Genealogy

DNA testing helps Miami man find biological family

 

As prices plummet and interest in genealogy grows, more people are seeking out their history and extended family with the help of the Internet and technology.

aveciana-suarez@MiamiHerald.com

Andy Wenzel grew up in Key Biscayne always knowing he was adopted. It didn’t matter much to the parents who raised him or the grandparents who doted on him or the two older sisters who adored him — “I was just as special as everyone else” — until he arrived at that stage of life when he began asking the deep, hard questions of identity.

“In my early teens,” recalls Wenzel, now 43, “I started wondering, ‘What’s my story? Where do I come from?’ 

But it wasn’t until much later, when he was about to become a father for the first time, that he acted on this niggling curiosity. That 1997 request to open his adoption records was eventually turned down by a court, however, leaving him back where he had started: with a very brief description that his adoptive parents, Mike and Jean Wenzel, now of Brickell, had collected of his birth family from a social worker.

Some might have given up at that point, but Wenzel, who works as manager of support services for Kaba Workforce Solutions in Miramar, knew a thing or two about public records and databases. He launched a years-long quest that sent him to a private investigator, a disappointing dead end and too many false leads to mention.

In the end, it was a scientific breakthrough — the recent use of DNA to track genealogy — that got him answers. Following leads from the private investigator and then using DNA tests, he was able to establish with scientific certainty who his mother and half-siblings are. On Saturday, Wenzel, wife Juana Villa, and daughters Emily, 16, and Julia, 13, are flying to Denver to meet the oldest of his three half-siblings, sister Darien Harmer. Though his birth mother has closed the door to a meeting, he hopes she will eventually change her mind.

Wenzel’s reunion story is not unusual. More and more adoptees are finding a birth parent with the help of DNA testing companies. The technology that is changing medical care is also revolutionizing the growing field of genetic genealogy.

“For the last decade we’ve had many changes to how and what we can find out about our relatives and ancestors,” says CeCe Moore, founder of the Orange County-based company The DNA Detectives and a consultant to the PBS show, Finding Your Roots.

But websites like 23andMe that match relatives are only as good as number of people in their databases. It wasn’t until the prices for DNA tests dropped as low as $99 that the number of members jumped. Companies were quick to recognize an audience and began advertising, not just to adoptees but to the growing market of people interested in learning about their heritage.

“We didn’t see a lot happening right away,” Moore says, “but now we’ve hit critical mass. There are so many success stories. We have multiple people like Andy finding biological relatives every week.”

A word of caution, though. DNA still can’t solve some genealogical riddles. Moore and other genetic genealogists say solving cases still requires old-fashioned detective work.

“What we are looking for is patterns among those who share DNA with the adoptee — repeating surnames, geographic locations and, hopefully, ancestral couples,” Moore adds.

It is currently “very difficult” to find helpful matches for people who come from certain groups, such as Ashkenazi Jews and Mennonites.

“Due to the intermarriage that occurred over centuries among this isolated population and others like it, the descendants will share more … DNA than expected, making it difficult to determine how closely they are related in a recent time frame,” Moore says.

Wenzel is the first to admit he lucked out. He intensified his search at a time when technology and science merged to open potential pathways for adoptees like him. Though he has filled in his birth family tree on his biological maternal line, the paternal side has been more of a challenge. He still hopes to locate his birth father with the help of more testing. “If the tools did not exist today, my search for my birth father would be dead now,” he explains.

After the courts denied him access to his adoption records, Wenzel hired a private investigator who was able to get his birth mother’s surname. Using the Internet to find people, he built a spreadsheet of 107 names and then narrowed the possibilities to four women. He turned to an adoption search specialist in Texas who then identified one of these women as his mother. That woman did not reply to letters, though Wenzel said he made it clear that he wasn’t looking for a mother.

“My mom is the woman who raised me,” he says. “My parents are the parents who raised me, who taught me to walk and talk.”

Thanks to the Internet, Wenzel found where his birth mother worked and emailed her there. He knew he was the result of an extramarital affair, so he was not surprised by her curt denial and request not to be contacted again. He continued plugging away, and when he found three people he believed were his half-siblings, he contacted the oldest two through Facebook.

Only Harmer, 41, replied. Recently remarried and the mother of two, she had no idea that he existed. “It was a mixture of all these feelings. I wanted to know, but then I also thought it could be a scam. My mind was going 100 mph.”

She agreed to do her own DNA test, which confirmed the relationship. “I didn’t know about those tests, but I did it for him. I knew how much it meant to him.”

The revelation of Wenzel’s existence caused an uproar in the family, a fact that pains him. Harmer admits her mother grew “very defensive, very pissed off” when asked about Wenzel, which is one of the reasons Wenzel asked that her name not be published. “I have to respect the level of communication they do want,” he says.

Harmer and Wenzel, however, have continued exchanging texts and emails since their first contact earlier this year. When they meet for the first time Saturday, they will be surrounded by their children and spouses. They’ve planned dinner at a restaurant and a possible brother-and-sister hike in Estes Park, located in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Harmer already likes her newfound brother’s attitude. “He had a great upbringing. He feels he was very lucky and he’s thankful for that.”

Harmer now wants her children, her husband, his two children and her extended family to get their DNA tested. “I would have never thought to get DNA tests before Andy came into my life.”

Wenzel said he decided to go public with his search because he knows there are others like him. “I’d like other adoptees to know they have these capabilities, too,” he says.

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