In the age of the Internet, finding long-lost family members seems easier than ever. People have access to a wide range of services and databases that can aid them in the search—and what they turn up is often unexpected.
“I was trying to seek connections,” said Kate, 41. “I was posting on ancestry and genealogy forums to try and find my grandparents, and ended up finding other relatives instead.”
She characterized the experience as illuminating. “I found several cousins in the process of constructing my family tree. I also found my birth father, who abandoned me at two years old.”
Before you search for family members
The yearning to seek out unknown relatives is understandable, but sometimes it can yield disastrous results. That’s why it’s worthwhile to reach out to existing relatives to ask their opinion (they may not want that person to reappear), or to consider whether the relative you’re searching for wants to be found.
“I found my biological dad on Facebook,” said John, 32. “I considered connecting with him, but I stopped myself because this was a guy who didn’t even know or care about my existence. It just felt too weird because I’d never met him.”
The process was easy for John, since it occurred when Facebook didn’t have stringent privacy controls. “After that, Facebook added stronger privacy settings. When I went back to look at his profile, it had disappeared.”
“I found the postal address of where my birth dad worked,” said Emily, 23. “It helped that I knew what town he lived in—he’s quite successful, so it was easy for me to look him up on Facebook.” But when she reached out to him, she received a disappointing reply.
“He became less of an imaginary figure that left and he became vivid. Although there’s a virtual platform that I could use at any time, I don’t really feel like talking to him.”
How to find family members
Search existing databases
“We’re asked to find missing persons quite often,” said Adam*, a private investigator at Bray Associates, based in Rhode Island. “When we’re given a name, the first thing we do is plug that name into our electronic and digital databases, along with the address they were last known at. For instance, if they lived in Cincinnati ten years ago, that’s a pretty good lead for where to search.”
Genealogy websites are a great help, according to Adam. When combined with people search websites, they can oftentimes lead you to the exact location of the relative you’re looking for.
“Law firms are a good resource,” said Greg*, a private investigator at A Rated Investigations, a detective agency based in New Jersey. “Specialized databases help us find a person, especially if they have a unique name.”
What if they don’t? According to Greg, it’s much harder to find someone if you don’t possess any basic information on their home city or what their occupation is. “The more information we have on the person—any kind of information—the more likely it is that we can uncover something.”
Look up historical records
Census data, records of military service, and state archives are all helpful aids if you’re looking to trace someone, according to the U.S. government. You might turn up photos, recordings, even certificates; in essence, all kinds of materials that may help you figure out someone’s current whereabouts.
Historical records are a key part of finding relatives, said CJ Cabbil, 31. “There are no census records available for black Americans prior to the 1870s because it wasn’t a priority at the time,“ he said. He had to fall back to searching friend lists on social networking websites to find his extended family.
These records aren’t confined to websites, however, if you’re looking for a missing relative, you might want to search for clues in the homes of your grandparents—or other elders in your family.
Focus your hunt in the attic, basement, and drawers, suggests genealogy expert Megan Smolenyak (who famously traced Barack Obama’s Irish ancestry). She notes these are the places most likely to contain personal correspondence, diaries, or family memorabilia that can help you in your quest.
Door-to-door visits and phone calls
“Often, it’s a process of elimination,” Adam said. “If there are ten Angela Smiths living in a particular area, we might need to send one of our investigators to call them all—or even to knock on the door and figure out which Angela is ours.”
In general, private investigators usually resort to innovative strategies. “If the client doesn’t know the name of a city, we ask them about their childhood memories. Do they have any recollection of living in Rhode Island? Do they have connections there? If so, they might have friends or relatives there,” Adam said. “We try to find people who might know them, or who have known them in the past.”
He described the experience as “looking for pee on the street. You need an evidence trail of some kind.”
What happens once you’ve found the person you’re looking for?
“It depends on the purpose of the search,” Adam said. “For instance, if a mother is searching for her estranged son, and we think we’ve found him… we go back to the mother with that information, and usually leave it up to her to make contact.”
After all, the subject of missing family members can be a sensitive one—as Kate knows. “I started off the project with a feeling that I’d find someone who really cared about me,” she said. “But I learned my lesson—just because you’re related to someone doesn’t mean they’ll care about you, or even that they’ll treat you with warmth and civility.”
However, she is glad for the experience. “The research aspect of the genealogy was fun, and I would have regretted missing it. I wound up with answers—and a lot of pictures and stories I wouldn’t have otherwise.”