Linda Clyde | Apr 12, 2017

DNA Genealogy: Making Contact with Biological Relatives

This is the second of a three-part series examining current and future uses of genetic genealogy. Read parts one and three.

The results from the DNA sample you mailed off a few weeks ago have finally arrived in your inbox. You’re relieved to see there’s no indication you should worry about your health—that was the whole reason you decided to send in the saliva sample in the first place. After you’ve perused all of the results and have satisfied your curiosity, you make a printout, drop it in a file, and largely forget about it.

A few months go by. One morning you sit down to eat your breakfast and scroll through the email on your phone. A subject line from an unknown individual causes you to pause in the middle of a bite. “I Have a Question about Your Family,” it reads. You let your spoonful of cereal finish its journey to your mouth and feel your world slow down a bit as you click through and read the unexpected email. A complete stranger has just knocked on your internet door and insists that you’re related—closely related—and let’s be honest, it makes you uncomfortable.  

Should You Leave the Skeletons in the Closet?

With DNA testing becoming more and more commonplace, people are discovering biological connections in ways never before possible. DNA results can be incredibly exciting, but they can also shine an irrefutable spotlight on family skeletons that some would prefer to keep in the dark. One person’s thrilling discovery can sometimes mean another’s pain.

So how does one go about reaching out to a biological relative? This ethical question is on a lot of people’s minds.

Bruce Bettinger, author of The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, wrote a whole chapter on the subject entitled “Ethics and Genetic Genealogy.” It might be worth the read if you find yourself sailing in this uncharted territory..

Insights from a Genetic Genealogist

So far, there’s no real blueprint for the best way to handle a first contact—receiving or sending—but genetic genealogist Diahan Southard, whose mother was adopted, has been on both ends. She recently shared valuable insights at the 2017 RootsTech conference.

Like the scenario above, Southard’s mother was initially interested in DNA testing only for health purposes, but after a short time, she began to receive emails from DNA matches. Southard advises always responding to these emails, even if you’re declining someone’s pursuit of more information.

“Say something—anything—back in response to people who are asking you questions,” she said. “Be nice to other people. Understand their situation, and just try to do what you would want others to do to you—that wonderful golden rule.”

Southard also stressed the importance of having patience before and during your attempts to make contact. “Remember that sometimes they just need a little more time,” she said.

Drafting an Email

As Southard and her mother moved further along on their genetic journey, they became more comfortable with the idea of seeking out answers of their own. She stressed simplicity when speaking of how to draft an outreach email. Three brief parts are sufficient:

  1. Include a simple introduction.
  2. Add a friendly personal note.
  3. End with a specific, easy-to-answer question.

Speaking from experience, Southard shared the frustration that comes from reaching out and not receiving a response. “Think about timing and how sometimes, even though the person has taken the test and you think, ‘well, why did they take the test if they don’t want to talk to me?’ sometimes their motives or the reason they took the test are just different than yours, and that’s OK.”

To Tell or Not to Tell

Southard spoke of the seriousness of the first outreach. “Don’t forget what you’re doing. You are linking yourself genetically to other people in a way that can’t be disputed. Genetics is very clear on who is related to who.”

Thoughtfulness and consideration of others—strangers and close family members—are paramount.

“Be aware of what you might find, and if possible, ask your relative beforehand if they want to know. Some people don’t want to know, and if you find out, you have no obligation to tell them,” said Southard.

“If you have already had a family member tested and you didn’t ask them, and you have found out something that you’re not sure they will approve of, you have to decide what route you’re going to take. And in the end, it’s not your responsibility to tell them, necessarily. It’s your responsibility to give them the tools to find out and let them discover it. Or if you feel close enough to them, you’ll have to make your own judgment call.”

As time goes on, the road map for navigating biological relationships will likely improve. In the meantime, everyone making this journey today has the unique opportunity to blaze trails of kindness and set an example for the posterity that will surely follow.

What tips can you offer for contacting relatives after a DNA test? Join us next week for part three of this series exploring genetic genealogy.

Linda Clyde

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