What is Forensic Genealogy? 5 Things to Know Now


While genealogy is amazingly cool, the first time I heard that it could be used to find living people and relatives blew my mind. And it made me wonder – what is forensic genealogy?

Forensic genealogy studies evidence left by deceased individuals in order to find specific, still-living individuals of interest for various reasons. This backward approach to traditional research has a wide scope of acceptable uses but has come under scrutiny when used to solve cold cases.

Ready to learn what forensic genealogy is? Keep reading for 5 things you need to know about it now.

What is Forensic Genealogy?

Forensic genealogy is all about using genealogy and evidence left via paper trails and historical information (evidence left by our ancestors) to find living people. It’s a backward version of traditional genealogy in order to find someone.

It’s commonly used for things like the following.

Forensic Genealogy in UseExample and/or Notes
Finding living kin and relatives.Helping adoptees find their biological families. The TV show Relative Race uses extensive forensic genealogy to help people find their living relatives.
Estate and Probate cases.Forensic genealogy can help locate living descendants who are designated to inherit.
Helping coroners find families of unclaimed remains.Unidentified remains can now be identified, thanks to DNA testing and forensic genealogy. This way, families can be notified of their family member’s passing so the remains can be claimed for burial.
Helping individuals in citizenship cases.Some countries allow for some level of inherited citizenship and forensic genealogy can help in these cases of establishing citizenship in one country – or to support dual citizenship in two countries if allowed.
To resolve land and real estate issues.Some of these issues may or may not tie into an estate and probate case. For example, forensic genealogy can help find the living relatives who need to be consulted or contacted in these scenarios of inherited mineral rights.
Other legal cases.Families members may need to be found if they’re eligible for class action lawsuits, inheriting intellectual property rights, or other reasons pertaining to one of the various legal reasons.
Military repatriation cases.Unknown soldiers’ remains can be identified and laid to rest with their names, thanks to forensic genealogy and DNA testing. Families who went years without knowing the fate of their family members can now find closure.
Solving crimes*.In some cases, DNA testing and forensic genealogy can also be used to help solve various crimes – most notably cold cases.
*Please note that this specific use is controversial and under review (legally, ethically, and morally) and may, at some future date, have laws created to guide this specific kind of forensic genealogy. We’ll address this later on in the article, though.

In fact, forensic genealogy has been successfully used in lots of things – and is a widely accepted research technique. However, it’s come into the spotlight big-time ever since it helped crack open the Golden State Killer case – and opened a Pandora’s box of issues that need to be addressed. Again, we’ll talk about these issues later in and throughout this article.

But let’s first list the five things you need to know now about forensic genealogy – so you’ll know what we’re going to cover in this article.

  1. Forensic genealogy has a rich history – and it’s not new.
  2. Becoming a forensic genealogist is a lot of work – but it’s a fantastic career option!
  3. Current controversies within the field of forensic genealogy warrant further talks and research – before any decisions or laws are made.
  4. One of the big controversies has to do with forensic genealogy and solving crimes.
  5. The legalities and laws of forensic genealogy need to be known – because they’re in flux.

Ready to dive into the not-so-new history of forensic genealogy? Prepare to be amazed – or to realize you know more about it than I did.

The History of Forensic Genealogy

If you’re tempted to think that forensic genealogy is new, don’t feel bad. It’s definitely come into the limelight lately (ever since that Golden State Killer case got solved) so it’s common to think it’s a new thing. In fact, I thought so, too – until Breanne pointed out all of the examples above.

But forensic genealogy isn’t new. In fact, it’s a pretty standard type of genealogical research that’s been around for years. It just hasn’t always been termed forensic genealogy, though. Okay, so the term “forensic genealogy” is relatively new. But even before it was called forensic genealogy, it was usually just seen as another aspect of genealogy. Forensic genealogists just focus on using genealogy to find living people – it’s kind of like genealogy done backward.

And as a regular part of genealogy, it was used for a long time. But back before DNA and genetic genealogy was this big, those forensic genealogists had to rely solely on paper trails and traditional methods of genealogical research.

And it was still used to find living beneficiaries, relatives, and family members who were people of interest in court cases or what have you. Feel free to refer to the table in the earlier section if you want a refresher on why forensic genealogy is so helpful. The pre-genetics forensic genealogists still found people the same way and for the same reasons – just without the extra help and guidance of any DNA tests or results.

Then, as DNA tests and genetics were both invented and became more available, suddenly forensic genealogists had more tools. And as genetic genealogists became a thing, there were even more people who could help track down these living relatives who were needing to be contacted and found as needed.

Beyond that, forensic genealogy has gotten a big boost lately and become a spotlighted area of study within genealogy. This is due to both the increase in notoriety (thanks to the Golden State Killer case) and recent advances in genetics and DNA testing.

Since forensic genealogy is an established (and awesome) profession, how exactly does one become a forensic genealogist?

How to Become a Forensic Genealogist

Becoming a forensic genealogist isn’t easy – or fast. It’s going to take a lot of work and several years to get there. But it does look like a promising and fulfilling career! Personally, if I ever change my mind from being a hobby-level genealogist, this might be my goal – and then I’d want to work for the TV show Relative Race!

In order to become a forensic genealogist, you first need to be a professional genealogist. To get to that point, you’ll want to read our post on what education being a genealogist requires. Then, you’ll need to come back and read this section to keep going on your personal quest to becoming a forensic genealogist.

As you’re becoming (or once you’re already) a professional and certified genealogist, you’ll want to also purchase and read the manual for all forensic genealogists. It’s this book – “Forensic Genealogy” by Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD and Andrew Yesier (click here to see availability and pricing on Amazon).

When you’re ready, you’ll also need to go through the credentialing body for forensic genealogists: The Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy (CAFG). You can access their website by clicking hereOpens in a new tab..

Not only will you need to become accredited with them, but you’ll also want to consider one of the 4-tiered membership programs with that association.

Here are some important takeaways from their credentialing process.

  • The entry-level membership gets you into their peer mentor program that will help you advance through the next levels towards credentialing as a forensic genealogist.
  • The entry-level membership does require you to have worked as a professional genealogist for at least 2 years.
  • You can enter their credentialing process as an associate or a junior if you’ve got more experience and sufficient hours to qualify.

In case you’d like to know their specific requirements, here they are.

Level and RequirementsPeer Mentor ProgramAssociateJuniorSeniorCredential
2 years’ experience as a professional genealogistyesyesyesyesyes
Education hours (cumulative) to join255075100120
Forensic genealogy work hours (must be a case with legal implications)501005007501000
Allowed Pro-bono hours2550250250250
Report accepted (within past 5 years)yesyesyesyesyes
Affidavit accepted (within past 5 years)nononoyesyes
From the CAFG’s application form, available via their website.

In other words, just to become a lowest-level forensic genealogist, you’ve got to have at least 2 years’ experience as a professional genealogist, 25 hours of dedicated forensic education, and 50 hours of dedicated forensic genealogy work! Being a forensic genealogist won’t be easy – but it can be an absolutely amazing career.

Oh, and one way to get those required education hours is direct via the CAFG. Typically, the CAFG offers a yearly, multi-day conference for updates and continuing education. As of the day we published this article, we couldn’t tell if the CAFG has offered any such conferences in the last few years, but it’s entirely possible that their website was undergoing some sort of update. They are also considering online classes and courses.

Today, forensic genealogy is a big part of genealogy – but with that increased fame and notoriety comes controversy.

Why Forensic Genealogy is Controversial

Forensic genealogy, because it involves living individuals, comes with some controversy – most of which is related to privacy.

Privacy is a big deal. Even from a blogging and website standpoint, it’s a big deal. There are all sorts of international, federal, and local laws that, as a website, we have to adhere to. So I can only imagine how crazy the privacy laws are to navigate as a forensic genealogist!

And this field is still evolving – and so are the privacy laws. And as things continue to stir up new controversies, new laws will get passed – and new problems could continue to pop up. But let’s get back to the forensic genealogy aspect of controversy and privacy.

After all, these forensic genealogists are tracking down living people. So the methods they use to find people – especially if DNA is used – raise some important questions about how private your DNA results and personal information actually are.

This isn’t something that will be solved overnight, though, because there is so much involved. And there are a lot of important questions to ask ourselves – and for lawmakers to consider before creating any new laws.

After all, most instances of forensic genealogy have a hugely positive potential – in helping people be found for legal cases, finding living relatives (especially for cases with adoptees looking for biological family), and other aspects of important law cases. So while privacy does need to be evaluated and considered, most people want to protect the positive outcomes – while still protecting everyone’s genetic and general privacy.

That being said, the biggest controversy with forensic genealogy and privacy is related to the use of publicly and privately available DNA to solve crimes and cold cases. So let’s talk about that next.

Forensic Genealogists and the DNA of Solving Crimes

Forensic genealogy isn’t new – we’ve talked about the history of forensic genealogy (and how it wasn’t always called that – the term is relatively new). Even so, forensic genealogy landed quite squarely in the public eye in 2018 with the solving of the Golden State Killer cold case.

In this specific instance, forensic genealogists helped law enforcement to solve the case – and find the killer – by using DNA test results and the DNA database called GEDMatch. At first, this was heralded as a fantastic new way to solve cold cases – and then people started thinking more about the implications.

You see, on GEDMatch (and other sites like it), users can upload their raw DNA test results (from any DNA testing company or law enforcement agency). Once uploaded, they can compare results from other users to find cool matches, find family members, or store it so other users can identify you as a family match.

But here’s the thing – anyone can upload anyone else’s DNA data if they’ve got access to it. So if you’ve had a DNA test – and someone in your family uploads your DNA results? They’re now online and quite public – and you may not even know about it.

Please note that uploading someone else’s data without their permission is explicitly against the terms of service for most of these databases. Because of privacy. So don’t do that, okay? Privacy is important to all of us – genealogists included. It’s one of the standards for being a professional genealogist.

The likelihood of someone uploading your data without your permission isn’t all that great – it’s actually pretty dang close to zero unless your family is all about stealing genetic data and uploading it against your wishes. The far more likely scenario is that you’re able to be identified through a family member who willingly submitted their DNA to a database. But because you’re family (and your DNA is similar), you’re findable.

This raises so many privacy concerns that it’s only understandable that this is something being debated, talked about, and discussed. It’s already causing changes in the privacy policies of the big-name DNA companies. And it’s going to keep causing ripples as more implications and issues are discovered.

One of those, for example, is going to be related to whether or not the police are going to be able to demand DNA results of an individual from private DNA testing companies. Most have said they would not turn over that data without a warrant – but this is all still in the very early stages of the legal process. Even the public databases, like GEDMatch, are changing their policies to protect users.

We’ll have to wait, watch, and see what happens. Or if you want to have a voice in that process? Make sure you get involved and contact your legislators to have your opinions heard.

The Legality of Forensic Genealogy

Consumer DNA testing is still so new that it is largely unregulated. The FDA does regulate some things, like what claims they can make with regard to “diagnosing” your risk fo developing certain diseases.

However, now the law is trying to catch up with the advances in DNA testing and technology.

According to this article from 2019Opens in a new tab., the Department of Justice (DOJ) came out with a 2019 policy that limits where and when law enforcement can upload and use genetic information to solve crimes.

Per the article, law enforcement is limited to using genetic uploads to solve violent crimes like murder. Furthermore, law enforcement has a long list of other things they have to do first. Using genetic uploads and data is the last resort.

Furthermore, genetic databases can give their general users the option to opt-in to helping solve crimes – or they can opt-out. This improves general user privacy but it does severely limit the number of genetic profiles that law enforcement professionals can use in their search for criminals.

So it’s not a perfect solution – but it’s where we’re currently at. And it’s an evolving situation, so if you’re interested in forensic genealogy (like we are!) it’s something to keep an eye on. Or, if you’d like to keep an eye on it by having us do the legwork for you, that’s a totally valid option. Just subscribe to our newsletter – and let us handle the research for you. You can subscribe to our newsletter by clicking right here.

Sources

  • Alice. “The Ethics of Forensic Genealogy.” Defrosting Cold Cases, 25 Mar. 2019, defrostingcoldcases.com/the-ethics-of-forensic-genealogy/.
  • “International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki ISOGG Wiki.” Forensic Genealogy – ISOGG Wiki, isogg.org/wiki/Forensic_genealogy.
  • KaiserSep, Jocelyn, et al. “New Federal Rules Limit Police Searches of Family Tree DNA Databases.” Science, 25 Sept. 2019, www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/09/new-federal-rules-limit-police-searches-family-tree-dna-databases#.

Kimberly

I'm a ginger who loves reading, eating, being a nurse, doing genealogy, spending time with my family, and writing about it all. I believe humor is the best medicine, followed very closely by chocolate and tacos. To read more about me, click here.

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