Record Click is thankful to Dee Dee King for agreeing to share her expertise in forensic genealogy. A professional genealogist since 2003, King specializes in forensic genealogy services and kinship determination in heirship matters. She is a founding member of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy (CAFG), as well as founding president of the Lone Star Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists.
RC: What is “forensic genealogy?”
DDK: The definition to which I subscribe, and the definition that was adopted by the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy (CAFG) is:
Prior to 2007, I could find no definitions of the broad scope of forensic genealogy. There were definitions that dealt with partial aspects, but not the whole potential of the field. Reverse genealogy, genealogy that involves the living, the use of high tech methods to solve cases – these were some of the definitions that folks provided in the discussions. Another was genealogy that intersects with the law.
I was assigned my first forensic case in January of 2007. The only advice or help one could get at that point was either from a personal mentor or from the various genealogy listservs (a program that automatically sends messages to multiple addresses on an email list). No one who responded to my queries could provide a definition of “forensic genealogy.” There were examples of what could be forensic work, probate, missing heirs, military repatriation, etc. There were examples of advanced skills a forensic genealogist might use, photograph identification, DNA, etc. But no one offered a broad definition that seemed to encompass what the emerging specialty was and how it was different from “regular” genealogy.
In late 2007 and early 2008, a lengthy discussion was held on the Association of Professional Genealogists’ (APG) list in which many members attempted a movement to define the various genealogical specialties. Forensic genealogy was one of those topics.
The definition I mentioned earlier is what evolved after I spent several weeks researching the forensic sciences and the definitions and terminology that those professionals use. A very few people have expressed displeasure with the CAFG definition, but the majority of genealogists I’ve spoken with, and certainly those in the legal community, think the definition is fitting.
RC: What is the difference in methodology between “forensic” genealogy and traditional “ancestral” genealogy?
DDK: Many people consider traditional ancestral genealogy to have a starting point of one living person and moving back through the generations to identify ancestors and collateral lines. Some forensic cases also start with a living person and move back to a defined point in time – the ancestor who originally owned a piece or land or mineral royalty. Some cases start with a recently deceased person and work through the parents, grandparents, or great grandparents to bring lines forward to living persons who would be heirs at law of the deceased person.
The genealogical proof standard and other professional standards are perhaps more important in cases with legal implications. A family genealogy can always be revised and updated. However, a judgment to distribute the assets of an estate is not easily revised after the final actions have been taken, but then a new heir is discovered.
Much forensic genealogy also requires making the connections from deceased persons to specific people who are living today. The standards of proof for court cases may be somewhat different from the standards of proof in “regular” genealogy cases. For example: In most forensic cases, we are not adding the “flesh to the bones” as we would in a four-generation kinship determination. We’re instead looking for supporting evidence to answer very specific questions, such as, who are two potential mtDNA donors in a military repatriation case. (mtDNA; mitochondrial DNA testing is used to trace a direct maternal line.)
RC: What are some of the issues that forensic genealogists confront?
DDK: As with all genealogists and historians, records access is an ongoing concern. If original vital records are closed to us, then derivative records like the Social Security Death Master File (SSDI) are crucial.
Forensic genealogists have more potential liabilities than do family historians. Deadlines may be more demanding in forensic cases. Our reporting and documentation skills may come under greater scrutiny. There may be adversaries with interests different than those who hired us.
RC: Who are the most common clients of forensic genealogists?
DDK: Attorneys have historically been the most likely to retain the services of a forensic genealogist. However, as we advance knowledge about the profession, more entities recognize us as a valuable resource. Both federal and state agencies have advertised Requests for Proposals or Quotes for our services in recent years. Individuals and groups are hiring forensic genealogists to research, analyze, and report on their interests.
RC: What preparation should genealogists do in order to specialize in forensic genealogy?
DDK: Both CAFG and I believe that forensic genealogy is an advanced specialty, and not a gateway from hobbyist into professional genealogy. Attorneys, government agencies, people looking for an expert will all carefully review a résumé for education, experience, and credentials, which are very important. Anyone looking for an expert in genealogy or a person who qualifies as an expert witness will consider whether or not a candidate has credentials.
Given the importance of credentials, a person pursuing a career in forensic genealogy should pursue the intermediate and advanced courses, particularly those that demonstrate knowledge above that of a layperson or hobbyist. These courses might be advanced methodology and evidence analysis, government documents, and forensic courses. Three courses of instruction debuted this year that specifically address forensic genealogy.
- Forensic Genealogy Institute, sponsored by the CCAFG, offers 20 hours of significant hands-on instruction with real-world work examples, resources, sample forms, and work materials. Graduates of the Institute receive a Forensic Genealogy Institute Certificate of Completion. See website for upcoming dates.
- Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy is offering its next SLIG Institute January 14-18, 2013. It will be organized into 10-12 subjects, called “tracks.” The foremost experts in the field for each subject provide students with at least 20 hours of in-depth instruction on their topic.
- Genealogical Research Programs, through the Boston University Center for Professional Education, include coverage of Foundations of Genealogical Research; Problem-Solving Techniques and Technology; Evidence Evaluation and Documentation; Forensic Genealogical Research; Professional Genealogy. Classes commence Spring 2013.
RC: What advice would you give a genealogist who is considering a career in forensic genealogy?
DDK: This specialty can provide a good living, but it is not an overnight process and does require preparation through education, experience and credentialing. I believe one should have a minimum of two solid years in heavy client work, dealing with contracts, researching and analyzing complex issues, and managing large amounts of documentation before considering the acceptance of a difficult forensic case.
RC: I think it is VERY interesting that CAFG members don’t work on a contingency fee basis. Do you think a forensic genealogist can remain objective and still accept payment on a contingency basis?
DDK: There are some forensic genealogists who probably can remain unbiased while working on a contingency fee basis. However, it is the perception of bias that can be introduced by the “other side” that casts doubt on the opinions of the genealogist, or works to have her/him impeached as an expert witness. Virtually every jurisdiction in this country prohibits paying expert witnesses on a contingency fee basis.
Many legal procedures include questioning a witness regarding their ties to the case or if they will receive any payment that is dependent upon how the court rules. Approximately 30 states have champerty laws that are still on the books. (Champerty is when a claimant and his/her lawyer agree that fees paid will depend on the amount of money recovered in the action.) For these reasons, and more, CAFG shows the following exemplar: Using methodology and ethics consistent with the highest standards of the profession, Forensic Genealogy is conducted by unbiased, disinterested, third party practitioners with no personal or professional stake in the outcome.
RC: Is the CAFG the first of its kind? Were there no regulations or policies prior to 2011?
DDK: As far as I know, CAFG was the first membership organization for professional genealogists that set educational and experience standards for membership, offered a mentor program, and provided a career ladder opportunity. Our Standards of Practice and Conduct are in many ways similar to ethics policies of other genealogical organizations. CAFG did incorporate the standard of avoiding contingency-based work to avoid those pitfalls mentioned above.
Another reason is that CAFG encourages members to always work to the standards the courts expect of expert witnesses. A simple case today could turn into a complex case in which the genealogist is required to appear as an expert, or a circumstance in which the genealogist is challenged as an expert. Always working toward the standards as an expert witness simply removes all those other pitfalls.
RC: Why did you personally choose to enter the realm of forensic genealogy?
DDK: Even as a young child, my ambition was to grow up to become an attorney, perhaps later a judge. The law and the legal process are fascinating. After several years of conducting family history research, legal cases appeared to hold the possibility of more meaningful work product. Forensic genealogy appeared to allow one to charge higher rates for services. I (mistakenly) thought dealing with the legal system and attorneys might be easier than “regular” client work.
RC: You are a contract genealogist with the US Navy Casualty POW/MIA Branch. Would you tell us more about that?
DDK: Certainly. The Military services each contract with professional genealogists to update case files of “Unaccounted-For” service members who failed to return from past wars and conflicts (WWII through the Gulf War). I have the privilege of providing this service to the US Navy. I do in-depth research to develop a limited family tree that identifies legal primary next-of-kin for unidentified service members, and I decipher which family members are eligible for DNA testing for ancestry.
RC: What a rewarding project. I understand that you received the Group Achievement Award from the Department of Defense in October of 2011. Congratulations! What has been your most interesting case to date?
DDK: All of the forensic cases have been very interesting, but the Navy repatriation cases are the most rewarding. The most meaningful must certainly be one of the first Navy cases assigned to me. Through my research, the Navy made a positive identification of remains in just one year. I was able to attend the family identification meeting with the head of Navy Mortuary Affairs. It was a truly remarkable event.
RC: Other than the legal or military communities, who might be a client of your services?
DDK: The CAFG Hire-A-Pro page lists many possibilities:
- Probate and estate cases – known heirs, unknown heirs, missing heirs
- Heirs and beneficiaries of trust and insurance accounts
- Due diligence affidavits
- Next of kin in guardianship cases, youth transitioning from foster care, adoption
- Capital mitigation in death sentence cases
- Immigration and citizenship cases
- Civil pension, Social Security, and veteran’s benefits
- Land issues involving title, adverse possession, rights of way, lis pendens, or muniment of title
- Oil, gas, and mineral royalties
- Identification and location of next of kin or DNA donors in matters involving unclaimed decedents or POW/MIA personnel repatriation
- Identification of next of kin prior to cemetery removals
- Provenance, class action claimants, intellectual property-rights
There are undoubtedly more opportunities. For those of you pursuing a career in forensic genealogy, just bear in mind, the process requires preparation through education, experience, and credentialing.