The social worker said no. The judge said no. The local phone books were useless.
For decades, no one and nothing could help Sue Warthen find the people who gave birth to her in the mid-1960s.
Then her adoptive mother encouraged Mrs. Warthen’s new husband, Rob, a computer whiz, to see what he could do.
He built a computer program that permitted him to “build out” family trees, and he asked his wife to swab her cheek and send her DNA to a genealogy company.
Mr. Warthen put her results into his program, worked with a “search angel” named Karin Corbeil, and found a trail that led to Mrs. Warthen’s birth mother.
Additional investigative work may now have led to her birth father too.
“I’ve always wanted to know where I actually came from that I wasn’t simply dropped off,” said Mrs. Warthen, who was adopted in Maryland when she was a few months old and has been looking for her birth family since the early 1980s, when she turned 18.
Today, hundreds, if not thousands, of adoptees have used DNA genealogy companies like Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and Ancestry.com to jump over bureaucratic barriers and find members of their genetic families.
“People sometimes say we can’t do it unless there’s close DNA matches, but that’s not true — we can do it with distant ones too,” said CeCe Moore, a professional genetic genealogist who has appeared on “Finding Your Roots” with Henry L. Gates Jr. on PBS.
Even “foundlings” can find their birth relatives, Ms. Moore said.
DNA testing is the only way to find family heritage for these people since “opening records can’t help when there are no records,” said Ms. Moore, who has helped find birth families for a woman who was abandoned as a baby behind a grocery store, another person who was left on church steps and a third who was left at a baby-sitter’s house.
People unfamiliar with adoption may not realize that for decades, it was typical for agencies, charities and lawyers to arrange “closed” adoptions.
This meant an adoptee was given an amended birth certificate with the names of their adoptive parents and possibly not told they were adopted.
Legally, their original birth certificates were, in most U.S. states, sealed in courts and not made available to an adoptee except in cases of legal necessity. Sometimes, only medical information about the birth family — but no names — was provided.
This led to widespread private and professional “search and reunion” efforts, as well as campaigns to change state laws to let adult adoptees have their original birth records.
Adoptions more open
Today “adoptions tend to be far more open,” said Megan Lestino, director of public policy and education at the National Council for Adoption. In fact, the issue of DNA-matching in adoption may fade in 15 to 20 years, since most adoptions are now done with “some level of openness” among birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees, she said.
Meanwhile, NCFA supports sharing of birth records as long as “everyone’s OK with it being shared,” Ms. Lestino said.
“There are two sides to any story,” she said, and some of the “hard cases” involve rape, incest or adoptions that happened without other family members’ knowledge. As a result, NCFA recommends that intermediaries be used to “ask in a gentle way” if contact is welcome or information can be shared, Ms. Lestino said.
Ms. Corbeil and Diane Harman-Hoog, another search angel, are eager to help people learn how to conduct their own searches.
The process begins with educating oneself about searching options, joining support groups like DNAAdoption.com and DNAGedcom.com and purchasing DNA tests from one or more genealogy search companies, such as Ancestry.com, 23andMe and Family Tree DNA.
Many people who were adopted “have been able to use our service to put together missing pieces of their family history,” said a spokeswoman for 23andMe. Often people find cousins they never knew about, but sometimes people find siblings and even parents, she said.
Birth parents seeking a child placed for adoption will have a harder time with DNA matching: They really are “searching for a needle in the haystack,” said Ms. Moore, since the only DNA matches they can find will belong to the child or a child of the child.
Adoptees, on the other hand, have multiple branches of paternal and maternal family trees to match — and with DNA databases growing exponentially, there’s very good chances of matching.
“We’ve reached critical mass as an industry,” said Ms. Moore.
“Finding even a third or fourth cousin means the world” to adoptees, said Ms. Harman-Hoog, who said she has helped at least two “black market” adoptees find their birth families.
One woman, whom she called “Trish,” found that key parts of her life had been falsified: Her birth mother had been told she had died, and her birth father had never known of her existence. The father “cried and cried” when he learned about Trish, Ms. Harman-Hoog said.
Another woman discovered that someone deliberately put the wrong birthday on her birth certificate, a fact that guaranteed her years of searching for her birth parents would be in vain.
But DNA matches, which unearthed biological family members, led the woman to her birth mother and now possibly the birth father, Ms. Harman-Hoog said. “This was a real eye-opener for her; how else would she have found anything without DNA?” she said.
“It’s a whole new world for adoptees,” said Ms. Corbeil, who herself is an adoptee who used DNA to find members of her birth family two years ago.
Parenthood inspires searches
Adoptees typically do not search because they want a new set of parents — birth parents can “never replace” the parents who raised the child, both search angels said — but they often step up their quests when they have their own children and want to know more about their families of origin.
That was the case with Mrs. Warthen.
Having a child with her first husband only fueled her resolve to find her birth family, but she found that the adoption agency had gone out of business, a social worker “did nothing for me,” and a legal request for her records was rejected by a judge. She was even told that her birth records “burned up in a fire.”
With the computer program built by Mr. Warthen and data from Family Tree DNA, Mrs. Warthen got a hit on a distant cousin on the paternal side — a man who merrily told her “I’m on a ferry to Wales!” when she contacted him.
Additional searches led to a cousin on the maternal side, and before long a candidate for Mrs. Warthen’s birth mother appeared.
Birth parents are almost always pleased to hear from the adoptee, said Ms. Corbeil and Ms. Harman-Hoog.
In Mrs. Warthen’s case, however, the reunion path with her birth mother was up and down. She “never expected to hear from me,” Mrs. Warthen said.
Meeting half-siblings has been easier. “My God, you look just like her,” Mrs. Warthen said she was told.
At the beginning of their DNA-match journey, Mr. Warthen promised his wife that “wherever you’re from, I’ll take you there.”
The Warthens have since visited family members in Ireland and Wales.
Importantly, they believe they have found a man who could be Mrs. Warthen’s biological father. The man is the right age, has “big-time Irish connections,” and was willing to have his DNA tested.
The results are due in early 2015.
“You never know where it’s going to take you, and it’s not all wonderful,” Mrs. Warthen said. “But then, some wonderful things can come of it, and you have to think of it that way,” she said.