Ha-Shilth-Sa reporter turns DNA sleuth to solve family mystery

By Shayne Morrow, March 20, 2017

Denise Titian will all her research tools for finding her biological father.

Photo by Shayne Morrow

Port Alberni — 

It’s hard to go through life not quite knowing who you are, according to Ha-Shilth-Sa reporter Denise Titian.

Now, after a years-long search that included multiple DNA tests and online networking, she is preparing to meet her long-lost birth father.

What Titian knew for sure was that she was born in Seattle in 1962, and that her mother, June August, was a member of Ahousaht First Nation. It was only after her mother was struck and killed by a car in 1969 that she discovered that the man she knew as her father was actually her stepfather, and that her two siblings were half-brothers.

“My mom moved down to the States right after leaving the [Alberni Indian] Residential School. She went berry picking and never came back. She loved it there,” Titian said.

“She was a feisty woman and she just ran away. She was feisty, and she had a big spirit.”

Titian said her mother was married at the time of her death and that she had born two sons.

“I had been to Canada for visits, so I knew my family there. [June’s] two sisters came down for the funeral, and they took me back with them. Only me. Not my brothers. And I didn’t understand why.”

And that is when she found out that her father was not her birth father. That left the nagging question of who her real father was, and she asked many questions over the years.

“I asked my stepfather. I thought if anyone would know, he would. But he claimed no knowledge.”

Her stepfather passed away in 2011. But by that time, she was already building a paper trail. Early in the new century, she sent for her birth records from Harborview Hospital in Seattle.

“There was nothing. On my birth certificate, where it says ‘father’, there is ‘none named.’”

Titian quotes the doctor’s handwritten notation: “Was born June 29, 1962 to a 21-year-old Indian girl.”

Titian was familiar with the use of forensic DNA in criminal investigations. So when private DNA testing became available for purposes of family tracing, she started studying up online.

At the same time, she also sent for her mother’s AIRS school records. That was when she discovered yet another surprise.

“That showed that my birth certificate was not an original. My first name had been changed, but I was unable to find out what it was, because they said all the original records had been destroyed.”

Titian subsequently discovered that her original first name was Janet. She remembered being referred to as Janet when she was very little. And she didn’t like it.

In January 2013, Titian ordered a GENO 2.0 DNA kit from the National Geographic Geno project at a cost of $200.

“That was the wrong thing to do. It was not for what I wanted,” she said.  “It traced my ‘ancestral journey,’ but it was a little too far back for what I needed.”

“Far back” was 500 to 10,000 years. Titian discovered that she was “40 per cent Native American, 26 per cent Northern European, 15 per cent Mediterranean, 10 per cent Southwest Asian and seven per cent Northeast Asian.”

The program graphic outlined the likely route her distant ancestors had travelled, but brought her no closer to the identity of her father.

The next step was to transfer the GENO data to the Family Tree DNA (a $60 fee) in January 2014. For a further $60 fee, she signed on to the family finder network.

“That’s when I started seeing names pop up. But they were so distantly related that I couldn’t make connections. It will tell you second- to fourth- to fifth- to ‘distant-cousins.’ But if you can’t get any closer than second [cousins], it’s extremely unlikely you’re going to find anybody.”

Titian also joined the GED Match network (free).

“Also, for Christmas in 2013, my husband got me a 23 & Me kit ($120). That one focuses on your medical stuff.”

While Titian was unable to discover anything for herself through 23 & Me, she did make contact with a Nuu-chah-nulth woman–a distant cousin–who had been adopted out, and subsequently helped her find her birth family.

“She’s going to come here in the summer to meet her family. She’s part Chinese,” Titian said.

Then, on American Thanksgiving weekend last fall, the Ancestry Network held a sale on its Ancestry DNA Kit ($100 CDN).

“Ancestry has the biggest DNA database,” Titian said.

For the GENO test, Titian was required to scrape the inside of her cheek to remove soft tissue for analysis. For Ancestry, it meant spitting a saliva sample into a vial.

Because of the volume of people who took advantage of the Thanksgiving sale, Titian had to wait several months for her sample to be processed. She finally received notification on Feb. 6 that her sample was being analyzed.

“It happened that Feb. 6 was my mother’s birthday. And she was buried on her birthday in 1969. Ten days later, I got notification that my results were in.”

Titian opened up the email and brought up the Ancestry site on her computer. Now that her DNA profile was logged into the system, she was able to access the full screen, with all its features.

And there on the screen was the name of a man, with the notation “Close Family.” He had only logged into the Ancestry network in September 2016.

Titian knew this was not her father, because if that were the case he would have been noted as “Immediate Family.”

According to the genetics, the subject was possibly an uncle, a great-grandfather, or even a nephew.

“But he was born in 1937, so I knew he was not my nephew. He’s too young to be my great-grandparent, because he’s still alive.”

Titian said she is a member of DNA Detectives on Facebook, founded in 2015 by CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist who has appeared on TV shows such as Finding Your Roots, 20/20, The Doctors, The Dr. Oz Show and CBS This Morning.

Moore is the genetic genealogy consultant for Finding Your Roots and Genealogy Roadshow. The group helps adoptees, foundlings and other such people connect with family by offering advice or the services of volunteer genealogists, or ‘search angels’.

“I posted a screen shot of my Ancestry match page on DNA Detectives and asked for help,” said Titian.

At this point, a DNA Detectives “Search Angel” took over and, based on what she found in the records and DNA matches, established that the connection had to be an uncle. She also discovered that the subject had a single brother–her father. And he was still alive and living in Seattle.

“I had his name and address. I even Google-Earthed his house in Seattle. I had his phone number. But it took me three days to get brave enough to call.”

As it turned out, her father did not answer the phone. So Titian sent him a registered letter, so she would know who signed for it and when. This time (according to the tracking sheet), he responded immediately. But there was a further glitch.

“He phoned me on a Monday when I was driving back from Tofino. His name popped up on my call display. I picked up the phone, but I was out of range.”

Eventually, father and daughter did connect by phone.

“We had a long talk; close to an hour.”

She found out her parents had been good friends and a little more, but her mother had ruled out a permanent relationship. He had actually travelled to Tofino with her once and they had stayed friends after she started the relationship with her future husband.

“He told me he saw me shortly after I was born, and he held me. But he didn’t know I was his,” Titian said.

The best part?

“He accepts me. He is coming up to see me on Wednesday [March 22], him and his wife.”

As it turned out, Titian’s father has been out of contact with his brother for many years. What has since been revealed is that Titian’s DNA uncle married a Cowichan Tribes woman from Duncan. She has since died, but Titian has established contact with their children, her cousins. They moved back to Duncan from Seattle.

But that discovery was the result of an extreme coincidence, when Titian asked a Seattle friend to look up a phone number, and mentioned the name of the uncle. He knew someone who knew someone in Duncan who was related to someone…

Titian said that has been typical of her experience since she started searching for her father.

“There have been a lot of coincidences. A lot of pure luck in talking to certain people, and it has put me in contact with my family. They were not easy to track down. They don’t have Facebook – except for one that does, but doesn’t check it very often.”

But strangely enough, Titian said, if she hadn’t started off with the wrong search sites, she might have missed out entirely.

“People say, ‘Start with Ancestry,’ then go to the other sites. They call it fishing in all three pools,” she said. “But [her uncle] did not buy his [Ancestry] kit until September 2016. I would never have known if he had not bought a kit.”