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Handling Lost Biological Family Investigations

By Kendra Budd, Editor

Odds are that at some point in your career, someone will ask you to find a lost biological family member. More times than not, this will be the result of a closed adoption. Whether you’re looking for the biological parent or child, these cases need to be handled with acute sensitivity toward your clients.

It’s not as simple as going up to a person after one Google search and saying, “Hey! Your daughter that you gave up for adoption 18 years ago wants to meet you!” Without knowing how to properly handle these investigations, you could be causing more harm than good with an unprepared approach.

Rachele’ Davis is a private investigator who specializes with reuniting birth families and has extensive experience working alongside United States adoption attorneys to locate birth parents for termination of parental rights. Working PI sat down with Davis to hear some real-world advice on how to best investigate these cases both effectively and empathetically.

Meeting the Client
The very first step in your investigation will be meeting your client, which will require a lot of emotional preparation. Davis suggests starting the investigation process by preparing your client for all potential outcomes. Managing expectations with your client will help determine if they want to move forward with the investigation. Davis warns, “It’s such an emotional rollercoaster and you don’t want them to be unprepared for that. I might keep hitting dead ends, or the person we find might not want a relationship with my client. It is just as much a counseling endeavor as an investigative one.” By painting a clear picture for your client, you can help them avoid potential disappointment.

This means your emotional preparedness is also key. Many adoptees just want to know why they were given up, and many believe they have no information about their birth parents. However, this all depends on the client. Davis says a client may know more than they realize, “I always ask to hear their adoption story, in every detail.” Whether it was an off-handed comment by a client’s adoptive parents, a family rumor, or paper your client came a cross as a child that didn’t make much sense, you’ll want to know. “You never know what bit of information will lead to a breakthrough,” advises Davis. The information you gather initially can be used later on to determine if you’ve found the right person by matching it with uncovered records.

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Davis urges investigators to familiarize themselves with the laws in which the adoption potentially took place. This can be one of the biggest factors in the investigation, because it will determine the information available to you. “When you’re born you are issued an original birth certificate, and then when you’re adopted you get an amended birth certificate. An original birth certificate can be vital to your investigation, because not only will it give you the birth parents’ names (unless the birth father wasn’t listed), but it can give you an address and various other facts,” says Davis. However, only some states allow you to send in an application to receive an original birth certificate.

Going from there, Davis says you’ll have to determine the type of adoption you’re dealing with: whether it was an international adoption, private adoption through an attorney, or if it was through an agency. This will help determine how to proceed with the information you’ve gathered so far. Davis uses the example, if your client was adopted through an attorney, you’d want to know if they’ve contacted them before. However, Davis notes attorneys and agencies will typically only release a host of “non-identifying information” to you. “That information can give you clues as to the person you’re looking for, including: age, job, number of siblings, etc. but nothing specific to give away the person’s actual identity. However, they won’t always release this information to you,” Davis informs.

If all of this sounds time-consuming, good. That’s exactly what you should expect. Davis says the first meeting with your client should be, “a session of exhaustive questions to try to elicit every detail you can get from the client. Every bit of possible information matters.” Once you have completed this line of questioning, it’s time to start the research phase of your investigation. You’ll not only want to tell your client to access the above information to the best of their ability, if they haven’t already, but you’ll also want to get their DNA if there is no other information to spark a search.

DNA Testing
Having your client complete DNA tests could be vital to your investigation. Your three best options are going to be 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and Family Tree DNA. These are arguably the most popular DNA testing companies worldwide. However, Davis says, “The best option for the client when choosing a company depends on their ethnicity. Some databases are strong in South American or African ethnicity, while others are not. So, it’s very dependent on each client’s genetic makeup. Overall, I recommend Ancestry.com because their database is the most robust.” Regardless of which database you or your client chooses, DNA testing “can be a great resource for adoptees who don’t know anything besides the fact that they’re adopted,” Davis informs. Your client can purchase these kits, where they will then be asked to collect a DNA sample via saliva, then send it back to be processed in a lab. At times, results can take a couple of months to process.

Gathering DNA from a client can be vital to your research because “DNA doesn’t lie,” says Davis. However, she also informs us that it isn’t always necessary to a n i nvestigation. “I don’t use it with every client, but with most of my cases I will if my client hasn’t registered their DNA already.” Using genealogy to figure out familial relation is quite common, but if your client already has quite a bit of information on their birth family then there may be no reason to wait months on end for results, advises Davis.

So, how does DNA determine familial relation? Well, almost all people are born with 23 sets of chromosomes, a DNA molecule that contains all or part of an organism. We each get one set from both of our biological parents. Chromosomes contain centimorgans (cM), a unit used to measure genetic linkage. One cM equals a 1% chance that a marker on a chromosome will be related. The total number of cM’s you share with another person can determine how you’re related.

However, more than likely, all of your client’s matches are going to have the cM equivalent of a cousin rather than an immediate family member. This is where their Ancestry.com account comes in handy. Ancestry has a “family tree” function where they can add and track their family history. From your client’s matches, you’ll be able to access other family member’s trees to find useful relatives’ names that aren’t in the database. In the event that an immediate family member does come up as a match, tell your client not to contact them yet. For the best results you’ll want to be the one who makes first contact. However, since this result is unlikely you’ll need to use other resources to gather information.

Tips and Tricks
From websites to libraries, there is an endless sea of resources for you to access hard-to-find information. After checking the DNA websites, and gathering information from a client, Davis will begin drafting a family tree to document her search. “A family tree will allow you to track who you may need to contact, or whose ancestry you need to search with more fervor. It can also give you a visual representation of missing information,” says Davis.

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Aside from DNA testing, Davis suggests using databases such as TLOxp TransUnion to assist in your search.

This website holds thousands of records that may otherwise be hard to find. This can include finding individuals’ new addresses and verifying identities. Davis is also a fan of using databases that are often overlooked. This includes Newspapers.com, “I use that website a lot, especially for adoptions that are older. People used to put everything in the newspaper. In fact, there are many articles that connect the dots by way of family relationships, close friendships, and where people lived,” says Davis.

Another resource to consider is obituaries. “They are just gold when it comes to making familial connections,” Davis shares. She will often build separate family trees for possible connections she finds from obituaries, especially if the person has a common name. Davis says, “If you’re looking for someone named Jane Smith, and you come across an obituary, mapping out their separate family tree might help you verify if that is the same person you’re looking for by comparing the information you already have.” Finally, Davis suggests adding yearbooks, property records, and of course, social media to your search. “Even if the biological birth parents aren’t on social media, another family member of theirs is.” Yearbooks and property records can also be useful to confirm names, addresses, and even compare the likeness of your client using photos.

Using all of these resources should, at the very least, help you find a grain of information that you didn’t have before. If you’re lucky, you’ll find exactly who you’ve been searching for. This is when it’s time to prepare for making contact.

Making Contact
After finding your subject, it’s time to make contact. The first thing Davis does in this part of her investigations is to tell her client that they’ve found who they’ve been searching for. Setting up boundaries with your client in this scenario is necessary. “It really has to be handled with care,” advises Davis. “From my very first meeting with the client, I tell them that my policy is that I like to make contact first. The main reason for this is I never want to give out someone’s personal contact information.

Of course, you’ll give your client some information, but you want to avoid the possibility of your client just showing up on their biological parent’s doorstep,” Davis says. This can end up fracturing the relationship before it even begins. From that point forward, Davis and her client decide between one of two ways to proceed with contact. Either via phone call, or a letter. The phone call will always be made by Davis, but the letter can either be written by her client or herself—depending on what the client chooses. More often, clients choose a phone call. “When they answer, I do my best to identify myself right away. I let them know immediately I have sensitive information for them and ask if they’re in a place where they can talk about it,” Davis says. This is when using empathy as a private investigator is imperative.

Once the subject is in a place to speak, Davis says it’s best to just dive right in. “I let them know about the client and why I was hired. But I do it gently. I want to give them the chance to process and respond to that information. During this call, it’s vital not to make assumptions about the biological family member.” Davis urges people to reassure their subjects that your intent is not to disrupt their lives. “The family member might need some time and will want to call you back, but be prepared for the harsh reality that they might not,” warns Davis. After this, inform your client that you’ve contacted the subject. If both parties want to meet, you’ll then help them proceed.

It may take some time for your clients to contact one another on their own. However, Davis cautions it’s best to only stay as long as you’re needed. “I just act as the go-between as long as I need to. First, you’ll want to gauge the reaction of both parties. One party may be eager to make contact, while the other party is a bit more cautious.”

Offering multiple ways of contact is key. Davis says, “Some may just want to email first, others will want to meet immediately, and some could even just want to mail back and forth for some time using my address, where I then forward it to the correct address.” Davis recommends letting your client make the decision that is best for them: “it just takes time where I have to mediate for a while.” Once they no longer need you, and reunification has been accomplished in whatever method is brought forward, your job is done.

In other cases, not everyone wants to meet the person they’ve been searching for. Davis tells us, “Sometimes, all my client is looking for is health information. They don’t want to ever make direct contact themselves. Other times, a meeting might not be the end goal, but some kind of direct communication instead.” There are multiple outcomes an investigator must be prepared for.

Final Thoughts
Biological family investigations are frustrating, emotional, but 100 percent worth the turmoil you’re going to face. Davis warns, “You must place yourself in your client’s shoes and realize this is no ordinary search. Many emotions run deep on both sides of these investigations. Both for your client and the individual they seek to find.” Whether ending in reunification or not, your investigation will often lead to both parties’ closure. It is important to handle these investigations with patience, empathy and absolute thoroughness. This won’t be like any other cases you take on, and you’ll need to practice these tips to accurately find a match. Sometimes these cases can take days to months to uncover, but just as Davis says, despite the piles of research, “it is one of the most rewarding positions to be in.”

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About the Author
Kendra Budd is the Editor of Working PI magazine and the Marketing Coordinator for OREP Insurance Services, offering customized professional and general liability insurance solutions to private investigators and security firms. She graduated with a BA in Theatre and English from Western Washington University, and with an MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University. She can be contacted at kendra@orep.org or (888) 347-5273.

We’re always listening: Send your story submission/idea to the Editor: kendra@orep.org.

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  • Excellent article. One item not referenced, is there may be hostility or anger, that is not mentioned to the Investigator. Investigators need to take extra care to identify ulterior motives of their prospective client.

  • This was the best and most detailed article I’ve ever read regarding the steps a Private Investigator should take on adoption/reunion searches. Every single step was laid out and then some. Adoption searches should never be rushed and aren’t a 50 yard sprint. They are long distance marathons and should be handled with kind hands. I especially appreciated the discussion of setting expectations and using empathy. It is rare that I stumble across another PI who knows how important both ideas are. Such a great share. Thank you!!!

  • Great article and great advice but, like I tell all my investigators, ya gots ta proofread your work. In our business, reports are what the client pays for and they judge you on the quality of your work and, at the end of the day, your “work” is the report you give to your client. I noticed some spelling and grammatical errors in this article that distracted from the interest, to a point.

  • I an international forensic genealogist and licensed PI that specializes in biological connections using DNA analysis and court records, when applicable. I own a3Genealogy, and we have a full DNA team, not only for uncovering biological connections, but also other historical genealogical research. I have been called upon to work on many TV shows and pilots for NBC, TLC, History Channels and Travel Channel. I have to say that this article does give the basics, but we use so many more tools and we don’t limit using by ethnicity.
    We populate DNA raw data to more than one site because looking for NPE (non paternal event) like adoptions, should be approached strategically in order for it to be cost effective while accessing more DNA cousins and family units. A populated DNA cousin collection also is more successful for African American and bi-racial families, Native Americans, Ethiopians, and American Asians or War babies. For this reason we never restrict our analysis to one company based on ethnicity. We may use the 4 top DTC (direct to consumer ) DNA tests. Might I add MyHeritage to the list offered and there are times clients wish to be expanded to GedMatch also,(never to be used without client’s full understanding of the fine print (same as FamilyTreeDNA) to avoid possible personal conflicts of clients’ exposure. Each of these tests also have their own tools. By populating the raw data to more than one testing company, your success rate can escalate with proper analysis.

  • Good manners go a long way. Being punctual, polite, and respectful during your date sets a positive tone and shows you value their time
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