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An amateur DNA detective helps people find family they never knew

After years of searching for her birth parents, Laura Flanagan has become a go-to person for others looking for lost relatives.

Putnam, CT - 7/21/2016 - Laura Flanagan poses for a portrait in her home in Putnam, CT, July 21, 2016. Flanagan, who was adopted and gave a daughter up for adoption, helps other people who have been adopted reconnect with their birth families. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Laura Flanagan in front of part of the family tree she is constructing at her home.

ON A BRIGHT DAY THIS SPRING, Denise Lutz wheeled her suitcase through Logan Airport on the way to meet a stranger. As she walked through the terminal’s sliding glass doors, she felt nervous yet joyful. On the curb waited a woman named Geraldine Riendeau, holding flowers. “We just stood there and hugged and cried,” says Lutz. The women, sisters in their 60s, had never met because Lutz, though younger, had been given up for adoption for reasons unclear to both of them.

The rest of Lutz’s trip felt almost like a dream. “We were just, like, in love,” she says. Riendeau shared stories about growing up in Massachusetts, while Lutz talked about the adoptive family that had raised her in Southern California, where she still lives. The next day, they drove together to Fall River, the hilltop city where they were born. There, they met the person who had brought them together.

Laura Flanagan, who is 46 and lives in Coventry, Rhode Island, has brown hair, dark eyes, and works as a full-time — if amateur — DNA detective. She talks quickly, stringing together stories like beads on a necklace. When she saw the resemblance between Lutz and Riendeau, both now mothers themselves, she smiled. She was thrilled at helping connect another family — she says this was number five of eight, to date — though her own quest for connection remained unfulfilled.

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FLANAGAN’S TEENAGE MOTHER NAMED HER, then gave her up for adoption at birth. Flanagan herself gave up her daughter when she was 17, and later cut off ties with her adoptive parents. She posted on her Facebook page what being adopted means for her:

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“Being adopted is an experience that’s hard for people who are not adopted . . . to understand,” she wrote. “It is easy to take for granted that old black-and-white photograph of grandparents . . . tales of days gone by told by older family members . . . the sound and tone of a parent’s voice or the physical likeness seen among blood relatives. These are the things that keep us all feeling connected, they help us see ourselves and our purpose in this world. They help to explain why we are who we are, why we look the way we do . . . our very existence.”

This is why she’s never given up on her own search — and why she started to help others, poring over DNA test results and yellowed archival records to reconnect separated families. At the root of her work is a decades-old obsession: the search for her birth father, whose identity would finally complete her family tree. “For 26 years, I’ve been looking for this man,” she says.

In the last few years, technology has revolutionized the work of self-taught genealogists like Flanagan. When she started, genealogy had little to do with genes and everything to do with written records of birth, death, and marriage. No documents meant no family tree. And because adoption was long shrouded in secrecy, adopted children had little hope of discovering their birth parents. Today, it’s possible to find long-lost parents and siblings with little more than an Internet connection and a vial of saliva.

The Internet is how Denise Lutz, desperate to reconnect with any blood relatives who were still alive, found Flanagan. More than a decade ago Lutz had joined Ancestry.com, a website that helps users construct a family tree. Her tree overlapped at the edge with Flanagan’s.

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Last year, Lutz reached out to Flanagan, wondering if they were related. A DNA test eventually showed they were not, but it was still her lucky day. Flanagan has become adept at using Ancestry.com, and she noticed that Lutz’s DNA results had turned up something interesting: a relatively close genetic match in the site’s database. This is a key clue in genealogical detective work, because even a third or fourth cousin can lead to closer relatives.

Flanagan spent several days at her computer, barely sleeping because of the excitement. Genealogical searches often obsess her; she will work through the night, sleeping when her husband, who works an overnight shift, sleeps. She added new branches to Lutz’s family tree by navigating among different, overlapping networks — genealogy websites, city records, Facebook. They began to converge. She found Geraldine Riendeau, who then lived in East Bridgewater, and called her one Sunday night.

“I’m Laura Flanagan, a genealogy researcher, and I think I’ve found your sister,” Flanagan remembers saying.

Riendeau, who thought it might be a cruel joke, initially was distant. But Flanagan explained her research and demonstrated a deep knowledge of the family. A cautious trust developed. Riendeau’s mother was dead, but family lore did say that Riendeau once had a sister. Just one month later — after a flurry of phone calls, e-mails, and a genetic test to confirm sisterhood — Flanagan was driving to Massachusetts to meet the suddenly inseparable sisters.

Triumphs like these have become commonplace for Flanagan. In the last year, she says, she’s helped eight people find family members using a combination of DNA testing and archival research.  One of the most fulfilling reunited a 90-year-old mother with her 70-year-old daughter, she says. She hasn’t charged any money for her services. “I can’t say no,” Flanagan explains. “Part of my journey is to do these things for other people.”

Laura Flanagan, Geraldine Riendeau, Riendeau’s daughter Carrie Crisman, Denise Lutz, and Lutz’s daughter Stacie Atwater.
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IN 1986, THE SAME YEAR she gave up her daughter, Flanagan attempted to find her birth mother. From Flanagan’s own birth record, she knew where she was born and a few details — for example, that her mother had a limp. Because she knew her mother’s age, she made an educated guess about her graduation year and contacted former students of two high schools near the hospital. Using old yearbooks and the city directory, she mailed a photocopied letter to thousands of strangers, hoping to find an old classmate of her mother’s.

Months passed before a helpful response arrived. It came from a woman who remembered a classmate with a limp and who even had her phone number. Flanagan’s call was met with suspicion — but the kind of teenager who mails thousands of letters isn’t so easily deterred. A few days and several phone calls later, Flanagan was sitting across from her birth mother at a Burger King in Rhode Island. They sipped coffee, inspecting each other, Flanagan recalls, as if peering into a mirror.

Flanagan had answered one of the questions that defined her childhood, but the answer was unsatisfying. The meeting was awkward and unsettled her. “I was born to a woman that really didn’t want me,” she says. “If abortion had been legal, that’s what would have happened.” Flanagan was born in 1969, four years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion.

That day, one search ended and another began. Flanagan asked her birth mother about her birth father. It would be years before she got a straight answer.

DOZENS OF STATES OMIT  the names of birth parents from adoption records to preserve their privacy. Massachusetts restricts people born between 1974 and 2008 from seeing their pre-adoption birth records. Only recently have other states, including Rhode Island, started to give adopted children access to original birth certificates. Each year, about 135,000 adoptions take place nationwide , so millions of Americans may be wondering who their birth parents are.

“There are a lot of people out there who are looking for answers,” Flanagan says. Ancestry.com’s database contains 2 million DNA samples, not to mention the information held by competitors like 23andMe and Family Tree DNA. Whenever Flanagan’s own search has hit a dead end, helping others answer questions about their family tree rejuvenates her. “Watching these searches unfold gives me more peace,” she says.

Often when you shake a family tree, secrets fall like dead leaves. “It’s all this hush-hush stuff,” Flanagan says. “We just don’t talk about it enough in our society.” Flanagan’s research suggested that Lutz’s adoptive family knew her birth mother and adopted her unofficially (there is no adoption record) and thus illegally.

IN SPITE OF THE BREAKTHROUGHS, Flanagan’s own search continues. She now knows that her father’s family came from the Azores, a group of islands off Portugal; her mother eventually shared a name, but so far it has led nowhere. According to her birth mother, Flanagan’s father’s family had lived in Fall River. So before driving home from her meeting with Lutz and Riendeau, she stopped at the library there, hoping to sketch the lineage of a few possible relatives on her dad’s side.

In a reading room that echoed with the thump and creak of books being opened by patrons, she meticulously scanned through 1960s city directories. She scrolled through microfilms in search of obituaries, which list children and grandchildren — who, in turn, can be found in the city directory. It was tedious work, but Flanagan was excited as she went through the documents, answering some of her questions and generating new ones.

She has made steady but slow progress by alternating between old-fashioned archival research (she calls it “doing my lines,” because it sketches out her lineage) and DNA record searches. Since she started her genetic research six years ago, she’s examined hundreds of families that seem to connect with her tree. Still, her closest genetic match is a distant cousin. There are now 14,000 names in her family tree, and she doesn’t know if any one of them is her father.

In Flanagan’s dining room in Rhode Island, one wall is lined with squares of paper connected with hand-drawn arrows. A few feet away, there’s the hand-drawn family tree of a distant relative — which, she hopes, will eventually slot into hers like part of a jigsaw puzzle.

Putnam, CT - 7/21/2016 - Laura Flanagan(L) talks with Elizabeth Deconno, the daughter she gave up for adoption, after lunch at a cafe in Putnam, CT, July 21, 2016. Flanagan, who was adopted and gave a daughter up for adoption, helps other people who have been adopted reconnect with their birth families. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Laura Flanagan with Elizabeth DeConno (at right), the daughter she gave up as a baby.

FLANAGAN HAS TWO CHILDREN she raised with her husband, Michael Flanagan, a former city police officer who now is captain of the University of Rhode Island police. In the family she’s built, she manages to give her children the kind of home she never had. Still, at times Flanagan struggles against the weight of a difficult childhood. As a toddler, she says, she was molested by her adoptive father. It took her years to even understand what was going on.

“When I was little, I didn’t know it was wrong,” Flanagan says. When she finally learned about pedophilia from television, confusion and shame overwhelmed her. She never felt safe in her own house, she says — and this was why, when she became pregnant at 17 by a boyfriend with no interest in children, she gave up her daughter for adoption. “I couldn’t bring her into that house,” she says. “I felt so different from everyone else. . . . I just wished that I had a normal family.”

It’s been more than a decade since Flanagan saw her adoptive parents. In 2002, as an adult, she brought charges against the man who had raised her. “I knew I was going to have to testify and sit there in front of him in a courtroom and detail everything he had ever done to me,” she says, “which was the hardest thing I have ever done.” He was never imprisoned because of a hung jury, but under the threat of a retrial, he pled nolo contendere and registered as a sex offender.

The trial only deepened her sense of isolation from her adoptive parents. “Honestly, it felt like they had died,” she remembers. “I mourned it.”

After that day in court, Flanagan intensified the search for her birth father. She taught herself rudimentary Portuguese to scan birth records from the Azores. She wonders what he looks like or whether he’s dead. Flanagan believes any sort of answer would give her meaning. “It would just make me feel like my place in this world wasn’t an accident,” she says.

The search has come to consume her. She sold her financial planning practice four years ago, and her husband now is the main source of family income.  Searching has made her dogged, meticulous, and deeply knowledgeable about genetics. These aren’t traits she saw in either her adoptive parents or her birth mother. “Why am I this way?” she asks. Maybe, she says, the tenacity that keeps her looking comes from the father she’s never met.

One night not long ago, Flanagan dreamed that she was sitting in her living room, watching TV. The show Who Do You Think You Are? flickered onto the screen. To her surprise, the episode was about her own life — and the next thing she knew, her father was standing there. “In the dream, he’s like my age,” she says. “He had this brown wavy hair and these crystal blue eyes. And he said to me: ‘Gosh, we have a lot to talk about, don’t we?’”

If she does meet her father one day, Flanagan knows he may seem like a total stranger. She never bonded with her birth mother, and they’re not in contact today.

Other reunions play out differently, however. Flanagan never sought out the daughter she gave up for adoption all those years ago. “I always thought it would be wrong for me to search for her if she didn’t want to know,” she says. But in 2007, Flanagan’s daughter, Elizabeth DeConno, finally tracked her down. A message arrived through an online adoption registry while Flanagan was at work. “I sat at the computer at my desk and cried,” she says.

Today, the two women meet regularly and talk on the phone. “Her voice sounds like my voice,” Flanagan says. Their bond is strong but complex.

“Even having that doesn’t heal the heartache of losing her,” Flanagan says. “It was this little baby that I let go of so many years ago. And all that space and time in between. She stands in front of me as a grown woman, and sometimes I can’t even connect the two.”

For her daughter, finding her birth mother was a relief after years of feeling abandoned. “It really confirmed that I was wanted,” DeConno says. She’s been struck at how similar they are, even in the way they speak.

But certain wounds never heal, even when we learn to live with them. “That’s probably the thing we’re all after,” Flanagan says. “There’s this void, this emptiness, and we’re trying to fill it.” Eight times, she has given strangers the closure that her own life still lacks.

Genealogy is the study of ancestry, but it is also the study of where each of us comes from. “It’s kind of like looking for pieces of yourself that you never understood,” she says. She may never know her father. But perhaps, after all these years, the search has helped her know herself.

Daniel A. Gross is a writer and public radio producer in Somerville. Send comments to magazine@globe.com