More than 18 million Americans have mailed in their saliva to commercial genetics labs in hopes of retracing their roots and uncovering clues about their family trees. News4 spoke to a Northern Virginia mother who took three genetic tests to connect with long-lost relatives — and the ending changed everything she thought she knew about herself.
Julee Newberger's parents took the secret of her adoption to their grave.
“I was adopted at birth, but it was a family secret. A cousin came and told me that there was something that she felt that I had the right to know,” Newberger said.
And so began the journey to find her birth parents.
“At that time, I was interested in having a child of my own and for that reason and others, I really wanted to learn more about my ancestry and health history.”
With her adoption records sealed, Newberger turned to at-home DNA test kits for clues.
She sent in a tube of spit to three major DNA test companies: 23andMe, AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA. Her results then went into each company's database for possible matches.
“So, this chart shows each of my cousins' chromosomes and where we overlap," Newberger said while showing her results to News4.
Six months after sending off her DNA, she finally got a close match. It was her uncle.
“He was relatively anonymous, but through some Google searching and kind of amateur detective work, I was able to figure out who he was.”
As Julee poured over the complicated strands of her family's DNA, she tracked down more relatives and, finally, connected with her biological mother by phone.
“I think the first thing she said to me was, ‘Julee, I was 15 when I got pregnant.’"
It turned out her parents were high school sweethearts, but they weren't ready to raise a baby.
“I think when I first saw a picture of my birth dad — that's when I knew it was real.”
Newberger's parents went their separate ways after putting her up for adoption.
But their love story wasn't done yet.
“Later on in life, they found each other again and got back together and got married. So, they had two children of their own. My full biological brother and sister,” Newberger said.
At one point, her biological family and her adoptive family were living just a few miles apart in New York.
“There are many possibilities for us having crossed paths," Newberger said. “The fact that they had tried to find me and we were so close together, you know, but weren't able to. It's just incredible that we had to go through this.”
And the DNA test revealed more than a new family.
"In my adoptive family, I had been told that I was Russian, German, Polish and raised in a Jewish family," Newberger said.
But the tests revealed she was primarily Italian.
"So, that was a big shock because you know when you grow up feeling this kinship with a group of people and then you find out that that's not really who you are."
Newberger’s search had a happy ending, but she knows that it could’ve gone much differently.
“I know that it opens up doors to conversations and family secrets that people may not be ready to talk about and hear about.”
Newberger said the benefits of finding her family outweighed any privacy concerns.
Her biological parents have since passed away, but she's maintained a relationship with her brother and sister.
All this week News4 is looking into home DNA test kits. Watch News4 at 5 and 6 p.m. on Tuesday for a closer look at how police are using DNA to crack cold cases and why your genetic information be examined even if you have never take one of the tests.