Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Response to "What Is Forensic Genealogy?"

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[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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 Boston University Genealogical Research Certificate Program, where she also teaches in the Forensic module. Melinde has graciously answered four of the five questions that Michael posed to Leslie, as well as additional questions about preparation and advice. While Melinde draws a larger circle around what constitutes forensic genealogy, she does point out how important it is to work with lawyers when legal issues are involved. Then, just to put the frosting on the cake, I asked Colleen for a few ideas as well.

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.

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.

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."

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.

Citation format: Barbara Jean Mathews, "A Response to 'What Is Forensic Genealogy?'" The Demanding Genealogist, posted 25 May 2012; : accessed [date].

[1] Michael Hait, “What is forensic genealogy?” Planting the Seeds, posted 23 May 2012; [1] : accessed 23 May 2012.

[2] Discussion threads on the LinkinIn Forensic Genealogy Group: "Can we define forensic genealogy?” started by me, ; 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 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.

[4] Caleb Daniloff, “Untrue Stories – A Genealogist Reveals the Truth about Three Holocaust Memoirs: They’re Fiction,” Bostonia, Summer 2009, 32-37; : accessed 23 May 2012.

[5] LinkedIn Forensic Genealogy Group discussion “Taking an informal poll,” started by Liesa Heally-Miller, .


  1. OK - I thought I had caught a glimpse of what this field is really all about when I read Michael's post (which I appreciated), but this just opened the doors of understanding right us for me. Thank you for doing a follow-up post!

  2. Barbara, you said, "...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."

    Where do you see CAFG using that definition? The CAFG definition posted on the website is, "Forensic genealogy is genealogical research, analysis, and reporting in cases with legal implications." I don't see that as being very different from Melinde's definition, "Forensic genealogy is the study of identity and kinship in legal contexts." I do see it as very different from the definition you attributed to CAFG, without citing a source.

    Members of CAFG do forensic work with a much broader scope than working for lawyers. Members do work for the military, law enforcement, coroners, the National Parks Service, and others. I really think that our areas of agreement are much broader and are differences are much fewer than one might think from some discussions. I think that which unites us is greater than that which divides us. The field is new and evolving, and we can all gain much from taking a collaborative stance with our colleagues.

    Other than the point regarding the definition, I thank you for continuing the discussion that Michael began on his blog. Let's keep talking!

    I am a board member of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy, but I want to point out that I am only speaking for myself, not in any official capacity of the board.

    Cathi Desmarais CG
    Stone House Historical Research

  3. That's a good point, Cathi. And a true point.

    But the council's focus on how one gets reimbursed for missing heir or probate work does eliminate a number of people who have been practicing in this field for decades.

    The constraint of the definition itself also eliminates the interesting investigative work done by people in DNA and photographic analysis as well.

    You do, though, bring up a good point. I was not accurately reflecting the definition on the council's website.

    Thank you. I do appreciate the feedback.

  4. I too have observed that some folks who have absolutely no "inside" knowledge of CAFG are attributing details to CAFG that simply are not there.

    It's interesting that this article only has interviews from two friends of the author and did not offer balance by interviewing "the other side."

    The CAFG definition does not in any way negate prior definitions - as Cathi mentioned, it is almost identical to Melinde's. Research, analysis, and reporting is the very basis of genealogy. Forensic is work that the legal community describes as work for the courts or legal issues. Yes, photo ID and DNA work are vital components of some forensic work, but in and of themselves are not THE definition of forensic genealogy. Some forensic practitioners will have work assignments that utilize those skills, and many practitioners may never have the need to utilize photo ID or DNA.

    My observation has been that the quibbling over the definition is not so much about the definition as it about the contingency fee issue. CAFG is a private, nonprofit business league. Business leagues are groups of people with common business interests. IRS defines business leagues, and thus awards nonprofit status, to organizations with common business interests. Business interests.

    The common business interest of CAFG is research, analysis and reporting in cases with legal implications. One of the common business interests is that the members work to the standards of expert witnesses. If there are exceptions, we haven't found any yet - In almost every jurisdiction it is illegal for an attorney to hire an expert witness on a contingency fee basis.

    There are two kinds of witnesses, the lay or general, perhaps called disinterested, and the expert. The first can only testify about what they personally experienced, observed or have knowledge of. The expert must be qualified before the court based on education, training and experience above that of the common lay person. Working to the standards recognized across this country for expert witnesses helps place forensic genealogists on the same page with other professionals that the legal community relies upon.


  5. Part II

    Another common business interest is that we do not work on a percentage-sharing basis with attorneys. We do not work for an attorney who asks us to go out and ID then recruit potential heirs for that attorney, for which the attorney will pay us a percentage of his percentage received from each heir. It is illegal and unethical in every single state for attorneys to fee-split or fee-share to anyone but other attorneys. That is, or should be, an ethical consideration for the genealogist.

    Basically, CAFG and Melinde and Colleen are in agreement on their responses 1-5. There is no disagreement about these issues which have been attributed to CAFG.

    The disagreement is about accepting payment on contingency. That practice is banned in some jurisdictions, regulated in many, and under scrutiny for more regulation or proposed elimination in other jurisdictions. Some US states and many countries have banned contingency as champerty. One of the common business interests of CAFG is that members avoid contingency or "spec" work.

    CAFG is a BUSINESS LEAGUE, it sets standards for its MEMBERS, it sets definitions for the common business interests of its members. Just like any other business league or association, it has the right to set its own definitions and interests. As with all business leagues and associations, there will be people who disagree with the membership requirements or other components. That is their right, but their right to disagree does not negate the rights of the association.

    Everyone has the right to express their opinion. However, I would ask everyone to be mindful that open discussion not degenerate into a campaign of negative comments on the internet, either with the intent, or the outcome, of intermeddling in the business affairs of CAFG that could be construed as tortious interference.

    How about some constructive, balanced discussions for a change about all the good features of CAFG. Ground-breaking features in the world of professional genealogy?
    It's objectives:
    Advance public awareness and understanding of the profession.

    Encourage broader use of the services of qualified forensic genealogists.

    Promote and maintain high standards of professional and ethical conduct.

    Encourage best practices in client services and business models.

    Promote interchange of information among members through electronic forums, trade publications, meetings, and seminars.

    Provide education and training for professional advancement of membership.

    Assist fellow members in professional development though mentorship, full membership, credentialing, and awarding of fellowships.

    Influence legislation that impacts the profession or the ability to access public records.

    It's mentor program and career ladder opportunities. The fact that CAFG requires proof of actual experience and education for members. The fact that CAFG is developing a campaign to make more legal, governmental and business communities aware that there are qualified professional genealogists available.

    I look forward to that discussion.

    best regards to all,

    Dee Dee King
    who is speaking on behalf of herself, not offically for CAFG

  6. Dee Dee,

    It is disingenuous to ignore that – ever since the establishment of the council – genealogists have been taking the council’s definition to task. The conversations on the Forensic Group on LinkedIn are not the first example of this. Dick Eastman's initial online newsletter announcement about the council's formation ended up with just this very discussion. See

    Dick Eastman, "What is Forensic Genealogy?" _Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter_, posting 20 July 2011; : accessed 24 May 2012.

    The comments there (even your own comments) pretty much mirror the discussion here.


  7. I am not ignoring the very small number of people who are "taking the definition to task." I am trying my best to acknowledge and respond to them.

    Let's get our facts straight. Mr. Eastman's article to which reference is made was sparked, not because of the CAFG definition - but because a definition was inadvertently left off the CAFG website when some pages were moved around. Mr. Eastman published a press release from CAFG announcing it's formation. The press release contained links to the CAFG website. A last minute change to the website caused the CAFG definition to disappear from the site.

    When one or more of Mr. Eastman's readers responded with questions about the definition of forensic genealogy not being on the CAFG website. Mr. Eastman looked around on the internet and found information on DNA and photo ID, which were the main topics of his interpretation of forensic genealogy in his follow up to the original article.

    When I sent Mr. Eastman a response with the CAFG definition, a lengthier discussion on the meaning of forensic genealogy, and examples of forensic work, Mr. Eastman graciously offered to run the info provided. The decision was made not to submit because the forensic topic had already waned with Mr. Eastman's vibrant blog moving on to several other topics. Also, some of the info had already been posted as comments.

    The definition and a couple of other errant parts of the website were put back onto the updated pages. I publicly apologized to the readers of Mr. Eastman's blog for the inconvenience
    and took responsibility for the website error.

    Yes, a couple of vocal opponents were there then as now. Yes, there are still people who have no idea or incorrect ideas, or differing ideas of what foresic genealogy is.

    Again, CAFG's defintions are for the purpose of a business league of professionals with the same business interests.

    Were I a betting person, I'd lay odds that if CAFG changed it's defintion from "Forensic genealogy is genealogical research, analysis, and reporting in cases with legal implications" to Melinde's definition of "Forensic genealogy is the study of identity and kinship in legal contexts" that would still not stop the couple of people whose only comments about CAFG are negative. It's not the definition, it's the contingency issue.

    best regards,
    Dee Dee King

  8. You are correct that the contingency issue is one of the issues. This is because it fences off much of the legal and probate work. I'm not sure what it does to Unclaimed Bodies or to John/Jane Doe identification.

    However, if you changed the wording on the website of CAFG, I'd still draw issue. The reason for this is that I think the definition itself is still too narrow.

    My point of view is that genealogy as a whole would profit through increased knowledge if the "CSI meets Roots" aspect of forensic genealogy were more widespread. I think that a definition that eliminates the photographic analysis, DNA, and detailed database/analytic work is a disservice to all genealogists.

    Yours, Barbara

  9. Barbara, where does CAFG "eliminates the photographic analysis, DNA, and detailed database/analytic work"???

    Those are certainly skills forensic genealogists use and should have in their tool box. What true professional genealogist doesn't use detailed database/analytic work?

    Please help me to understand, are you saying that if one uses
    detailed database/analytic work that this makes you a forensic genealogist?

    I don't understand how you make some of your leaps about CAFG. CAFG's website mentions DNA, there are references to deep research and analysis beyond that of amateur genealogists or lay persons.

    In educational courses across this country we see references to data mining, the FAN Club, deep research, unusual sources, etc. Use of these sources and skilled analysis are the basis of some existing credentialing. These references for quality genealogical results never offer that these are the domain of forensic genealogists, at least in my experience.

    The CAFG standard does not "fence off much of the legal and probate work." Please tell me how CAFG's common interests among it's members keeps you or anyone else fenced off from legal and probate work. It doesn't. CAFG's standards are for those who voluntarily choose to take that path and avoid possible pitfalls associated with contingency work.

    The initial response to CAFG was generally positive and continues to be. Melinde raised a differing point of view when the press release went out. There has not been a ground swell within the genealogical community to protest CAFG or the definition. I can count on one hand the two people who continually pounce on CAFG every time it is mentioned and the other couple of people who have been critical of CAFG, those being contingency-based heir searchers.

    best regards,

    who is in a hurry and didn't use spell-checker.

  10. Dee Dee,

    I believe that CAFG's definition places some people practicing forensic genealogy outside of the narrow professional activities portrayed on the website. I think that narrow definition is detrimental to genealogy as a whole. I think that genealogy would be enriched if it included in its methodology those elements of analysis that are unrelated to legal work.

    The forensic work of Maureen Taylor, for example, in identifying people in photographs is not related to legal issues. Hence, not "forensic" in the CAFG definition. Nor is the hoax-busting that Sharon Sergeant did on the Holocaust frauds.

    I think the definition promulgated by CAFG is narrow. I also think the broader definition pre-dates the CAFG version.

    Each time this topic comes up, a number of people comment on it. I think you are dismissing these comments too easily. Not all of the commenters are my friends; and not all the comments are coming from the same people.

    That said, you are welcome to have your own business affiliation. Because its name sounds as if it encompasses the whole field -- when it doesn't -- it is likely that you will continue to receive comments in much the same vein as the ones on Dick Eastman's blog, the ones in the Forensic Genealogy group on LinkedIn, and the ones I personally made in my blog posting. If your group were called "Central Texas Legally Involved Genealogists," for example, it is unlikely that we would take the redefinition of forensic genealogy so seriously.

    Yours, Barbara

  11. Barbara, my last post on this. The comments are not dismissed. CAFG has revisted some issues based on outside comments and some adjustments have been made and others are under consideration. Just as responsible leadership analyzes all aspects of an endeavor, so does CAFG look both internally and externally.

    It is your opinion that the name sounds as if it encompasses the whole field. That is not the opinion of everyone who has provided feedback. Or the legal community focus folks, one of whom actually suggested that name.

    For the umpteenth time, CAFG has "as defined by CAFG," and other for-the-purposes-of CAFG type statements incorpoarated thoughout the website. No where does CAFG say CAFG has the only definition or only standards of the genealogical world or forensic world. We're not redefining anything - where was a universally accepted definition of forensic genealogy that predates CAFG?

    I have not been following Taylor's work with photos enough to comment on your insistance that it does not qualify according CAFG - which never made that statement, by the way. Sharon's hoax-busting genealogical work is, of couse, forensic work - there certainly were legal implications.

    It's clear that you have made up your mind and that our explanations or discussions will not change that. That is OK.

    I have to grin at "Central Texas Legally Involved Genealogists". None of those associated with CAFG are in Central Texas. The professionals are from several states, both genders, heavy on already credentialed in the field of genealogy. A business league of those who work to the standard of expert witness.

    I'll look forward to that balanced discussion of the other aspects of CAFG.

    best regards,