Daily Express
13 June, 2000

The moment a father finds his child is not his

By Roger Graef
The Daily Express

In these days of frequent divorce, casual sex and fragmented communities, men hang on to their identity through such ancient customs as passing their name down to their sons - along with whatever else they may have accumulated along the way. Daughters, of course, also inherit from their parents and they need fathers just as much as the fathers need them to feel fulfilled.

But as family happiness is increasingly fragile, so too is the certainty of our identity. As DNA testing becomes more refined, it now can give accurate answers to the equally ancient custom of looking doubtfully at the odd child out and wondering who their father really is.

In ancient times, people who were truly worried travelled huge distances to ask oracles, seers or witch doctors. These days, they only need access to a DNA clinic and a few hundred pounds.

Two-thirds of those who take the tests get the answer they hope for - which mostly means they are indeed the father of the child they believe is theirs. But, according to a documentary to be shown on Channel 4 tonight, an astonishing one in three of those taking the test discover to their profound dismay that the child they have loved and raised as blood kin is not after all.

This is not just a shock to the father and child - and all their relatives - but also a profound insight into the sexual behaviour of women, who are normally regarded as far more stable and loyal partners.

Dr John Burn, a geneticist at Newcastle University, believes that more than five per cent of the British population have a different biological father than the one they believe to be theirs. That's nearly three million people living unwittingly with an explosive secret.

The tragedies spill out daily as divorce rises. Many of the tests are not from happy families at all but from couples who have split and are contesting paternity, either in relation to inheritance or who should pay child support.

Bryan Good, 64, was only 19 and in the Army at Catterick, West Yorkshire when he met Jean, a lively young woman of 29. When Bryan was posted elsewhere, they kept in touch. When he returned five months later, Jean was heavily pregnant. "I was shocked and didn't know how to cope. But I knew I was expected to marry her. She wisely turned me down."

Jean married someone else and ended all contact but she had given Bryan a photo of the little girl, Carole. He knew she had been adopted, and recently succeeded in finding her again. Bryan and his current family were delighted to welcome Diane as his daughter. But a DNA test to confirm Bryan's paternity turned out to be negative - and a dream of 40 years crumbled.

In the US, where DNA testing is widespread, such cases are becoming common. Will Smith, a half-Irish, half-West Indian New York businessman, was in a long-term relationship and had several children. When it ended, he remained devoted to his kids. But he wanted his daughter Tinazia to be tested. Will had became suspicious after watching her skin grow darker as she grew older, with features unlike anyone else in his family. "I went to several doctors, who told me that a child takes 50 per cent from the mother and 50 per cent from the father. It's very rare for a child to have no features from the father."

The result of the test was devastating, but Will swears that the negative outcome will not affect his love for Tinazia. However, thousands of innocent children have had their lives shattered by the outcome of DNA tests. And as testing becomes ever easier, we urgently need an ethical framework to cope with its implications.

In Britain, where the consent of both parents is required, about 15,000 such tests are carried out annually and the number is growing. Seventy per cent of the business now going through the seven Government-approved DNA clinics in Britain come from courts ordering paternity tests at the request of the Child Support Agency. In America it is already huge business, with tests advertised on highway billboards and television, and offered over the Internet and telephone.

All that is needed is about £250 and a swab of cells taken from the inside cheek of father and child. More than 250,000 tests are carried out in the US every year and an increasing number of those are fathers from Britain posting their swabs for fear of alerting the mother of the child.

In America there is often no such restraint. UK cable and satellite viewers may have seen Alan Gelb, a self-styled "immuno-haemotologist", a bearded, bespectacled figure who runs a rapidly- expanding test business from a smart New York apartment. He appears regularly on the Sally Jesse Show and announces the results to "contestants" in full view of the nation. We filmed one married couple being given the deeply unwelcome news that they are brother and sister.

The rights of the father are ignored in many cases. Texas train driver Morgan Wise had three boys and a girl. When his smallest son, Rauli, developed cystic fibrosis - an inherited disease - Morgan's doctor arranged for Rauli, his dad and his brothers to be tested to see where the disease had come from. What began as a loving inquiry ended as a nightmare. As the genetic trail unravelled, it emerged that none of the three boys Morgan treated as his sons was biologically fathered by him; only the daughter was. His wife had had a long-term affair with his best friend.

"When the results came, it was unbelievable," said Morgan. "I thought there must be some mistake. It was like a sudden death. How can a mother do this to her husband, her marriage, her children and live a lie?" Yet the courts have awarded his wife custody while Morgan must pay child maintenance without access to the children. The man she says is the real father is not obliged to be tested. This does not seem like justice for any of them.

Some fathers insist the science is not perfect, while geneticists say it has reached 99.9 per cent reliability. With many more cases reaching courts in Britain as well as the US, ethical guidelines that protect the civil and human rights of children and parents are urgently needed. As genetic science marches on, it leaves many personal tragedies in its wake.

Roger Graef is executive producer of Family Secrets: Who's Your Father? which will be shown on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

© Express Newspapers, 2000