The mystery of the missing parentage
In May 2015, Karen Casler sat on the phone, slack-jawed. She couldn’t believe what she had just heard: A family friend had just accidentally let slip that Casler was adopted.
Her adoptive parents had passed away and had no close relatives, so she had no one to turn to for the thousands of questions that screamed through her mind. There was no paper trail of her adoption. She felt as if a bombshell had gone off in her life.
Suddenly, she pressed rewind on the mental movie of her childhood and started thinking about things. She had never felt completely normal in her conservative, quiet household. “I grew up in a very serious family where you didn’t smile, you didn’t take pictures,” Casler says. “My mother grew up thinking if you smiled, it was a negative impression in a photograph.”
But Casler was a free spirit, constantly clashing with her parents: “It was a conservative, follow-the-rules house,” she says.
Immediately after the phone call, Casler went to find help the only way she knew how: the internet. She sat at her computer and typed into Google “Genetic researcher San Clemente.” Right there was a name: CeCe Moore. Moore was right down the street from Casler’s small indoor cycle studio.
A few years earlier, Casler and her husband had sent vials of spit to the genetics company 23andMe, just for fun. “We got back the results and looked at the ethnicity info and the medical reports – but didn’t think about it much in terms of relatives,” Casler says. Now those reports took on a whole new meaning.
DNA detective work
Moore, a genetic genealogist who runs a company called DNA Detectives, answered the phone when Casler called that day. She listened to her story and suggested Karen start submitting DNA to two other companies – AncestryDNA and FamilyTreeDNA, and then upload her genetic information to a website called Gedmatch, which overlays the results on top of each other. Each of the tests costs about $100, and the results can be added to a database or kept private.
Her biological background was a giant puzzle, and each piece had to fit in the right place. On AncestryDNA, she found connections to more than 430 relatives – mostly distant ones. Slowly, Casler contacted a third cousin in London, then a second cousin. Then she uncovered a group of relatives in North Carolina.
“I made random phone calls to complete strangers, and I knew I sounded crazy,” Casler recalls. “I would say: Please don’t hang up on me. I am doing a DNA project and am hoping you can help. Was your mother so-and-so?” Many times the people on the other end said no or hung up on her. But sometimes she found someone who could help.
Through careful diagramming and phone calls, Casler was able to identify that her grandmother was one of three sisters. From there, the search became a little more difficult. She mailed a DNA testing kit to a woman in her 80s named Gladys who she knew was one of the sisters – maybe even her grandmother. Fortunately, Gladys was willing to help, but she needed assistance, so she drove to a friend’s house to spit in the test tube.
The answers came quickly: Gladys was Casler’s great-aunt.
As the results unfolded, Casler began to view the world differently. When she discovered a family member’s name, she would search out that name at football games. “Are those my people?” she’d wonder.
Finally, she was narrowing down the search for her biological mother. She left a message for a woman named Brendalou at a house that turned out to belong to Brendalou’s in-laws. Brendalou returned the call, catching Casler while she was driving. “You just know the sound of someone’s voice on the phone,” Casler recalls. The voice was familiar. It sounded like her own.
Brendalou answered: Yes, my mother is Brenda Rollins.
“I don’t know any other way to say this,” Casler said, taking a deep breath. “I think she’s my mother too.”
Ancestry combined with genetics
For ages, people have tried to piece together their past through family trees. Now there is a new tool in the hunt for relatives and connections. Genetic genealogy combines traditional family tree building and genetics to uncover relationships between people.
The tests use either a cheek swab or saliva and return autosomal DNA reports, sampling at more than 700,000 locations along a genome. There are also specialized tests to find out genealogical information: One test analyzes the Y chromosome (which only males have) and can yield information on a family name – for example, the last name Ogle has a single origin, so all men with the last name Ogle share traits of their particular Y chromosome (that’s not true with many other names).
When these tests started in 2000, people took DNA tests to find out about their ethnic heritage or inherited medical issues, but now people are increasingly using them to find relatives. Ancestry.com’s database is close to 3 million people, which means most people will be able to find some sort of relative, according to Moore.
This is how it works: Based on how much you share with any one person, the sites will predict you share a recent ancestor. For example, each person shares about 3 percent of his or her DNA with a second cousin. (They’d also share a set of great-grandparents.) If that person knows his or her lineage well, it can help place the other person on the tree.
These tests can also be disruptive, as Moore points out. Statistics show that 10 percent - 12 percent of people have a biological father who is not the one who raised them.
Moore, a musician who also loves biology, works on cases of unknown parentage – like Casler’s – pro bono. She makes money from media consulting, speaking and teaching. And she says the demand for experts in genetic genealogy is always increasing. “If people like detective work and science and they care about families, it’s a good fit as a job,” she says.
DNA Detectives has a Facebook page with 30,000 members who help each other unravel their own biological mysteries.
“Part of my goal is to get positive DNA testing stories out, because it encourages testers, and the more people tested the more people can be helped by this technology,” she says.
A family is found
On the phone, Brendalou asked Casler for her birthday, and she told her: Feb. 5, 1969. And that’s when the woman on the phone started to cry.
“We have been looking for you for 18 years,” Brendalou said. Casler had only known she was adopted for nine months.
When Brendalou told Casler that her family had been searching for her for nearly two decades, Casler was blown away. She soon discovered that her biological mother had died of lung cancer, but in the final years of her life, had searched high and low for her adopted daughter.
In February, Casler bought a one-way ticket to South Carolina. Two of her half-brothers drove in from Virginia, and two half-sisters came from Florida.
On the flight from Los Angeles, she was an emotional mess, thinking of all people she’d get to meet.
They rented a big house on the beach, and the family reunion was better than she could have hoped. “When I met everyone, we were cut from the same cloth,” she says. Together, the family strolled on the beach while one brother played drums. Her free-spirit family was united.
There’s a picture of the five half-siblings walking down the beach and hamming it up together – something that never would have happened in Casler’s adoptive family. At the start of her hunt, Casler never imaged she’d be surrounded by long-lost relatives, and on that beach she felt pure joy. “I found my people,” she thought. “These are my people.”
Casler’s story is one that Moore hears often. “We see that situation play out over and over, where people who grew up feeling like they didn’t belong. Even if they were greatly loved, they felt a little out of place, a little different.”
It’s an amazing feeling for an adoptee to find people who look like them, Moore says. And often people are shocked to find how similar they are to their biological family – the same interests and life choices. Stories on DNA Detectives’ Facebook page tell of long-lost relatives meeting for the first time and wearing the same outfit or holding the same purse. “It has convinced me that our ancestors have a much greater impact on us than we thought,” Moore says.
Moore is quick to point out, however, that she doesn’t want to devalue adoptive families. “It’s not mutually exclusive at all,” she says. She values open adoptions because adoptees can have the best of both worlds.
When people come to her for help, Moore first suggests checking state records. Some states, like Oregon, have open birth records. For others, there are workarounds, like non-identifying information that can be used to narrow a search.
Then, she suggests the DNA tests.
Cold cases and long-lost relatives
These genetics companies don’t share information with law enforcement, because the DNA tests are considered entertainment – and also for another reason. Law enforcement relies on a database with more crude DNA markers. There are only 15 markers in the tests used by law enforcement, compared with 700,000 markers in the genetic companies’ tests. Plus, there is no chain of custody with the companies’ tests, so no one could prove whose DNA is in the system.
Moore says the methodology could be a powerful aid for law enforcement working on crimes or deceased individuals, but right now it’s not possible.
“I would love to be able to identify unclaimed bodies – but you can’t test someone who can’t do a spit test,” she says. If law enforcement could begin to use autosomal DNA (from sources other than spit) in conjunction with pedigrees, it could likely make headway in cold cases, she adds.
Moore has had cases that cross over into law enforcement. She used genetic genealogy to resolve a decade-long amnesiac case for a man named Benjamin Kyle, who had been found slumped over at a Burger King and couldn’t remember who he was.
In addition to those searching for parents, the technology is also highly applicable to Holocaust survivors, when family members are scattered all over the world. Moore helped one man in Israel locate a cousin in the U.S. who had a photo of his parents – he had thought none existed.
Reconnecting families is one of the things that makes her work satisfying, she says.
“The family branches were broken and scattered, and somehow, they are able to come back together.”
A DNA test can also bring people empathy from the profound effects of discovering something new about themselves and their ethnic background.
“I know some people are concerned about drawing divisions when they find out their results, but my experience is that people are typically much more diverse than they think they are,” Moore says.
“The results can cause them to open their minds to things they hadn’t considered.”
For Casler, solving the mystery of her parentage has given her a new view of herself.
“Learning I was adopted was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “It allowed me to shed the preconceived notion of who I thought I was supposed to be and let me embrace who I really am.”