Handling Sensitive DNA Information


BY DIAHAN SOUTHARD in Family Tree Magazine

As more and more people are recognizing that DNA testing can hold answers about relationships that may not be found in any other way, more and more of us are making unexpected discoveries about our family trees.  While thousands of people are making these discoveries, no two situations are the same.  That means that there isn’t one right answer about how to move forward.

Ideally, before you test anyone, you should clearly explain the possible outcomes from testing—including the possibility of discovering new biological relatives.  The Genetic Genealogy Tips and Techniques Facebook group <www.facebook.com/groups/geneticgenealogytipsandtechniques> offers a template that you can edit, then have your family member read and sign.  The document assesses their understanding of the test and confirms their preferences about how you should handle unexpected information.

But if you didn’t think to do this in advance, you may be scratching your head as to what you should do next.

First, be sure you know what you’re talking about.  Too often, well-intentioned researchers misinterpret DNA test results and needlessly shock friends and family with erroneous information.  The same amount of shared DNA can indicate different relationships, so you can rarely be 100-percent certain about the way two people are connected.  Consider multiple hypotheses, and only approach the people involved when you feel confident in your research.

Secondly, allow the person closest to the information to make the decisions.  For example, let’s say you have an unexpected DNA match and (through traditional research) determine he’s a first cousin once removed through one of your father’s two siblings.  Approach both siblings (or their children, if the siblings aren’t available) and let them determine how to move forward.  In this situation, you’re discovering a new cousin—but they’re potentially discovering a new child or sibling.

You might also think of unexpected information as adding to your family tree, rather than subtracting.  So, for example, if you discover that a biological line is different from the one you grew up with, consider that you’re gaining another family, rather than losing the one you knew growing up.

The very best rule in these situations is to remember that not everyone will be ready to hear about your discovery.  So be patient and kind, and consider how you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed.

(For more on how to handle delicate information uncovered by research, see the “Making Peace  with the Past” article from the September 2019 issue of Family Tree Magazine.)