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Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Adoption Challenge to Genealogical Research - Part One: DNA

Any genealogist who does research back a few years will very likely encounter someone who was adopted. In fact, whole families of children could be adopted and in some cases into different families. For the researcher, this possibility often constitutes a "dead end" or as genealogists usually refer to the event; a "brick wall." The adoption issue can be further complicated when the adopted child is a "foundling" or a child who is abandoned on the doorstep of a church or other institution. There are also genealogists who begin their interested in investigating their family heritage because of their own adoption.

If adoption is a part of your family's history, it can produce some of the most challenging and difficult research issues you may face. This series will focus on the history of adoption in America and the methodology for researching this issue. Before I get into the history and other concerns of researching an adopted relative or ancestor, I need to emphasize the importance of DNA testing for resolving lineage issues including those very personal relationships between birth parents and their children.  DNA testing first gained traction in the courts where there were identity issues in both criminal law and paternity cases.

The first criminal prosecution that involved a conviction based on DNA evidence took place in Leicestershire, England. It was the case of Colin Pitchfork, the first murder conviction based on DNA profiling. DNA profiling for forensic uses was first developed by Sir Alec Jeffreys in the 1980s. Here is a short account of his discoveries from the University of Leicester, Biography of Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys.
Professor Jeffreys’ research at Leicester focuses on exploring human DNA diversity and the mutation processes that create this diversity. He was one of the first to discover inherited variation in human DNA, then went on to invent DNA fingerprinting, showing how it can be used to resolve issues of identity and kinship and creating the field of forensic DNA. The subsequent impact of DNA on solving paternity and immigration cases, catching criminals and freeing the innocent has been extraordinary, directly affecting the lives of millions of people worldwide. 
His current work is aimed at trying to understand how variation is generated in human DNA, by developing new and very powerful techniques to detect spontaneous changes in the genetic information as it is transmitted from parent to child.
The conviction came as a result of a mass DNA testing. Here is an excerpt from Explore Forensics, a website from Great Britain entitled, "Forensic Cases: Colin Pitchfork, First Exoneration Through DNA." The exoneration referred to in the title involved a suspect arrested during the investigation of the murder of two girls who was exonerated due to the DNA evidence. Colin Pitchfork was later convicted after an extensive DNA testing survey. Here is the quote:
In 1987, in the first ever mass DNA screen, the police and forensic scientists screened blood and saliva samples from 4,000 men aged between 17 and 34 who lived in the villages of Enderby, Narborough and nearby Littlethorpe and did not have an alibi for murders. The turn out rate was 98%, but the screen did not find any matches to the semen samples. The police and scientists expanded the screen to men with an alibi, but still did not find a match.

In August 1987, a woman overheard a colleague, Ian Kelly, boasting that he had given a sample posing as a friend of his, Colin Pitchfork. Pitchfork had persuaded Kelly to take the test as he claimed he had already given a sample for a friend who had a flashing conviction. The police arrested Colin Pitchfork in September 1987, and scientists found that his DNA profile matched that of the murderer.
The first forensic DNA conviction in the United States was in the case of The People v. George Wesley. Here is the full citation to the case.

The People etc. v. George Wesley, 83 N.Y.2d 417, 633 N.E.2d 451, 611 N.Y.S.2d 97 (1994).March 29, 1994

Acceptance of DNA testing as a standard tool of forensic science move slowly across the United States and has since become so well established that DNA testing is used routinely in criminal investigations and leads to the conviction and exoneration in a huge number of arrests. DNA testing also became common in cases involving alleged family relationships, particularly paternity cases. 

Genealogists began picking up on DNA testing as a possible tool in resolving family relationships only quite recently. DNA testing is quite useful in establishing family relationships in the first four generations. It quickly becomes less useful as the number of generations increase. The key to using genealogical DNA testing for this purpose is the existence of large online collections of family trees. If enough people have taken a genealogical DNA test, the chance of finding a relative or close family member increases. 

In my next installment, I will start discussing the history of adoption in America. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for starting this blog thread and planned follow up comments.
    I have come across many in this situation; being themselves or parents, while assisting others in their family research.
    I am surprised, how uncommon it is...