Photograph courtesy of Colleen Fitzpatrick
Prior Use of the Term Forensic Genealogy
On Wednesday, my inbox included a blog posting from Michael Hait about forensic genealogy in which Michael Hait interviewed Leslie Lawson, President of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy http://michaelhait.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/forensic-genealogy/. What struck me was that the council’s approach negated the prior use of the term “forensic genealogy.” We have discussed this term in the Forensic Genealogy group on LinkedIn (disclosure: I manage the group). When the narrow definition of the term was used there, many genealogists stepped forward to defend the prior and broader use of the term. In other words, the council's definition doesn't hold water with many in the field.
As background, please understand that genealogists have been aiding in probate work and missing heir work for decades. During that period of time it was called probate or missing heir work. The first use of the term “forensic genealogy” was in a book title for a work by
Colleen Fitzpatrick, Ph.D. Colleen was an explorer in previously uncharted territory. She used extreme analytic skills in discovering information in photographs, DNA, and databases. Colleen was not narrowly discussing probate work when she coined the term Forensic Genealogy. When my friend Sharon Sergeant broke a few fraud cases involving the publishing industry, she was being a forensic genealogist. She analyzed photographs and documents in different languages to discover the truth.
The popularity of television shows in which laboratory work establishes guilt or innocence has given the term forensic a new cachet. Just because those shows are legal and police procedurals does not mean that genealogists doing work affiliated with lawyers suddenly get to appropriate the term solely for themselves and to exclude all other uses. Nonetheless, in my opinion, this is what the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy appears to be doing when it narrowly re-defines the term to mean only work done for lawyers. The council states that it defined its terminology through discussions with lawyers but that doesn't make the terminology accepted in the genealogy field or widely in the legal field. Our LinkedIn list has anecdotal reports that many lawyers do not recognize the term.
Interview with Forensic Genealogy Instructor Melinde Lutz Byrne
I have turned to a friend, Melinde Lutz Byrne, CG, FASG. Melinde’s forensic career goes back three decades. She is President of the American Society of Genealogists and Director of the
1. What is "forensic genealogy"?
Melinde: Forensic genealogy is the study of identity and kinship in legal contexts.
Colleen: Forensic Genealogy has been called "CSI meets Roots". It is the application of forensic investigative techniques to solving genealogical mysteries.
2. What is the difference in methodology between forensic genealogy and traditional "ancestral" genealogy?
Melinde: Most forensic genealogy is done in the present, so modern applications of standard methodologies may be unfamiliar - for instance the technique of "follow the neighbors" takes on a new meaning when you can let your fingers do the walking and just call them for an interview. Likewise, there are serious ethical and legal considerations having to do with researching living people - something frequently a part of forensic genealogy. The ancient dead rarely decide to stalk you for disturbing their rest, but living subjects can be receptive, suspicious, or . . . homicidal when approached.
Colleen: A forensic genealogist uses an expanded set of tools to answer questions that sometimes lie beyond the bounds of conventional family research. A forensic genealogist is more interested in the "big picture" and not just in specific family data.
For example, using conventional genealogical methodology, I traced my mother's family to a small village in France in the mid 1600s. In recording the birth records for my ancestors, I noticed the village birth rate grew steadily over time until it suddenly dropped to nearly zero in 1674. It remained this way until 1684, when it just as suddenly went back to normal levels, as if it had never been interrupted. My curiosity about what could have caused this unusual pattern led me to study childbirth practices of the 1600s, the reconstruction of 500-1000 year old weather records, and to compare the diet of the upper classes to that of the peasants in the 17th century. I discovered the cause of the phenomena was ergot, a fungus that grows on rye under certain weather conditions. Ergot is the original source of LSD and has been cited as the cause of the Bubonic Plaque and the Salem Witch Trials.
I started out to record the birth records of my ancestors. I ended up discovering my ancestoral village had been on LSD for ten years. That's forensic genealogy.
3. What are some of the issues that forensic genealogists confront?
Melinde: Perhaps the most serious issue is that of professional respect. Since formal instruction in this field is extremely limited and no credentialing body or licensing procedures exist, forensic genealogists encounter more than their share of detractors and often struggle to establish expert status for credibility or appropriate pay rates.
Colleen: Adoptees searching for birth parents, the military, law enforcement agencies, attorneys, the Holocaust community, clients searching for missing friends and relatives.
4. Who are the most common clients of forensic genealogists?
Melinde: Many forensic genealogy firms refer work to subcontractors with regional experience or geographic advantages. Some Public Administrators send cases to forensic researchers. Some forensic genealogists are sole proprietors. Police departments will work with forensic genealogists in some cases. Some probate attorneys will employ forensic genealogists to locate missing heirs or compile lists of heirs-at-law. Some oil companies hire forensic genealogists to track ownership of mineral and other tangible rights. Real estate speculators may employ forensic genealogists to track title to land. Collectors of photographs, military memorabilia, or art will employ forensic genealogists to track chain of ownership of these objects. Estates, such as the Howard Hughes estate, may hire one or more forensic genealogist (such as the late Mary Fay, FASG, from Texas) to settle conflicting claims. Forensic genealogists have for several decades been employed to locate next of kin of MIA or KIA service members - by the Department of Defense or subsets of each of the branches of the service. Rarely will insurance companies employ a forensic genealogist to find beneficiaries - something they should do more of and will be forced to do in the near future if state legislatures have their way.
Colleen: The scope and difficulty of the research and the creative thinking required is more than greatly undervalued. In my recent Scientific American article on the Hand in the Snow case, I balanced the contribution made by the managers of the program, the DNA experts, the fingerprints experts, and the forensic genealogists (myself and Chriss Lyon). When the French version of the article was published, the genealogists role was reduced to a comment that we looked through church records to locate a family in Ireland. The editor explained this away by citing the difficulty in translating the complicated investigation methods into French in a compact way to fit into the space allocated for the article. His explanation was stunning considering i was not only the forensic genealogist on the case, I was also the author of the article, the DNA identification could not have been done without me, I answered numerous questions for the editor about the DNA methods used, and I speak French almost fluently.
5. What preparation should genealogists do in order to specialize in forensic genealogy?
Melinde: Practice, practice, practice. Work with a licensed, bonded practitioner. Always locate an attorney with whom to work - never operate as a forensic genealogist without an officer of the court between you and the client - especially if that client is seeking a birth parent or surrendered child. If you work missing heir cases, remember that there is a reason why the heir is missing and it is not always something pretty.
Colleen: Find an interesting mystery that no one has been able to solve, and go the extra mile to solve it.
Colleen: Find an interesting mystery that no one has been able to solve, and go the extra mile to solve it.
6. What advice would you give a genealogist who is considering a career in forensic genealogy?
Melinde: Find a successful forensic genealogist and ask questions. Make sure your ethics are in the right place. Take proper steps to preserve your anonymity before you start to practice - one sociopathic client or heir can ruin your day. Get appropriate legal advice relative to local and distant laws. If you are uncomfortable speaking directly to living subjects, this probably is not for you.
Upcoming Educational Opportunities in Forensic Genealogy
One thing that has become clear in the last few years is that the modern genealogist believes in education. Institutes, online classes, webinars, national and regional conventions, and local seminars and study groups are all ways in which aspiring genealogists learn to excel. Here are a few upcoming chances to learn more about forensic genealogy.
The Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy has an institute 25-27 October 2012 in Dallas, Texas, for $400 for non-CAFG members, $350 for CAFG members. It is presented by Michael Ramage, JD, CG; Kevin Meyers; Leslie Brinkley Lawson; and Dee Dee King, CG. It has filled for this year. http://www.forensicgenealogists.com/forensic-genealogy-institute.html
Boston University's Center for Professional Education will be presenting Advanced Forensic Genealogy this summer, 30 July-3 August 2012. It will be presented by Colleen Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.; and Mary Ann Boyle, Ph.D., CG, and costs $795. Registration is still open, but students must have completed the Boston University Genealogical Research Certificate Program "or have comparable experience." http://professional.bu.edu/schedule/course-details.asp?CID=15436&dept=CPE
In association with Boston University, the Utah Genealogical Association's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy will present a track on Principles of Forensic Genealogy, taught by Melinde Lutz Byrne, CG, FASG; Colleen Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.; and Mary Ann Boyle, Ph.D., CG. It is 14-18 January 2013 and costs $400 for non-UGA members and $350 for UGA members. Registration opens on June 2nd, at 9:00 AM Mountain time. http://ugagenealogy.org/cpage.php?pt=210
Citation format: Barbara Jean Mathews, "A Response to 'What Is Forensic Genealogy?'" The Demanding Genealogist, posted 25 May 2012; http://demandinggenealogist.blogspot.com/2012/05/response-to-what-is-forensic-genealogy.html : accessed [date].
 Michael Hait, “What is forensic genealogy?” Planting the Seeds, posted
23 May 2012;  http://michaelhait.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/forensic-genealogy/ : accessed 23 May 2012.
 Discussion threads on the LinkinIn Forensic Genealogy Group: "Can we define forensic genealogy?” started by me, http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Can-we-define-forensic-genealogy-4373802.S.103940132?qid=5ec8b891-d503-46d5-a1ee-c058057f96eb&trk=group_items_see_more-0-b-ttl ; and “This definition on APG list 4 years ago. Adopted by the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy. Forensic genealogy is research, analysis, and reporting in cases with legal implications” started by Dee Dee King http://www.linkedin.com/groups/This-definition-on-APG-list-4373802.S.104701875?qid=8e8a3619-d481-40e7-9384-2869bb9ff237&trk=group_most_popular-0-b-ttl&goback=%2Egmp_4373802. Note that my response to Dee Dee points out that there were many points of view in the APG discussion and that the definition was not adopted by any body, including APG. The APG list discussion also postdates the Fitzpatrick book.
 Colleen Fitzpatrick, Forensic Genealogy (Rice Book Press, 2005); see http://www.amazon.com/Forensic-Genealogy-Colleen-Fitzpatrick/dp/0976716003/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1337801385&sr=8-1 .
 Caleb Daniloff, “Untrue Stories – A Genealogist Reveals the Truth about Three Holocaust Memoirs: They’re Fiction,” Bostonia, Summer 2009, 32-37; http://www.bu.edu/bostonia/summer09/hoax/ : accessed
23 May 2012.
 LinkedIn Forensic Genealogy Group discussion “Taking an informal poll,” started by Liesa Heally-Miller, http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Taking-informal-poll-4373802.S.113825103?qid=43e923fc-adb3-48f7-8ae4-bbadf1325c64&trk=group_most_popular-0-b-ttl&goback=%2Egmp_4373802 .