Amateur DNA Detective Helps People Find Family

Amateur DNA detective
Amateur DNA detective

Amateur DNA detective

Amateur DNA Detective Helps People Find Family

This story is about a woman paying it forward and helping others.  The story, written by Daniel Gross, for the Boston Globe explores a search angel, Laura Flanagan. She was given up for adopted, then gave up a baby herself at 17.  Fueled by the yearning to find her own birth family she learned to make sense of Ancestry results and use genealogy techniques to help others find their birth family.  At the time of the writing, Flanagan had helped reunite 5 families and was working on a couple of others.  We know that members of Search Squad and and other groups have helped 100’s of people so in comparison, this is about a beginner, but she is no less important than those that have helped more families.  Everyone that helps others find their birth families are important and hold a place of great appreciation in our hearts.

Amateur DNA Detective Laura Flanagan

“Laura Flanagan, who is 46 and lives in Coventry, Rhode Island, has brown hair, dark eyes, and works as a full-time — if amateur — DNA detective. She talks quickly, stringing together stories like beads on a necklace. When she saw the resemblance between Lutz and Riendeau, both now mothers themselves, she smiled. She was thrilled at helping connect another family — she says this was number five of eight, to date — though her own quest for connection remained unfulfilled.

FLANAGAN’S TEENAGE MOTHER NAMED HER, then gave her up for adoption at birth. Flanagan herself gave up her daughter when she was 17, and later cut off ties with her adoptive parents. She posted on her Facebook page what being adopted means for her:

“Being adopted is an experience that’s hard for people who are not adopted . . . to understand,” she wrote. “It is easy to take for granted that old black-and-white photograph of grandparents . . . tales of days gone by told by older family members . . . the sound and tone of a parent’s voice or the physical likeness seen among blood relatives. These are the things that keep us all feeling connected, they help us see ourselves and our purpose in this world. They help to explain why we are who we are, why we look the way we do . . . our very existence.”

This is why she’s never given up on her own search — and why she started to help others, poring over DNA test results and yellowed archival records to reconnect separated families. At the root of her work is a decades-old obsession: the search for her birth father, whose identity would finally complete her family tree. “For 26 years, I’ve been looking for this man,” she says.

In the last few years, technology has revolutionized the work of self-taught genealogists like Flanagan. When she started, genealogy had little to do with genes and everything to do with written records of birth, death, and marriage. No documents meant no family tree. And because adoption was long shrouded in secrecy, adopted children had little hope of discovering their birth parents. Today, it’s possible to find long-lost parents and siblings with little more than an Internet connection and a vial of saliva.

The Internet is how Denise Lutz, desperate to reconnect with any blood relatives who were still alive, found Flanagan. More than a decade ago Lutz had joined, a website that helps users construct a family tree. Her tree overlapped at the edge with Flanagan’s.

Last year, Lutz reached out to Flanagan, wondering if they were related. A DNA test eventually showed they were not, but it was still her lucky day. Flanagan has become adept at using, and she noticed that Lutz’s DNA results had turned up something interesting: a relatively close genetic match in the site’s database. This is a key clue in genealogical detective work, because even a third or fourth cousin can lead to closer relatives.

Flanagan spent several days at her computer, barely sleeping because of the excitement. Genealogical searches often obsess her; she will work through the night, sleeping when her husband, who works an overnight shift, sleeps. She added new branches to Lutz’s family tree by navigating among different, overlapping networks — genealogy websites, city records, Facebook. They began to converge. She found Geraldine Riendeau, who then lived in East Bridgewater, and called her one Sunday night.

“I’m Laura Flanagan, a genealogy researcher, and I think I’ve found your sister,” Flanagan remembers saying.

Riendeau, who thought it might be a cruel joke, initially was distant. But Flanagan explained her research and demonstrated a deep knowledge of the family. A cautious trust developed. Riendeau’s mother was dead, but family lore did say that Riendeau once had a sister. Just one month later — after a flurry of phone calls, e-mails, and a genetic test to confirm sisterhood — Flanagan was driving to Massachusetts to meet the suddenly inseparable sisters.

Triumphs like these have become commonplace for Flanagan. In the last year, she says, she’s helped eight people find family members using a combination of DNA testing and archival research.  One of the most fulfilling reunited a 90-year-old mother with her 70-year-old daughter, she says. She hasn’t charged any money for her services. “I can’t say no,” Flanagan explains. “Part of my journey is to do these things for other people.”

This articles continues at  All of us that have made this journey looking for birth family appreciate people like Laura Flanagan working to help others find family.



About the author


I found my birth family after 40 years of looking for them. I used DNA tests, software to sort DNA match results, family trees, contacting DNA matches and several website tools. We want to provide you a "one stop shop" with all your resources to help YOU find YOUR family.

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