In an effort to explore some of the different career opportunities for genealogists, the following interview was conducted via email with Leslie Lawson, President of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy.
Note from Leslie: Some of the answers to these questions I have pulled straight from the website for the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy at: http://www.forensicgenealogists.com/index.html. We worked long and hard to define ourselves and our goals for all the world to see!
1. What is “forensic genealogy”?
Forensic genealogy is research, analysis, and reporting in cases with legal implications.
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.
2. What is the difference in methodology between forensic genealogy and traditional “ancestral” genealogy?
Whether going back in time or coming forward in time it takes an educated research skill and knowledge about the available databases that can help you with this search. Each state decides what records will be available. Some states are extremely difficult to research in and others try to make it fairly easy. Going back in time is easier to a point, usually about 1850, and then it takes a different skill set, or mind set, to figure out how to go back further. To come forward from 1930 to today you must have knowledge about the place you are researching in and what information is available for that place. Are there newspapers, city directories, voter’s registers? Can you access the SSDI to help bridge the years? Is there an online tree somewhere to help you locate living family members?
3. What are some of the issues that forensic genealogists confront?
Broken families where siblings don’t talk to each other; they also don’t talk to other living family members. Fifty years ago there was almost always a family member who was the one person that kept up with every person in their extended family. Today people are so busy that they often don’t know what is going on within their immediate family.
There is the constant threat of closing record sets. Some records that are closed to researchers might include funeral homes or cemeteries that refuse to give answers citing privacy issues or HIPPA [dead people don’t have HIPPA coverage]. Some businesses want to charge a large sum of money to open a book or access a computer. With all the scams in the news the next difficulty comes when we try to contact living people. Many are very wary, as they should be, but it does make it difficult at times to convince them to speak with us. I usually start the conversation talking about their grandparents, information that scammers wouldn’t necessarily be aware of.
4. Who are the most common clients of forensic genealogists?
Most of our clients are attorneys; oil and gas companies; banks; trust accountants; guardians for the elderly.
5. What is the mission of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy?
From the homepage of our website, under “Our Objectives”
- Advance public awareness and understanding of the profession.
- Encourage broader use of the services of qualified forensic genealogists.
- Promote and maintain high standards of professional and ethical conduct.
- Encourage best practices in client services and business models.
- Promote interchange of information among members through electronic forums, trade publications, meetings, and seminars.
- Provide education and training for professional advancement of membership.
- Assist fellow members in professional development though mentorship, full membership, credentialing, and awarding of fellowships.
- Influence legislation that impacts the profession or the ability to access public records.
6. What advice would you give a genealogist who is considering a career in forensic genealogy?
Understand that these cases can be very challenging; time sensitive affairs. If a judge is nipping at an attorney, you can bet that attorney will be nipping at you. Know the law of the state you are working within. Ask a practicing forensic genealogist if they can mentor you so that you can learn the ropes. You might not be able to access the professional’s files because of their confidentiality agreements, but you can certainly practice on your own family by picking a line you know nothing about and bringing all those lines forward to today; then contacting said family members. Perhaps you’ll have a fmily reunion with that new information you’ve uncovered. Understand that we are constantly learning about available records, and networking with others to be our legs on the ground when we need onsite researchers.
If you want to pull records for anyone, learn how to write citations! We’re not looking for perfection; we’re looking for accurate citations. If I receive a document with citations you can be pretty sure I’m going to call you again if I have work in that area. And you can also bet I’ll share your name with others. Understand if you are a record puller, forensic genealogists need prompt response, follow through, and citations.
And if you really want to learn about forensic genealogy, come to the Institute! At this writing there is one slot left open. You can learn more about what we are offering at the website. It will be an intense 2 ½ days, and your mind will be swimming when you return home. It is our intention to walk you through all kinds of real life scenarios that we have run in to while doing this work. We hope to give you answers to many of the common and not so common questions. Our hope is to truly stretch you as a professional genealogist.
UPDATE: For another perspective on this subject, see Barbara Matthews, “Response to ‘What Is Forensic Genealogy?,’“ The Demanding Genealogist blog, posted 23 May 2012 (http://demandinggenealogist.blogspot.com : accessed 23 May 2012).