With criminal investigators increasingly relying on DNA to solve crimes—including cold cases like the Golden State Killer and Le Grêlé, two infamous serial rapists and murderers who went undetected for decades, the demand for the skills of forensic genealogists has been steadily growing.
And, for those who believe film is a good barometer of a career’s popularity, producers have recently given us shows like The Genetic Detective, a documentary based on real-life forensic genealogist CeCe Moore who helped law enforcement officials solve more than 50 cold cases.
But what does it really take to become a professional forensic genealogist?
While many people have embarked on genealogical research to trace their own family’s history, the transition to a career in forensic genealogy requires a commitment that takes it to an entirely different level.
Exploring forensic genealogy fields in crime solving
Genealogists can find work in numerous areas, including their researcher for legal cases, historic preservationists, citizenship reclamation specialist,s and military repatriation experts. However, for those who want to pursue forensic genealogy in the crime-solving field, roles such as a private investigator or as investigative genetic genealogist can be fulfilling.
Exploring forensic genealogy fields
Forensic genealogists, which is the study of ancestry in legal cases. can find work in numerous areas, including their researcher for legal cases, historic preservationist, citizenship reclamation specialist, and military repatriation expert. However, for those who want to pursue forensic genealogy in the crime-solving field, roles such as a private investigator or as investigative genetic genealogist can be fulfilling.
As a forensic genealogist, there is a good chance that you would diversify your work. For instance, many forensic genealogists may work for clients ranging from law firms and attorneys to financial institutions and estate administrators, helping them investigate genealogies for cases like inheritances, missing persons or identification of the birth parents of adoptees.\
The work must be comprehensive enough that their clients are able to present their cases in court with confidence.
Here are a few responsibilities you will undertake as a forensic genealogist:
- Research birth and census records at local offices of records, The National Archives and Records Administration, and other government agencies.
- Research other documents, including land records and court records
- Conduct interviews with people relevant to your search
- Research online databases
- Gather and analyze DNA evidence
- Analyze current and historic photographs for clues
- Present and defend your work in legal proceedings
Crime-solving specializations in forensic genealogy
If you prefer to stick to the crime-solving end of forensic genealogy, then a career as an investigative genetic genealogist—or forensic genetic genealogist, as they’re sometimes called, is an option that’s increasingly in demand.
In this role, the genealogist has a deep understanding of the science behind how genetic and genealogical research reveals critical clues in the criminal investigation of crime and the identification of human remains.
They may use DNA profiles from human remains or blood from a crime scene to match them with other genetic DNA profiles, or at least identify them with close familial matches that narrow down the possibilities of who the victim or perpetrator may be.
The DNA evidence that led to the arrest and conviction of Joseph James DeAngelo, who became known as the Golden State Killer for a crime spree during the ‘70s and ‘80s that included at least 13 murders, 50 rapes and 120 break-ins throughout California. Old DNA samples from the crime scenes were pulled out and matched against current DNA data in GEDMatch, an online database of about 1 million profiles that is free and open to the public.
The investigators were able to match the DNA from the crime scene to narrow down the number of possible matches. Then they used other records, location and data, including the suspected current age of the criminal to further eliminate the possibilities until they came up with a match with DeAngelo, who is now serving a life sentence.
Since DeAngelo’s arrest in 2018, more than 100 more cold cases have been solved using the same process of elimination using DNA profiles. In many of these cases, law enforcement agencies hire genealogy consultants to help identify the criminals and victims.
The career path of an expert investigative genetic genealogist
If you’re convinced that you want to become a genetic genealogist, you will discover that there are many pathways to a job in this field, especially since it is relatively new—about 20 years. Also, as with other careers, there are many levels you can reach as you gain more and more expertise and recognition.
For instance, Andrea Noyes recently took on a position as an investigative genetic genealogist and co-managing director at Innovative Forensic DNA, one of the nation’s leading investigative forensic firms.
Before joining Innovative Forensic, Noyes had earned degrees in law enforcement technology and public administration and completed a professional certificate in genetics and genomics at Stanford University. Noyes also worked for the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy before working on cases involving unknown parentage search, using genetic genealogy and traditional research to successfully identify lineage.
She went on to become an investigative genetic genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs, which specializes in areas like advanced DNA technology in genetic genealogy, DNA phenotyping and kinship analysis to generate leads. In that role, she helped law enforcement solve numerous cold cases.
Taking the professional route
With you don’t need to earn a college degree to get started as a genetic genealogist but you do need to be committed to understanding the complexities of genealogical research methods to solve crimes or trace the path of a missing person, as well as pass the certification and licensing needed to practice in many states.
And that demands undergoing training through higher education programs and trade associations and staying abreast of the latest tools and developments in areas like DNA research. If you plan to work as an independent forensic genealogist, you also need to gain an understanding of marketing and business skills.
If you have high aspirations, you may want to consider a degree in genetics, biology or bioinformatics. Many companies want to hire employees with a college degree. But you also can be dedicated to learning about the field through association conferences which offer workshops, personal study and working with more experienced forensic genealogists.
It also is important to undergo certification to become a professional.
The Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), a nonprofit institution that was established in 1964, promotes ethics and standards that are nationally and internationally recognized. In addition to numerous publications to educate genealogists, the organization also provides a certification program.
You will find that the BCG offers many courses and lectures at national conferences, seminars and webinars. You also can get started with building your knowledge by reading its publications Genealogy Standards and The BCG Application Guide, a newsletter called OnBoard and content on SpringBoard, its blog.
As part of the BCG certification process, students will submit work samples as a portfolio that will be reviewed by three to four independent evaluators. The organization offers different certifications, depending upon the prospective practitioners’ interest.
Other online opportunities for learning about genetic genealogy include the following blogs and associations:
- International Society of Genetic Genealogy
- The Legal Genealogist
- Legacy Tree Genealogists
- National Genealogical Society
- Your Genetic Genealogist
Investing in a forensic genealogist career
With forensic genealogy gaining recognition, especially with the emergence of DNA advancements to solve crime, you can be confident that this is a field that will continue to grow in years to come.
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