How Technology is Helping Adoptees Find Their Parents

DNA Detectives photo 2 (1)
Lori Marsden and Jimmie Ebell, her half brother.

Lori Marsden, of East Hampton, remembers a teacher in elementary school asking students where their family was from. She didn’t raise her hand.

“When you’re an adoptee, you don’t know,” she says. “When you go to a doctor as a young child, they ask for the family history. You say, ‘I don’t know. I’m adopted.’ It becomes this thing in your psyche.”

Marsden recently found out who her parents were through DNA testing and a little detective work via Ancestry.com. She also got some help from members of a Facebook group called DNA Detectives and from someone who became what she calls her “search angel — a genealogist who helps people figure out their genealogy.

“Adoptees typically don’t know their genetic history in a closed adoption,” she says. “You know nothing.”

Adoptees’ efforts to identify their parents are nothing new, but technology and legislation are changing the process. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed a New York State bill into law that gives adoptees the right at age 18 to see their birth certificate, solving the mystery of their parents’ identity. 

“Knowing who we are and where we came from is critical not only to understanding our heritage, but for knowing our health history and any risks it might pose,” New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said. 

But in the absence of a right to know in states where they were adopted, some adoptees are using technology to solve the mystery of their parents’ identity.

Anthony Tyson, Marsden’s husband, recently traveled with her to Wisconsin to a reunion to meet members of her father’s and her family, after she located them.

“I found the whole experience very enlightening and extraordinary,” Tyson says. “It brought a lot of respect from me for my wife for having pursued it. And fortunately, it came out pretty well.”

While geography can simplify a search, Marsden’s was complicated by time spent in different regions.

She grew up in Oconto Falls, Wis., near Green Bay, until around age 3, when her adoptive father got a job in Mobile, Ala. Marsden went to a Quaker boarding school in Philadelphia, Barnard College, became an architect, married Anthony Tyson, and moved to Long Island, where they had a daughter named Julia.

“I tried to contact my birth mother,” she says. “You can write a letter to the state of Wisconsin, where the adoption took place. I wrote a letter in 1996 after Julia was born.”

Marsden got back a response from the state that her adoptive mother refused the contact, and didn’t pursue things — until she heard about Ancestry.com.

“You do a spit test and find out about your DNA,” she says. “Ancestry.com has a box. ‘Do you want to keep this private or public?’ I figured what the heck. I’ll keep it public.”

She found out about distant cousins and got an email indicating a hit. 

“It says, ‘You have a new match,’” she says. “It’s a first cousin. That’s real.”

Marsden contacted Eddie Ebel, her first cousin, told him when she was born, and had some others do DNA tests, identifying Wesley Ebel, an expert in fisheries and wildlife, as her father.

“By the process of elimination, it was confirmed that Wesley was my father,” she says. “He was in the area of Wisconsin where I was born in 1960.”

A search angel with DNA Detectives confirmed that and provided additional information and in late August, Marsden and Tyson went to Antigo, Wis., where her father, who died in 2008, had lived. She met a half-brother and other family members.

“My overall feeling was they were very warm,” Marsden says. “They’re very low-key people. That doesn’t surprise me. That’s kind of the way I am.”

Marsden sees the new New York State law as something that could provide access to adoptees even if it wouldn’t have impacted her.

“It’s a huge deal, “Marsden says. “In Wisconsin, you can’t get your birth certificate until your birth parents are dead.”

Even then, Wisconsin doesn’t notify a person when their birth parents die. Marsden thinks technology still can unlock the secret, helping people identify their parents, although that doesn’t mean a relationship will always grow out of that.

“With Ancestry, most adoptees will find the answers with a certain amount of effort,” Marsden says. “So many people are doing these. You’ll eventually hook up with a first cousin. If you get a first cousin match, you can find out who your parents are.”