8 tips for people wanting to check their ancestry or family trees

The Journal-News recently reported the story of two Butler County friends who turned out to be half-first cousins through DNA tests.

Here are some tips and observations from people who have backgrounds in this field — genealogists, a ‘DNA detective,’ and even one of the companies that performs such a service.

1. You might be delighted, but also depressed by what you find

Just as Cheryl Johnson, of Hamilton, often cried to learn the man who raised her wasn’t her biological father, she was delighted to learn good friend Debbie Burkhardt, who grew up near Seven Mile, was her half-first cousin. Many people find surprises — wanted and unwanted — when they get results from such services as AncestryDNA, 23andMe, LivingDNA and National Geographic Genographic Project.

READ ABOUT CHERYL & DEBBIE: Good friends use DNA testing to rewrite family trees

2. After you get results, you may have to do some research

This is where someone like genetic genealogist, or “DNA detective,” Michelle Trostler, of San Diego, who operates the website identifyfamily.com, can come in handy.

Cheryl Johnson had to do a lot of research before and after working with Trostler, but said she was well worth the approximately $500 she paid her. Aside from knowing how to use DNA databases and other resources, Trostler said one thing she and her counterparts know how to do is approach newly discovered people who are biologically linked to someone.

“When you reach out to your matches, you’re potentially reaching out to the family that you’re trying to make a connection with,” Trostler said. “And if that family isn’t ready for a connection … they may just never make contact with you.”

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3. You'll know more about your family history

Knowing more about your biological relatives can be very helpful, providing information, for example, about heart conditions, other diseases or a variety of things that may run in the family, Trostler said.

She worked with one man who never got along with his father, though he tried to do so. When he learned the man wasn’t actually his father, that explained to him their differences, and “set him free,” he later told her.

4. It can be helpful to know your genetics

And these days, with the emergence of sperm banks and fertility clinics in recent decades, it can be very helpful to know about your genetics, say Trostler and Tom Neel, who is the library director for the Ohio Genealogical Society near Mansfield. Trostler said just as Cheryl Johnson and Debbie Burkhardt became close friends despite growing up in different places, if they had been a man and woman, or if they had been gay, they might have become romantically interested in each other.

Trostler said in Iceland, which has only 330,000 people, there’s a mobile app called Islendinga-App that lets people know whether the person they just met in a bar might be a relative of theirs, before they start dating.

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5. It's common to find unpleasant surprises with a DNA test

Neel once worked with a woman who “found out her mother had an affair with an employer during World War II, and that her father wasn’t her father,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Ancestry.com said for this story that not only does it caution people about such potential emotional pitfalls, but, “We have a small, dedicated group of highly experienced representatives who speak to customers with more sensitive queries.”

6. Local Ohio Genealogical Society chapters can help

And local genealogical chapters often offer classes about how to search family trees, Neel said. Most counties have at least one chapter. The website for the Butler County Genealogical Society is www.butlercountyogs.org. The local organization offers classes every other month.

7. DNA tests will get better

As time goes on, the DNA testing services are becoming more precise, Neel said.

However, since Native Americans have been slower than other groups to be willing to be tested, results about tribes can be the least accurate now, he said.

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For that same reason, Trostler suggests it’s better to use a DNA service that has a larger database, because those tend to have the most precision.

8. Pros do have the edge over self-researchers

Some of the skills that DNA detectives have that self-researchers don’t is the skill set to be able to ask fruitful questions of new biological matches without causing them the kind of distress that might prevent them from speaking later with newly found family members.

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