What is a DNA Detective? Can One Help Me with My Adoption Search?

This interview with volunteer DNA Detective Joe Barrus sheds some light on this important aspect of an adoption search.

Ellen Haws December 03, 2017
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A friend of mine has been on a journey using DNA to help her find her birth father. She was lucky enough to meet Joe Barrus, an admin for the Facebook group DNA Detectives. Joe helped her locate her birth father. I had the pleasure of asking him some questions about DNA Detectives.

What does a DNA detective do?

A DNA Detective combines the analysis of common DNA shared between people who descend from a common ancestor with traditional genealogical research to help solve cases where documented ancestry is lacking. The most common cases are with individuals seeking recent unknown ancestry such as adoptees seeking identity of birth parents, individuals seeking identity of unknown fathers who are sperm donors or as a result of other unremembered liaisons. Less common are those who are seeking to validate documented genealogy to rule out non-parental events (illegitimacy, adoptions, etc.) or to tear down brick walls in their traditional genealogical research where documentation is lacking. Through the process of pedigree triangulation, a DNA Detective cross references ancestries of shared DNA matches looking for intersections and then applying aspects of the shared DNA, such as amount, number and length of segments, and even detailed segment analysis to narrow down the population of potential candidates. Ultimately the triangulation process leads to a handful of genetically equal candidates, and if lucky, just one.

What drew you to DNA familial testing?

I have been doing traditional genealogy as a hobby for 30 years. In 2010 I took a YDNA test when consumer DNA testing was just getting started and inexpensive enough to purchase. I didn’t know what to expect but I thought it might help me solve some of my genealogy brick walls, in particular my paternal line, who I suspected was of Portuguese origin. A YDNA test would help confirm that. I had my half-brother test as well. Well, imagine my surprise when the tests showed that my brother and I were not related! Unfortunately, my parents had already passed and there were no living relatives who had any knowledge of this situation. So the only way I was going to solve this was through DNA. So I dug in and started learning about it from online resources and others in the field. Soon thereafter, autosomal testing came out which really opened the door for solving these kinds of cases.

How did that experience lead you to become a DNA detective?

It took me until about 2014 to solve my case. Along the way I came across others seeking their heritage too, including adoptees who were in my matches. Solving their mysteries helped me to solve mine, so before I knew it I was helping lots of people. I soon realized how fulfilling it was to help others solve these cases. The amount of gratitude from them was overwhelming. It just drove me to want to continue to help others as I personally understood how important it was to each of them to fill that gap in their identity. People don’t often understand how meaningful that is. It is extremely fulfilling work, so that’s why I keep volunteering my time to do it. Plus I love solving puzzles! I’ve solved nearly 100 cases so far.

An adoptee just got back their DNA results, what is the first step?

First thing would be to get your DNA into as many databases as possible. As of now, the best way to start is to get a test from Ancestry DNA. They have the largest database by far now and many of their members have published family trees, which makes it easier to research. Plus you need a place to build trees of those who haven’t published theirs, and Ancestry’s tree building and genealogical tools are very good. Makes a great workspace. But first thing would be to download your raw DNA and upload them to the free databases such as Gedmatch.com. FTDNA.com and MyHeritage.com currently accept transfers for free. So by paying for one test, you can get your DNA into 4 databases. Lastly, one can pay for a final test at 23andMe if the 1st four are not good enough to solve the puzzle or one has the extra cash. The next step would be to seek help from others who know or are going through the same process. Best place for that is a Facebook Group that I help administer called DNA Detectives. There are currently over 70,000 members who are made up of other searchers and search angels who all can help you get started and, if lucky, one of the search angels will have some time to take on your case and point you to valuable resources to help learn. But it’s a great forum for seeking help and getting your questions answered.

The search for a birth family can be complex and can have times that feel like dead ends. What is your number one suggestion for those who have hit a dead end?

Patience! The databases are growing exponentially. It won’t be long before there are enough people in the databases that solving these cases will be as simple as taking a test. Current laws protecting identity of birth parents will become moot. It took me 4 years to solve mine. With others I have helped, I just wait and sure enough a good match will come in that will break the case open. Just like any cold case you see on forensic TV shows, often cold cases are broken because of a new lead that shows up. Solving DNA cases is not unlike traditional forensic investigation. The techniques and evidence evaluation are very similar. Some people will have difficulty solving theirs due to extenuating circumstances such as having recent foreign ancestry because the databases don’t have enough international participation yet or due to endogamous ancestry where inter familial marriage was common across generations, complicating DNA comparison not to mention common surnames. For those, a close match is often required to solve. But patience is key.

For additional help with your search, check out these new adoption training courses.

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Ellen Haws

Ellen Haws is a writer and stay-at-home momster to two boys. She is an advocate for special needs individuals and special needs adoption. She created and is administrator of a thriving Facebook group that promotes and hosts events for special needs individuals and their families in Arizona. Once her hausfrau duties are finished, Ellen can be found creating sarcastic cross stitch art for her loved ones.


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