to Moore, law enforcement will continue to look to the search angel community for guidance, because there is no group of people who have a more advanced skill set in this area.
As search angels become aware of the value of their skill set, some are electing to charge for their work. Pearson recently started DNA Discoveries LLC, which offers paid-for search services to those hoping to solve their DNA mystery efficiently and privately.
Charging for family reunification, though, does not sit well with some of the community’s older guard, who believe that the essence of being a search angel is belonging to a community born of shared trauma and altruism. “I don’t approve,” Sharp told me. “Adoptees have been discriminated against and forced to live under secrets and lies for decades. And then to have to pay in order to find the truth? That’s no good.”
Pearson assured me that even if she does take some paid work in the future, most of her searching will still be done pro bono. What drives her is not money, but the experience of becoming intimately intertwined in hundreds of people’s family stories.
For this reason, Pearson tries to stay in contact with many of the searchers she has assisted along the way, including Mike and Vicki. She has even helped Mike’s other half-siblings find their birth fathers. For Mike and Vicki, Pearson feels like part of their newly discovered family. “Since she became our search angel, I went from having a small family, to like boom, half-siblings everywhere,” Mike said. “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think we’d know anything right now. She’s just a God-blessing.”
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