Episode 289 - GedMatch Founder Curtis Rogers Talks Law Enforcement / Adoptee Rights Spokespeople Discuss New York Legislative Victory

podcast episode Jul 07, 2019

Host Scott Fisher opens the show with David Allen Lambert, Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. The boys begin Family Histoire News with a tip of the hat to the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition for their incredible victory in the New York Legislature, obtaining the right for adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates. Next, a certain group is requiring DNA from Jews in Israel. Hear the interesting reason for the move. Next, DNA analyzed from the remains of a pair of Neanderthals has revealed something remarkable. Catch what it is. Then it’s a story of tragedy that has united two men, one black, one white, who have learned that, because of that tragedy, they are family. David’s Blogger Spotlight shines on the Czech research site of Blanka Lednicka, CzechGenealogy.nase-koreny.cz. Blanka has a lot to offer people of Czech descent!

Then, Fisher begins his two-part visit with Curtis Rogers, co-founder of GEDMatch.com. The two talk about the history of the site, how it has become the focus of controversy for its support of law enforcement, and how you can support the efforts of authorities in solving crimes.

At the back end of the show, Fisher visits with Gregory Luce and Annette O’Connell of the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition. NYAC is celebrating their recent victory in the New York Legislature bringing adoptee rights to the state so the group will soon be able to order their original birth certificates.

That’s all this week on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show!

Transcript of Episode 289

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Segment 1 Episode 289

Fisher: And welcome to America’s Family History Show Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. I am Fisher, your Radio Roots Sleuth on the program where we shake your family tree and watch the nuts fall out. And I’m very excited to report that I’ve finally been able to get schedules together with Curtis Rogers. He is the co-founder of   GEDMatch.com. If you are unfamiliar with GEDMatch, it is a third party DNA matching service, and we’ll get into what that means a little bit later on in the show, and it’s free. And this is also the place that has been largely responsible for the solving of over fifty cold cases around the country and of course there’s been some debate over them of late, and so Curtis has come on. We’re going to talk about how GEDMatch started, what it does, where it’s going and what’s happening with the new opt ins for law enforcement? Do they have enough yet to help law enforcement continue their efforts to solve cold cases? And also how you can do that, how you can get that taken care of if you’re a subscriber to the free site GEDMatch.com. Then later in the show, I’ll be excited to talk to Annette and Greg. They’re with the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition. They had a huge victory in New York State. It’s going to allow adoptees from that state to finally access their original birth certificates. It’s a big deal. We’ll tell you more about that coming up later on in the show. Right now it is time to head out to Boston and talk to David Allen Lambert. He is the Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. Hello David.

David: Hello sir, how are you today.

Fisher: You know, I am excited. We’ve got a great show lined up here today, and not the least of which begins with this whole thing with New York adoptions that took place this last week. Big move in the state legislature there.

David: In fact, the vote 145 to 6 goes to show you that adoptees will finally be able to get their birth records and start applying on January 15th 2020 to get their original unsealed birth record.

Fisher: Isn’t that amazing? And as you know David, I found a new second cousin back in February. Well, he’s not that new. He’s 65 years old. But, we solved his birth family through DNA at that time. But, now for him to be able to see the actual record of his birth and confirm what we already know from DNA, that’s going to mean the world to him. I’m sure for many, many other adoptees that are out there.

David: This is one of only a few states that actually has this available in the country.

Fisher: Yeah, there’s only ten of them now.

David: Well, I’ll tell you the genealogical news is always exciting when we’re talking about DNA. And there’s a great article in the Guardian called “What does it mean to be genetically Jewish?” and you can find our link on Extreme Genes on our news. And basically, if you’ve ever come across a percentage of Ashkenazi Jewish in your DNA, this is now being looked at by Rabbis over in Israel to determine how Jewish you actually are to be married within the faith.

Fisher: Yeah, isn’t that something? And I know there are a lot of people of Jewish background, say in Eastern Europe, in Germany that want nothing to do with DNA because they obviously fear that something could come up again sometime in the future and that would be used against them. And now here they are in Israel using this technique to prove the Jewishness of people so that they can be married within the faith. I mean, it’s causing quite a controversy and you can read the story in its entirety on ExtremeGenes.com.

David: Going back a little further than DNA then usually we can find by autosomal, how about those Neanderthals in your family tree? If you’ve ever been tested with 23andMe, you probably could find out how much Neanderthal you have compared to somebody else. And I know that my sister has more than me, that’s why I always said that she could climb the heck out of trees better than I could.

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: I won’t say which sister. [Laughs] What they’ve done recently is Fish is that they have been able to go through and find seventy differences from the Neanderthal bones of a species that died out 80,000 years ago.

Fisher: Yeah! It’s opening a whole new line of study and it also means that there might be another group that they’ve never identified before that brought about these changes, so it will be interesting to see where this research goes. Moving forward, it’s hard to believe we have Neanderthal ancestors, but we do!

David: We do, and it just gives you an idea of the swinging from the family tree.

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: The swinging’s better than the other ancestors of more recent times. [Laughs]

Fisher: The earliest one I found, his name was Grog.

David: Oh, goodness, we must be related because mine is Og!

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: [Laughs] It’s got to be a surname. On a sadder note, but kind of a happy ending, two genealogists started looking into separate paths of a family tree. Hiram, who is a descendant of an African American girl who was in the Parchman Penitentiary for a domestic issue back in the 1920s and the other person is the grandnephew of the warden in Mississippi. They have a connection. Unfortunately, it’s by sexual assault by the warden on this young lady that was in the prison.

Fisher: And so they found out they were related and as a result of this DNA match, they determined that this one man’s great uncle was the warden and is Hiram’s grandfather.

David: That’s true. In fact, she was very pregnant by the time that she got out of prison and had the baby soon after. But, the two of them now, they’re very good friends.

Fisher: And family.

David: And obviously related.

Fisher: Yeah, exactly.

David: Ninety years ago, a crime. Ninety years later, a friendship and a new family found. DNA is quite an amazing tool in genealogy.

Fisher: The stories never end, do they?

David: They really don’t. Well, I like to shine a blogger spotlight and this time it’s going ways to the Czech Republic, to Blanka Lednicka who has a blog called Czech Genealogy For Beginners. So, if you have Czech ancestry or ancestors in Bohemia, Moravia or Silesia, you may want to go to her site now. Get a pen because this is a long one.

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: Czechgenealogy.nase-koreny.cz

Fisher: And of course you can find that link on a summary of the show at ExtremeGenes.com.

David: Well, that’s about all I have from Beantown for you this week Fish. As always, it’s a pleasure. But remember, if you want to get your recent ancestors, consider joining AmericanAncestors.org and you can save $20 on a membership at AmericanAncestors.org by using the checkout code “Extreme.”

Fisher: All right David, thank you so much. Talk to you again next week and coming up next the first of my two-part interview with Curtis Rogers, the co-founder of GEDMatch.com talking about what they do, the recent controversy surrounding the use of their site through law enforcement and what you can do to help law enforcement if you so choose. That’s all coming up next on in three minutes on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show.

Segment 2 Episode 289

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Curtis Rogers

Fisher: And welcome back to America’s Family History Show Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. It is Fisher here, and I am so excited to have the co-founder of GEDMatch on the line with me today. Curtis Rogers. We’ve been trying to match schedules now for weeks and Curtis, welcome to Extreme Genes.

Curtis: Thank you and pleased to be here.

Fisher: Boy, you have been the talk of the business here for the last year plus. And I think a year and a half ago only the geniest of genies really knew much about GEDMatch because it’s such a unique tool. It’s a third party tool for people doing DNA matches. I want to get a little of your background on what made you think of doing this site and what’s your motivation?

Curtis: Well, the motivation is strictly to provide tools to fellow genealogists to help them in their exploration of their family trees. I started GEDMatch in 2010, about nine years ago, coming up on ten years. And the purpose of it then was to compare family trees by using a computer. This is when autosomal DNA first came in. And when that happened, people were suddenly discovering that they had relatives that were living as opposed to looking at Y-DNA or mitochondrial DNA where any matches could be, well before paper trail distance. Suddenly, they knew they had relatives that were living and they wanted to compare family trees. And I had a person that I had been working with on another website who was technically very capable, and I asked him could he come up with a program in which people could compare family trees using a computer. Compare the names, compare the places where they live, compare the times that they live in those places, and match family trees that way and save all these hours of emails. Well, he came up with a program that was so good, I said, this is just too good for my other little website that I had. It was a surname project called “Rogers.” And I said, we’re better start a whole new website for this and share it with a lot more people than my little site that I had then.

Fisher: Wow.

Curtis: So that was the beginning of GEDMatch.

Fisher: And so from there it evolved into a DNA comparison site. And when did that take place then? Was that right at the beginning there in 2010?

Curtis: That was probably about a year later. It became obvious that that would be a step forward for us. But anyway, we’re called GEDMatch because we’re comparing GEDCOMs with our family trees.

Fisher: Yeah. I wondered about that. You’ve kind of outlived the name haven’t you really?

Curtis: We really have, except the name is so accepted that I’d hate to change it now.   

Fisher: Sure. I think you’re absolutely right about that. So, you didn’t write the algorithms. You’re just a passionate genie. I know that you’re based in Florida, in fact, in my wife’s hometown in Lake Worth, which is a great little town. How much time do you devote to this? I know you don’t make any money off of this thing. It’s just a service that you’ve done for all of us. I know that I speak for millions of genealogists. We’re so appreciative of what you’ve done because there have been so many things that have been discovered as a result of your project.

Curtis: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. This is a free site and we want to keep it that way as much as possible. We do have some tremendous expenses so we do have one area where we charge $10 a month. But this is not a big money maker, believe me.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Curtis: People tend to think of us as being a big company, and we’re not. We have no employees. It’s my partner, myself, and we have another three people who volunteer pretty much on a regular basis, and that’s it. But we want to keep it that way so it is free and available to as many people as possible.

Fisher: Wow. And you’ve got some amazing tools on there. Who came up with the one “Are Your Parents Related” who even things of that?

Curtis: [Laughs] Yeah that was a good one. That was my partner. He thought of that one.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Curtis: I guess the pretty obvious thing to do from a technical point of view. And so he came up with it. It is an interesting one.

Fisher: Well and you know, I’ve spoken to many DNA specialists and they say when they run some of their clients through GEDMatch that’s often the first thing they do, is compare and see if the folks are related.

Curtis: [Laughs]

Fisher: Isn’t that interesting? [Laughs]

Curtis: That is interesting, yeah. I suppose that can come up with some really interesting results.

Fisher: Yes, absolutely. So now let’s fast forward. We’ve gone through the history. You started out trying to compare trees, then it became comparing DNA, and these really nifty little features that people have never seen before and it’s all free. And now, in early 2018 suddenly GEDMatch splashes across the world because there are people using your site in order to do genetic genealogy to solve cold cases. And the Golden State Killer case comes along and what was your reaction to it when that case was solved as a result of your site?

Curtis: I was surprised. I was confused. I was really concerned as to how this might affect the genealogy community and especially genetic genealogy community. And you know, it took me about two weeks of not sleeping and trying to wrap my head around just what was happening, how this case was solved, how we were involved, how the total genetic community, genealogy community is involved. And I eventually came up with the realization that there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it. The genie was out of the bottle.

Fisher: Um hmm. Yeah.

Curtis: And therefore, with the one thing we could do is to be as open, and honest, and aggressive in telling our users that this is something that was happening. Law enforcement was using the site. And so we embarked on a campaign to make sure they were informed as well as possible.

Fisher: Um hmm. Well, and I would imagine, and I thought about this a lot trying to put myself in your shoes with where this goes. Like you say, the genie was out of the bottle, I love that genie thing there, and suddenly you’re trying to figure out something. It’s just, it moved so quickly that you really have to take a breath and to a certain extent, take a step back because there are people who are reacting in fear, and there are people who are reacting with joy because they can help law enforcement solve crimes like this. And so many have been solved since The Golden State Killer case 14, 15 months ago at this point, and I can only imagine things started to spin out of control because you just couldn’t stay ahead of it the entire time, yes?

Curtis: Yes. What I tried to do is keep in mind that we are a genealogical website. And everything that we did really should be filtered through that. Does it help the genealogical community? And so I tried to use that filter to make the best decisions possible. There were no written guidelines that I could follow.

Fisher: No. Nobody has ever been where you’ve been with something like that, right?

Curtis: That’s true.

Fisher: And you’ve got to answer the question “Okay, as we go about this, what are we going to limit the use of our site to?” And initially you decided it was going to be sexual assaults and cold case murders, which I think is a pretty safe threshold that an awful lot of people agreed with there. And did you consider other levels of crime at that time?

Curtis: That was the level that was suggested by our attorney at the time. And it sounded reasonable. I agree with you. But then there was a case in Utah which was almost that, but just not exactly that. And we realized that we needed to expand that definition.

Fisher: Um hmm. Yeah. And then that’s obviously where all the troubles started within the last month or so. And what a story that’s been. We’ll get into that in a little bit in the next segment. But I just wanted to kind of get the background because the last year I would assume that everything within your company has evolved almost as much in the last year as it did in all the years before it. Yes?

Curtis: Well, not in terms of necessarily increase in kits. They have always increased at a pretty steady rate.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Curtis: And that’s continued pretty much the same rate surprisingly.

Fisher: What are you at right now? How many kits are in GEDMatch?

Curtis: Right now we’re essentially at a million, two hundred and fifty thousand.

Fisher: Wow! One and a quarter million, and that’s why it’s so helpful for so many people. And they’re from all the different sites, right? The proprietary ones that provide the kits and all that. You don’t provide DNA kits for people who are not familiar with GEDMatch. It’s just a place for you to take your results and compare it across the board to the various companies. And this is why you started Genesis, right? There was Genesis GEDMatch that you had up till recently. What was it a kit thing? Is that how it worked?

Curtis: Yeah. When we first started out there were just two or three genealogical testing companies, Family Tree DNA, Ancestry, 23andMe. And they were all pretty much the same. We never advertised or promoted our product. We still have not. We don’t want to push people into using GEDMatch because I think it’s something that has to be a free choice type of thing.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Curtis: We started with those few companies and as time progressed they started moving away from the original data that they were collecting. And also, there were other testing companies that came into the field and they wanted to use GEDMatch, the people that were tested by them did. At this point we have over 20 different testing companies all around the world.

Fisher: Oh wow. I didn’t even know there were that many out there. That’s incredible. 

Curtis: Well, there are. For example, the largest testing company in Russia is called Atlas. Now, you’ve probably never heard of it?

Fisher: No.

Curtis: We had people on our site who were tested by Atlas. It’s becoming a very popular thing believe it or not in China.

Fisher: Ha!

Curtis: People getting interested in genealogy. And there are two testing companies there.

Fisher: So, you had to somehow kind of find a way to merge these altogether and make it work.

Curtis: Exactly. Exactly. And that’s why we had Genesis.

Fisher: Okay. And now Genesis is gone and you’re back to GEDMatch.com right?

Curtis: Yes, but using the Genesis format that we developed.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Curtis: It was BETA for a long time so we called it Genesis. But it’s no longer BETA. It’s proven itself and it’s where we have now moved all of our information into that what was formally called Genesis. And we’ve never gone back to the name GEDMatch.

Fisher: I’m talking to Curtis Rogers. He is a co-founder of GEDMatch a third party site for comparing DNA test results. Of course, many genealogists are very familiar with it and so is Law Enforcement who has used the site along with Parabon Nanolabs to solve cold cases and sexual assaults. And they’ve made headlines. They’ve been on all over the world in the various media outlets. And when we return in five minutes, we’re going to continue with Curtis and talk about “the flap,” what has happened in the last couple of months, and changes in the site, and decisions that had to be made. It’s complicated, isn’t it Curtis? It’s all coming up for you next on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show.

Segment 3 Episode 289

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Curtis Rogers

Fisher: We are back at it on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com. I am Fisher talking to Curtis Rogers, co-founder of GEDMatch.com and we’ve talked a lot about the background of the company. Do I even call it a company Curtis? You don’t make any money!

Curtis: [Laughs] Well, yeah that’s true. It is incorporated. In that sense you can call it a company, but it’s really just a few of us volunteers who are here trying to produce information and tools that can be used by other fellow genealogy researchers.

Fisher: Well, I know you’ve done some great stuff for all of us, but the last few months though you’ve really gotten a lot of attention. Let’s see, I saw you on 60 Minutes touring your little house there in Florida where you house all this stuff.

Curtis: [Laughs]

Fisher: And there have been articles and podcasts, and blogs, and the New York Times, and quite a debate about the “slippery slope,” potentially... that is genetic genealogy. And I can only imagine that this has been a rather stressful period for you and those that you are involved with trying to figure out the right thing to do. You mentioned earlier about the Utah case. And just to review for people who aren’t familiar with it, this is the case that really caused the problems here for Curtis and GEDMatch. And in that case there was a woman who was practicing an organ in her church on a Saturday night, preparing to do her performance during Sunday services. Somebody broke into the church, broke a window, left some blood there, went in and strangled this woman to unconsciousness several times. It was really more like an attempted murder than it was an assault. And somehow she survived it and this person broke off the attack and left, and for months they had no idea where to look for this individual. They then sought out to do genetic genealogy using Parabon NanoLabs and GEDMatch. So, this is the point now where you get the call from the detective in Centerville, Utah, Curtis and he explains these details of the case to you, and you have to make a decision because you had your terms of service that you had set that involved only cold case murders and sexual assaults. This didn’t really fit into that and now you had to make a choice and you chose to allow them to go ahead and test through GEDMatch and Parabon. Talk about your thinking at that time and how you felt about it and how you feel about it now.

Curtis: It was perhaps the wrong decision that was made for the right reasons. When this happened, and I spoke to the detective, and he explained what had happened, this came as close to a murder as possible.

Fisher: Attempted murder, yeah.

Curtis: This woman was left unconscious and presumably that she was dead in the eyes of the attacker. Anyway, my background is psychology. I have a Master’s degree in psychology. And immediately when I hear this case when I was talking to the detective, I was thinking in terms of a psychopath.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Curtis: And there was no motive. This woman was 71 years old, a church organist, not someone who was a personal enemy. There was no sexual attack apparently involved. It was apparently done just for the thrill of doing it and that to me is a psychopath. Now, in talking to the detective I did not mention the word psychopath. Neither one of us did. But, he was saying that he felt that there could be another person harmed very easily.

Fisher: Yeah, that he could strike again at any time.

Curtis: It was that fear that maybe it could happen again that led me to say, “Yeah, let’s get this guy now.” And knowing now what I do know after this perpetrator was arrested, I think it was the right decision. From everything I hear, it reinforces what I was thinking at that time. 

Fisher: Hmm.

Curtis: So, I think it was the right thing to do.

Fisher: I know the court case has certainly begun for this guy. By the way, for people who don’t know, he’s 17 years old. He’s a high school student and they were able to match his DNA to the crime scene by taking a cup that he drank [from] in the school cafeteria, and doing a comparison to that and then of course they did a swab once they did the arrest and it all matched up. So, that’s where it stands right now and of course as we all know, everybody’s presumed innocent until proven guilty. But nonetheless, it is great to know that this guy is in custody. And Curtis, as you look back on it now, you obviously said it was the wrong choice but for the right reason. Is there any other way you could have done it other than the way you did by saying, “Hey, we’re going to make an exception to our terms of service?”

Curtis: The only other way is to say no, you cannot use our website, and he could still be out there.

Fisher: It’s just yes or no. And I’m certain there are people in that area who are very grateful that this guy is off the streets. [Laughs]

Curtis: Yeah, and the way that you describe is how it happened that he was found, is the way we work. I think it’s important that people understand the way genetic genealogy works. We do not in genetic genealogy find suspects. We do not find the person who did it. What we find is the person of interest.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Curtis: Typically, in a cold case what happens is they don’t have a person of interest. They have maybe some evidence from the crime scene, but they had no person that they can put that against and so the case goes cold. In the case of the Golden State Killer there was no relationship between him and his victims. He chose them randomly.

Fisher: Hmm.

Curtis: So you’ve had no person.

Fisher: They’ve never been looking for that guy.

Curtis: Same thing here. We’ve supplied the person of interest. Now, as you’ve described in this Utah case, once we, being the genetic genealogy, provided a person of interest, then the police had to start their investigation from there to prove that yes this person did or didn’t, is or is not the suspect, the person who actually did it. In this case, they had to go and be sure that he was in the area, that he had the ability. Ultimately, they had to do another DNA test to make sure that this was the right person.

Fisher: Yep.

Curtis: So, that’s what happens in genealogy. We’re not supplying criminals. We are supplying persons of interest and it is up to the police to then go do their whole full investigation.

Fisher: Absolutely true. So, as a result of all this there was something of a fire storm. There were a lot of people talking about the slippery slope that people are going to have their genetics used in a massive database for tracking and things. So, there’s a lot of fear going on there. And you and your partners made the decision to opt out all one and a quarter million users of GEDMatch from law enforcement and then say we’ re still going to use it for law enforcement but you must opt in. So, the question now is, how many people have opted back in? I heard one hundred and fifty thousand, but I suspect that’s a little high.

Curtis: That’s quite high. Yeah, there were about eighty five thousand at this point.

Fisher: So, are you seeing a consistent rate with people opting back in, or is it now that things have settled down a little bit, the growth is slowing?

Curtis: It’s about a thousand a day.

Fisher: A thousand a day.

Curtis: In the United States. Right at that level, yeah.

Fisher: Okay, so this will take quite a long time really to get back to where we were. Do you have a campaign you’re working on to maintain this or is it just something that you’re hoping will happen organically?

Curtis: No, we did send out a letter to all of our users, all of our people who have registered on our site, and that resulted in a big increase for a period of four or five days. And we plan to send out a reminder letter sometime in the near future, and there are still a lot of people that have not opted in so, we’re not giving up. We are going to be aggressive in trying to get this database back up to par.

Fisher: And what is par? Is there a number that you think makes it almost as effective?

Curtis: Look, first of all, we don’t need 1.25 million. A lot of those people are redundant. Some people have put their kit on two or three times.

Fisher: Hmm.

Curtis: Sometimes you have both parents. When you have both parents, you also have all of their children. So, I think if we get five hundred thousand I think we will probably be as strong as we were prior to this happening.

Fisher: He’s Curtis Rogers, co-founder of GEDMatch.com. Fascinating talking to you Curtis. Thank you so much for your time, and thank you for what you’ve created for us in the genealogy field. It’s fascinating stuff. I know you’ve been though a lot lately, but I’m glad  that you sound like you’re fully back on your feet and have a plan moving forward that should keep everybody satisfied.

Curtis: It was my pleasure.

Fisher: And coming up next we’re going to talk to a couple of people from the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition. They had a huge win in the New York legislature this past week and you’re going to want to hear all about it, coming up in three minutes on Extreme Genes.

Segment 4 Episode 289

Host: Scott Fisher with guests Gregory Luce and Annette O’Connell

Fisher: And welcome back to America's Family History Show, Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. We had some big news that happened this past week, and so we're going to forego the Ask Us Anything for this time around to visit with some friends from the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition. And Gregory Luce is on the line. He's in Minnesota. He's an attorney. And Annette O’Connell, she's a spokesperson in New York City! How're you guys doing?

Gregory: Great.

Annette: Doing well, thanks. How about you?

Fisher: Boy, you are doing well because just last week a law passed the legislature that ended 84 years of adoptees not being able to obtain their original birth certificates. I watched a lot of the video from the website from the New York Legislature. It was very emotional and I can only imagine for you two, because both of you are adoptees.

Annette: Indeed.

Gregory: It was remarkable.

Fisher: This is only the 10th state that has gotten what they call a clean bill, so that adoptees can get their original birth certificates.

Gregory: Right. And they ordinarily don't seal these records, but what New York did eighty-three years ago wasn't about the shame of being out of wedlock. The sealing of the records that did not make them available to the adoptee later was all about protecting the adoptive family from birth parents interference, that's what the law was about. It grew over time that the opponents opening in the records would say, “Well, now we need this privacy issue of the shameful women that had birth back in the '50s and '60s.” And you would get a few women that would express that sentiment, but it was the vast majority of them did not, and they were shamed into submission eventually.

Fisher: Well, back in February, I got a DNA match just the day before I was heading off on a vacation to Mexico. And because I keep track of descendants of my more recent ancestors, first great, second great, sometimes even third greats, I couldn't find where this guy came in, because the shared matches told me he was my dad's mother's parents' great grandson. I said, "Who are you?" I said, "I don't know who you are." And he wrote back and said, "I don't know. I was adopted. Can you help me?"

Gregory: Great.

Fisher: And it’s like, I've got to pack. But there was no way I was going to leave this guy sitting for ten days, because you know, I know how to do these things. So, we got talking that very day. He shared with me his DNA information. We figured out immediately who his birth mother likely was. He said, "I've also got a couple of first cousins on here." And I looked at that and said, "No, no, no, no, no, those aren't first cousins. Those are half sisters."

Annette: Wow.

Fisher: And we were immediately able to identify his birth father. And we had pictures of both parents, grandparents, great grandparents. But naturally he wants to see his original certificate to validate what we did with the DNA, and now he's going to get the chance to do that.

Gregory: And you sort of outlined what's happened over time too as this law was still in place. And you have DNA now, you have social media. And this information as you probably know was shared much more widely through DNA registries and names of people, and talking to third cousins or first cousins and half sisters just to identify who the parents were, as opposed to the sort of easy thing and more discreet thing is to apply for and get your original birth certificate.

Fisher: Yeah.

Gregory: And that's now going to happen in New York.

Fisher: That's right. It was be the most discreet thing you can do, right? I'd never thought of it that was.

Gregory: Exactly.

Fisher: I'm hoping, because New York affects so many people. So many people are adopted out of New York that we're going to see what happens going forward that this will open the floodgates elsewhere. And I'm sure you're going to have your work cut out for you, Greg.

Gregory: Yeah, it’s already started. I mean, we started in Texas last year, although it’s been going on in Texas for quite some time and we've started to prioritize what other states look like they maybe don't want to go in the next few years. I mean, there's some states that have sort of a mix of laws that make it impossible to get a bill that would have unrestricted access, because they've already compromised on the rights.

Fisher: By intent no doubt, by intent I'm sure. All right, we're going to take a break and when we return, we're going to talk about what you can do in your states, how you can help the Adoptee Rights Coalition to break open the doors to the original birth records for those who've been adopted, when we return on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show in three minutes.

Segment 5 Episode 289

Host: Scott Fisher with guests Gregory Luce and Annette O’Connell

Fisher: All right, we're back, talking adoptee rights with the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition who had a huge victory this past week when the New York Assembly overwhelmingly voted to make original birth certificates available to adoptees in New York State and people born in New York State. So this can affect people from all over the country. And we've got Greg Luce on the line, he's an attorney from Minnesota and Annette O’Connell, she's a spokesperson for the coalition in New York City. And Annette, now that New York has kind of fallen here, I'm thinking there are 40 other states that don't have clean bills that allow adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates. What's next and how can people go to town trying to figure out how they can make these laws change?

Annette: Yeah, that's what we're thinking too, the rest of the 40 states should fall as well. But people need to be careful not to kind of go rogue and just do things on their own. It really needs to be an organized group of people. We found in New York that having a true coalition that consists of various organizations is what really helped to get things done, and that is adoptee lead, where the adoptee voices are really coming out. So if anyone, you know, in their states wants to get something going, then I would recommend that they contact us directly at [email protected] or even contact Greg directly at [email protected], and then we can work on forming coalitions in other states. And I think I speak for both Greg and myself when I say that, you know, we're more than willing to be involved in helping to form those coalitions and to tell people what we found worked here in New York.

Fisher: Yeah, what's the message that works that makes perfect sense. You know, people would say, well, with DNA now solving all these adoptee cases, you would think that that would bring about changes in the laws, because they would say, well, it doesn’t matter anymore, but they didn't take that position in New York for some time, did they?

Annette: No, it really was a double edged sword, because a lot of times the response was, "Well, if you can do DNA, go ahead and have at it, because then you don't need your birth certificate. We can hold only it." So really, the premise of it has to be equality that non-adopted people can access this document, but adopted people cannot. And we truly are the only group of people at least in New York State who are unable to access that birth record.

Fisher: Well, any record that's public that's available to anybody else should ultimately be available to you. Obviously this can cause some disturbances in some families at some point or another, but really, is it the government’s place to say you shouldn’t reunite, because there are plenty of mothers who are very anxious to meet the children they gave birth to.

Annette: Right. The majority of birth mothers actually are in support of this. And really, I mean, a secret by its very definition is a thing. So people cannot be secrets. And once someone else knows of your secret then your secret is no longer a secret. So, once your child has been delivered, that doctor knows that you were an unwed mother. Your secret is no longer a secret it’s a public event.

Fisher: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense too. So, when you go and you approach, say, a legislator in one of the various states that don't have open birth certificates available to adoptees, that would seem to be the initial conversation, right?

Annette: Absolutely. You need to get someone who completely understands the issue of equality and understands the true definition of equality and the true definition of being an adult. By its very definition, an adult doesn't need permission to access their birth certificates. You go online, you fill out a form, you pay your money and you know, your birth certificate comes in a few weeks in the mail. It’s not that simple for these adopted people.

Fisher: She's Annette O’Connell, he's Greg Luce, and thank you, guys and congratulations on an amazing victory. I know this has been going on in New York State since the '70s. And keep us informed on what's going on in other states and how genealogists out there can help.

Annette: We absolutely will.

Gregory: We will.

Fisher: All right, thanks so much. Hey, that's another one for the books! Thanks for joining us. Thanks also to all of our guests, Curtis Rogers of course from GEDMatch.com and our guests from the New York Adoptee Rights coalition. If you missed any of the show, of course you can catch the podcast on iTunes, iHeart Radio and ExtremeGenes.com. Talk to you again next week. And remember, as far as everyone knows, we're a nice, normal family!

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