Sections

Weather Forecast

Close

In his DNA: How one adoptee’s DNA test helped uncover his birth family

Steve Drees used DNA testing to find his birth mother and several cousins. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

THOMPSON, N.D.—Though he was adopted, Steve Drees never felt the impulse to find his biological parents. A Thompson resident, he had lived a happy life with his two daughters and adoptive family.

After he had open heart surgery in March, though, he found himself yearning to learn about more about his origins.

"I really didn't have a strong desire to go find those answers," said Drees, 50, during a recent visit at his adoptive mother's home in Grand Forks. "As I've gotten older, the questions have become more important to understanding who I am and why I am the way I am."

For Father's Day, his daughters bought him a genetic testing kit, a gift that's helped Drees piece together his past. He learned, for instance, that heart disease runs in his family. A software developer, Drees also learned that his biological parents have a similar "technical" mindset, he said.

The kit, sold by DNA testing company 23andMe, came with a note from his daughters:

"So you can find out where you came from."

But it would take a fair amount of legwork, a little bit of luck and a few false leads before Drees could even get in touch with his biological family. In the end, he uncovered his link to a long lineage of North Dakotans.

And fortunately for Drees, his birth family has welcomed him into the fold with open arms. He even had a chance to march in the Potato Bowl Parade with his uncle, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

"(Drees) turned out to be a wonderful guy," Stenehjem said. "He's great to visit with. It's great to have an unknown, long-lost relative."

A long journey

Drees' first brush with genetic testing dates back to 2001, more than a decade before the boom in "direct-to-consumer" use of the technology. 23andMe itself wasn't founded until 2006.

By 2018, the number of people who used at-home DNA testing kits skyrocketed to more than 12 million, MIT Technology Review reported last year. That's more than double the number in 2017 and more than four times the number in 2016, according to the magazine.

In 2001, Drees requested a non-identifying report from his adoption agency in Fargo. The report, which often is performed for medical reasons, provides some basic information about an adoptee's family of origin, but "nothing you can actually trace back to a person," Drees said.

In Drees' case, he had the report performed after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"The DNA results gave me a lot of hints," Drees said. "Information in the DNA report helped me narrow it down."

The report told him his mother's father managed the meat department in a supermarket. At first glance, the information might seem trivial, but it later proved crucial in Drees' path to his birth mother.

Many years later, after Drees sent off a saliva sample to 23andMe, he was informed that his great-grandfather was Martin Syver Stenehjem.

Drees then reached out to Allen Stenehjem, one of Martin's grandsons. Based on some other research, Drees thought that Allen's sister, Sue, was his mother. Sue had died, so Allen was the best person to ask.

But Allen didn't think it could be.

"He said, 'No, there's no way,' " Drees said. "So I thought I'd reached a dead end."

It was then that another relative contacted Drees out of the blue with a different idea: Sue wasn't his mother, but maybe Sue's brother Stephen was his father? The cousin also postulated that another woman, Carol Martenson, was Drees' birth mother.

As Drees did a little more research of his own, the details began to line up. Carol and Stephen went to the same school at the same time. And Stephen was a descendant of Martin Stenehjem, Drees' great-grandfather.

"I did a little more digging, and all of the things that I knew about Carol from the non-identifying report matched up. All the things I knew about Steve from the non-identifying report matched up," Drees said.

More legwork

The path looked promising, but Drees' journey wasn't quite over. He wanted to get in touch with Carol to confirm she was, in fact, his mother.

He did some Googling and came up with three phone numbers. Each had a generic voicemail greeting, so he opted not to leave any information.

Through some more research, Drees found out Carol had a younger sister, Anita. He couldn't find a working phone number for Anita, but he tried the next best thing: Facebook.

"I did a Hail Mary," Drees said. "I reached out through a Facebook message. If you've never connected with a person on Facebook, that's like throwing a message in a bottle in a lake and hoping it gets to the other side. I wasn't expecting anything."

In his message, Drees told Anita he was doing some genealogy research and had some questions.

The next day, she responded and asked what those questions were. Drees asked Anita what her father did for a living in the 60s. Anita said her father managed the meat department for SuperValu in Bismarck.

Bingo. That lined up with a piece of trivia Drees had picked up from his 2001 non-identifying report.

"I thought, well, I know I have the right person," said Drees. So he asked Anita if she could give him contact information for Carol.

Anita's first response was no. There was brief pause in their communication after that, and Drees worried he had given too much information or scared her off.

Finally, Anita responded and gave Drees a cell phone number for Carol. He called the number to no avail. He even tried to send a text and received no response.

Initially discouraged, Drees contacted Anita once more. She looked over the number and realized one crucial mistake: It was off by one digit. Anita then sent along the correct number and Drees gave it a ring.

"I called Carol and she had been waiting while I was trying to call the wrong number," he said. "I said, 'My name is Steve,' and then I couldn't say anything. She said, 'You're looking for your mother, and you have the right Carol.'"

Lucky breaks

Drees' story may be inspiring, but it's not typical. His non-identifying report gave him a leg up, as did his historical research on ancestry.com.

"When you have an adoptee who's older, it may be harder to find biological parents because they might already have passed away," said 23andMe spokesman Scott Hadly. "It's amazing he was able to track them down."

But do-it-yourself DNA kits can point someone to cousins and other previously unknown relatives, Hadly added.

Drees said adoptees interested in learning more about their background should be prepared for roadblocks.

For some adoptees, forming relationships with biological family members can be challenging.

"You may run into people who don't want to talk to you, and you are affecting other people's lives. You kind of have to remember that," Drees said. "I got lucky in that everybody I've contacted has wanted to continue to get to know me better. ... But that's rare."

Drees admits that he, too, struggled with the idea of reaching out to his own family. He initially was concerned he might "reignite" an old problem among people who were, for all intents and purposes, strangers.

"You just don't know the situation that led to your adoption," he said.

Drees said he's fortunate that his biological family was receptive. He said he's been invited to several family dinners in Fargo. His daughters have joined him at meet-ups with the Stenehjem family, too.

"It's been a wild, wild ride," Drees said. "But it's been tremendously positive."

Dan Niepow

Niepow covers social and community issues for the Grand Forks Herald. Before joining the paper, he worked as a magazine writer and editor. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he currently resides over the river in East Grand Forks, Minn. To reach Niepow with story ideas, send him an email at dniepow@gfherald.com or call him at (701) 780-1110. Follow him on Twitter @dniep.

(701) 780-1110
randomness