Searching doesn’t always equal solace.

– Crystal Arriaga, G4J Board of Advisors

Founders Note: Adoptees like our Board of Advisors member, Crystal Arriaga are leading the cold case revolution in forensic investigative genetic genealogy. The primary reason that someone uploads their DNA to GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA – the only two databases that law enforcement cold case genealogists can access – is that they are missing their biological history or have a big hole in their family tree to fill. This means that in addition to finding biological family members, they are able to help others. An adoptee like Crystal was the top match for Tina Linn Clouse, the Jane Doe who inspired the founding of Genealogy For Justice™.


When I began my journey of self discovering using genetic genealogy, law enforcement use of this technique was barely a thing. So I couldn’t have known that my close work with a genetic genealogist over a couple of years would lead me to advocate for adoptees and other people who have tested their DNA to allow or “opt in” to law enforcement use of their GEDmatch profiles.

Being adopted means I didn’t always know who I was. I can’t explain how truly confusing it is to not feel settled in your own skin. The topic of adoptees searching for their biological family members usually brings a myriad of feelings for both the adopted family and for the adopted kid. I want to share a little of my own story and what I’ve learned about this kind of search. Hopefully, as you continue reading you’ll find help and inspiration to navigate through the initial stages of your own search.

Crystal’s adoption was an inter-family adoption, yet she didn’t learn the truth until she was a teen.

I grew up thinking I was white. And I believed I was the “uh oh” baby of a tall and tan 50-year-old German and short and tanless 40-year-old daughter of an Irish blue collar working family. Never once did it dawn on me that I was anything other than a descendant of the Prussian Kadura family that landed in Galveston in the late 1800’s.

My roots are planted firmly in the humidity and BBQ smells of Houston, Texas. I grew up in Jacinto City, literally a one horse and three stoplight town on the outskirts of the Houston city limits. Ours was a little white house with brown trim that sits perfectly on a corner lot. There’s a tree swing on one side of the house, flowers always planted in the flowerbeds and a too-large garden in the backyard that is full of tomatoes, cucumbers and okra. Daddy gave the extras away to the neighbors. The grass was always pristinely mowed to his standards, the water hose was rolled up his way, and the sidewalk always swept.

In the Fall of 1997, I danced on the high school drill team while the cousins that I was close to – the children of my much older siblings – played in the band. On Sundays my five older siblings would come over with their families and eat my dad’s brisket and my mama’s potato salad, or maybe it was fried chicken and squirrel fresh out of the Fry Daddy. We were always together though. Life was pretty Leave It To Beaver – folks waving every time they drive by and potlucks at long distance family reunions. It was kind of perfect.

Until it wasn’t.

Post author, Crystal Arriaga as a child in Houston. A G4J Board of Advisors member, Crystal was born the year after the bodies of Dean and Tina Clouse were discovered not far from where she grew up.

One weekend my cousin Jonathan’s girlfriend called me out of the blue. I assumed she was asking to come over to hang out with us, but instead I immediately noticed she was crying. Suddenly she blurted out,

“Hey, Jonathan just broke up with me and I thought it was only right to tell you that he isn’t your cousin, he’s your brother.”

So I soon came to understand that Daddy and Momma were in reality my grandfather and step-grandmother. What followed that earth-shattering day was a 23-year journey to learn and accept the truth of who I was. And like many adopted kids, as the truth was revealed, I did not get the luxury of the complete truth and full background knowledge of the nuances within my lineage. It was up to me to find it.

Here are a few things I learned the hard way that might help you in your own search:

The Beginning

Let’s start at the beginning – so what are your goals? What do you want to know? Do you want to build more ties with extended family? Look at your genetics for health reasons? Are you looking to attend new family reunions? Or do you simply and impartially want to know the basic facts of your story?

Maybe you envision meeting your long lost relatives that “slowly run into identical looking strangers’ arms” like in the movies.

Be prepared. Sometimes, uncovering documents and stories that connect the dots is more like, Maury, “YOU ARE NOT THE FATHER!” In my case, I was inspired to learn more about the Native American lineage I had been told I had. And there were surprises.

Preparing for the Search

When I say “search,” what that looks like can differ for each searcher and can be one avenue or a combination of them. Sometimes people hear a name growing up and find them on social media and reach out for answers. Others choose to disgustingly spit in a tube and send in their DNA to a vendor which automatically provides you with DNA matches. And there are several groups of search angels on the internet who help adoptees dig through legal channels as well.

For me, out of respect for my adopted family, I hired a genetic genealogist to be my confidential researcher.

Preparing the Family

Proper planning for a search like this means preparing yourself and your adopted family ahead of the actual searching. When you broach this subject with your adopted parent or parents, communicate your goals and your ideas for your journey with your adopted family. This will lessen the odds that they feel rejected, overlooked, or slighted.

If you come from a place of transparency, let them know that you love and respect them, and that you want to keep them in the loop, you might be surprised. In my case, I found that my mother was as intrigued as I was to know more about what made me, well, me.

Definitely keep telling them that your need to know comes from a place of love, not lack of love. No one wants to feel disrespected. Sometimes this search stirs up emotions that are an adopted parent’s worst nightmare, so keep your empathy superpowers handy. If you don’t fully prepare everyone that is affected by this search, the odds for this increases.

Digging In

The first thing in any case is to begin building a family tree with what you know, even if you think it’s virtually nothing. If you don’t go the professional genetic genealogist route, there are Facebook groups that can help you connect with search angels and provide tips to get you started.

In my case, and since it was an inter-family adoption, the professional I hired built out my family tree back 200 years based on what I was told. She soon suggested I do DNA. She analyzed my DNA results, scoured tons of documents, and would occasionally cold call or email folks to trace my lineage.

“Helllooooo….is it me you’re looking for?” (in my best Lionel Ritchie voice)

I don’t know if I could have made those calls and sent those messages. As the product of a side chick situation, I can just hear the conversation going something like, “Hi, soooo, I think your daddy is my daddy!”

That sounds like some crazy 21st century Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner situation, right? (That is the name of a movie GenX’ers. Google it).

I can only imagine the responses or lack of responses to these conversations may have left me feeling rejected, deated or not wanted – and maybe have led me to even stop my research. My genealogist allowed me to be removed from the too close to home situation and I was able to emotionally remove myself while still finding the truth, giving me and my new family members time to adjust. I will forever be grateful for her active and insanely diligent role in not stopping when she ran into an obstacle or hole in the family tree. And there were several.

Public Service Announcement

Realize that genealogy searching for adoptees is NOT for the faint of heart. Whatever your reason for going down this road, try to remember my two cents:

Searching doesn’t always equal solace.

Yet if done correctly, it can be a way of finding your true origin story and some identity finality. And this is powerful.

How I Feel Today

Words can’t describe how amazing it is to know who you are and where you come from. The result of my search was that I am now able to paint a clearer, more concise picture of who I am. It has made me appreciate my life so much more. Doing this helped initiate amazing conversations, clear the air, and shed light on almost 40-year-old misconceptions.

If you were blessed with amazing adopted parents, remember that these people chose you to be in their lives and raise you as their own. Believe me, I’ve learned in my own search that family is NOT always blood.

I know who I am and who raised me. In that way, this search didn’t change anything. You know, there are times when I feel I would give anything to not have answered the phone the day my life changed. I would give anything to go back 20 years and have the carefree feeling of running barefoot through the grass while Daddy washed his truck and Momma fried the chicken. Yet I wouldn’t give up what I know about myself now, nor the amazing new family relationships I’m building that supplement my own close, loving relationship with the mother who raised me.

Now I know the facts – and I have a much longer Christmas card list! And on top of that, by opting into law enforcement access of my data on GEDmatch, I have the comfort of knowing that even if it’s a long shot, one day my own journey might actually help bring justice or closure to a victim’s family.