3 On Your Side Investigates: DNA Dilemma
JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - Tracing the path to long-lost relatives has never been easier.
For roughly a hundred bucks, people can unlock information about their ancestors.
It's especially useful for adopted children, many of whom believe that knowing the identity of your birth parents is a civil right.
In Mississippi, much of that information is kept confidential except in medical circumstances.
Now DNA services are getting people within reach of these biological family members, but this genetic testing is testing the limits of Mississippi law.
"I was about to the point of giving up because I was tired of heartbreak after heartbreak," said Philadelphia, Mississippi resident Amanda Holdiness.
She spent more than two years trying to find her father, using an investigative genealogist and DNA testing to guide her search.
"It was like a rollercoaster," Holdiness said.
Twice, Holdiness used parental DNA testing to confirm whether the genealogist had indeed found the right father, and twice, the results came back negative.
"So I just, you know, went on my own and ordered an Ancestry DNA kit," Holdiness said.
She got her mother to do the same thing, too, and after turning over the results to the genealogist, she learned of a cousin with a different last name -- Herdt.
From that point, Holdiness became the detective, searching through Facebook.
"I Facebook messaged him and told him about my situation. He asked if my mother was in the military. I said 'Yes she was.' He said, 'I know your mother,'" Holdiness said.
That man, Larry Herdt, lives in Wyoming, a long way from Holdiness' Philadelphia, Mississippi home.
In the end, those DNA tests confirmed what she felt, and brought father and daughter back together.
"I feel like my hole in my heart just went from a big hole to a whole heart," Holdiness said.
For years, genealogical searches have been an expensive proposition, especially for adopted children, and they've been the only means to get any answers because of the restrictions of Mississippi law.
"In our state, those records are sealed by statute, and they're not readily available particularly to the public and to an adoptee," said attorney Skipper Jernigan.
State law indicates non-identifying information -- especially of a medical nature -- is fairly easy to get for an adoptee.
But other details, like the birth parent's name, can't be released if the parent wants it secret.
Jernigan, who's worked with adoption cases for more than forty years as an attorney, said that happens often.
"It could have been that that child was conceived under circumstances that she does not want to have to relive. It could have been a rape. It could have been incest. It could have been anything," Jernigan said.
That battle over the person's right to know versus the parent's right to privacy tends to lean heavily toward the parent in Mississippi.
"That's the dilemma that each one of those cases faces. A biological parent, he's got to trust that agency to keep their identity confidential until such time as that person agrees to have their identity released," Jernigan said.
Many adoption agencies often provide affidavits for parents to decide whether they want to have their identity revealed.
There's also no statute of limitations on this information, Jernigan added. In the event the parent dies, that information dies with them.
"That's one of the problems. And those are the situations that are more likely, C.J., for the court to open the file, just so the person will have that information," Jernigan said.
Before the advent of testing from companies like Ancestry.com and 23 and Me, a person searching for their parents would end up reaching out to a genealogist or their own adoption agency to start the process.
Those agents would ensure the law was followed.
Now, if you get results from these DNA testing services, you can bypass that and in some cases reach out to that person directly, which could present its own problems.
"I would think a DNA company better make sure they're on solid ground before they go disclosing the exact identity of a biological match with that individual," Jernigan said.
Could that disclosure, without contacting the birth parent, be a violation of Mississippi law?
"It could. Now, would anybody probably ever get prosecuted for that? Probably not, but that might not prevent a civil case from being filed," Jernigan said.
Jernigan said in adoptive searches, that biological parent could even reject the child...which could be devastating.
"You may find out a lot of stuff you don't want to know and may be better off not knowing, but that's their journey, and if that's what they want to do as an adoptee, they certainly have the right to do that," Jernigan said.
It's a subject that's intensely personal to Jernigan because he has adopted children.
"There's got to be a way to find some common ground to allow an adoptee, who I believe has that right at least, in my opinion, to get that information. They gotta be old enough, mature enough, hopefully, to be able to handle that information," Jernigan said.
Holdiness agrees with that.
She's 34 now and she maintains that, regardless of how that meeting would have turned out, she's grateful.
"I know a lot of people are fearful to find out, but I wasn't, you know. I knew that even if he would refuse me, I would know who my father was."
Those looking for biological parents or other relatives can do what Holdiness did, and hire an investigative genealogist.
They can end up costing thousands of dollars.
You can also look online for local DNA companies that work with you or use a national company like Ancestry.com.
While they're cheaper, experts say also riskier because they can link you directly with that relative.
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