DNA paternity testing sometimes leads to roadblocks and heartbreak
By: Daniela Molina and Lee Zurik
Originally Published: February 15, 2021
(InvestigateTV) – B.J. Olson was certain his mother had lied to him for years.
When he was a child, Linda Lea Olson told him that his father was a man named Howard. She told her son that she had had two romantic partners prior to his birth.
After his birth, the other man took a paternity test that excluded him as B.J.’s father.
That left Howard as the father, who did not take a paternity test at the time.
For 17 years, Olson believed that his father was Howard, a man who BJ said never supported the financially struggling South Dakota family.
In 1997, the state forced Howard to take a paternity test for child support purposes. It concluded that he wasn’t the father.
Then an at-home DNA test– done two decades later – concluded that Howard, who died years earlier, did indeed father B.J. Olson.
That 1997 test had been wrong, Olson said. He has since spent his entire adult life living with the fallout of a failed paternity test.
“That caused a lot of heartache between me and my mom,” Olson said. “I always felt like she was holding something back or maybe trying to protect somebody else.”
Though the industry says mistakes are rare, DNA paternity labs operate in secrecy and without Food & Drug Administration (FDA) oversight.
Families are left with little recourse when something goes wrong.
State laws also provide roadblocks to sons and daughters trying to claim a parent or to men trying to prove that they aren’t fathers.
When the results are wrong, the impacts can be seismic. Families are torn apart, lawsuits are filed, and identities are questioned.
It also leaves a medical-history void and a blank space on a birth certificate, which can lead to problems securing a U.S. passport.
“It doesn’t happen often, when it happens it can be detrimental,” said Barry Glazer, a Baltimore, Maryland lawyer who represented another man challenging the accuracy of paternity testing.
Olson’s story exposes some of the problems in the industry. It began when the state of South Dakota tried to collect child support from Howard.
Searching for the truth
Olson was 17 years-old when the South Dakota Department of Social Service required Olson’s father to submit a blood sample to determine paternity.
If proven to be the father, Howard would have been responsible to pay for thousands of dollars in back child support along with Olson’s medical bills.
When the results came back, Howard was excluded as Olson’s father.
Olson was stunned.
“I was a young boy wanting an answer,” Olson said.
After that, Olson said his relationship with his mother turned rocky, but he continued to seek the truth. He saw a commercial for a home DNA test kit from AncestryDNA. He ordered it and submitted a saliva sample for analysis in 2015.
“It was the longest two weeks of my life to get those results back,” Olson said. “I don’t know what I was expecting to get, but I had this big sense of hope.”
When Olson received the results, there were no connections to a father.
Two years later, in 2017, he logged back into AncestryDNA to help with his daughter’s homework on their family tree.
That’s when he matched with a woman named Joanna, who turned out to be Howard’s half-sister. Joanna was the missing link in Olson’s story. He began once again trying to prove that Howard might be his father.
Olson then tracked down the scientist who ran Howard’s blood test in 1997. The scientist showed him documentation that he said ruled Howard out as his father.
DNA labs are cloaked in secrecy
Home DNA testing kits are widely available and popular.
Companies such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe provide families the ability to learn more about their medical history and their genealogical tree.
But courts do not allow home testing kits to determine paternity. Rather, courts rely on blood samples collected and analyzed at labs.
And while the Federal Trade Commission oversees claims of false advertising related to home DNA kits, the paternity-testing industry largely polices itself.
The American Association of Blood Banks, or AABB, has taken on some oversight by creating standards and voluntary accreditation for DNA labs that administer court-recognized paternity tests.
AABB started with the purpose of regulating and developing standards and training for blood banks and transfusions, but in 1984 it began accrediting and inspecting DNA testing facilities.
If something does go wrong, those impacted, like Olson, have little recourse. There is no government regulator.
AABB said consumers with complaints will first contact the lab and if the complaint is not resolved then AABB will step in.
But the nonprofit organization would not explain to InvestigateTV how it handles complaints or what happens if complaints are validated.
Information about how DNA facilities operate is kept from the public. AABB doesn’t publish inspection reports, complaints or accuracy-rate data.
Consumers can’t find anything specific about those facilities besides their location from the AABB website.
InvestigateTV corresponded with AABB for months requesting information and an interview about its rules and standards.
A spokesman for the organization repeatedly referred InvestigateTV to its website to find answers. The spokesman would not comment on questions regarding specific facilities, inspections of or complaints against those labs.
“All AABB-accredited facilities undergo an assessment by an AABB assessor every two years,” the spokesman wrote. “To learn more about a facility’s most recent assessment, you may ask the facility directly. AABB is a voluntary accrediting body (not a regulatory body); therefore, information about assessment outcomes or facility-specific information is not shared.”
Facilities that InvestigateTV reached out to either did not respond or declined to comment.
AABB also declined on camera interview requests. Ultimately, the organization said that the only way to learn about AABB standards for DNA labs was to read the published manual.
AABB said there was a free two-week trial available. When InvestigateTV attempted to use the free trial in December 2020 and as recently as this month, the purchase order numbers did not appear to lead to a download option.
InvestigateTV bought the book, which costs $195 for a digital version or paperback. The book was about 80 pages long and included the standards for accredited labs.
For years AABB posted an annual survey of tests conducted by each lab but, that information hasn’t been updated since 2013.
AABB said it stopped publishing those reports because it now shares that information only with its members and accredited labs, a spokesman wrote in an email.
Testing failures lead to anguish
Worldwide, the AABB has accredited around 40 labs including DNA Diagnostic Center (DDC), one of the largest DNA testing facilities with locations in California, Illinois, Minnesota and many more.
In 2019, a Baltimore, Maryland man sued DNA Diagnostic Center in Fairfield, Ohio after he said a test incorrectly identified him as the father to a one-year-old girl, according to news reports.
With no government oversight, consumers only have the court system to mete out civil penalties against labs that caused them harm.
Believing that he was the father after taking a DNA test, the Baltimore man rented an apartment for the girl and her mother, paid child support and built a relationship with the baby, according to a news article in The Daily Record.
A few months later, a friend suggested that he wasn’t the father. He bought a second home DNA kit that was processed by a different lab. The results said that there was “zero” chance he was the father, the newspaper reported.
The man said follow-up tests also confirmed he was not the father.
The complaint, which has since been sealed, accuses DNA Diagnostics Center (DDC) of negligence; it also accuses the company of fraud by concealment because of its “100% accurate” claim on the company’s website, the newspaper said.
“Fathers get a bad rap these days, but then you’ve got people like (the Baltimore man) who stepped up and was supporting who he thought was his child and wanted to raise her,” the man’s attorney, Charles Edwards, told The Daily Record.
The court docket shows that the case was closed in 2020.
DDC did not respond to InvestigateTV’s request for comment.
Some states set time limits on proving paternity
Once B.J. Olson confirmed that Howard was his father who had died in 2010, he thought his ordeal was over.
South Dakota, like most states, has a long-held law that places a statute of limitations for claiming paternity. That law prevented Olson from accessing Howard’s medical history or applying for a passport.
Since 2019, Olson has fought to remove that provision in South Dakota. In some states, families have a time limit to prove paternity. Many require court action on paternity to occur before the age of 18, but some states provide exceptions, including in Olson’s home state of South Dakota. But that exception in South Dakota is too narrow for Olson’s case.
The statute of limitations for establishing paternity helps prevent people from making financial gains such as staking a claim to an inheritance, said Sandra Fava, who practices family law in New Jersey.
Some statutes of limitations also can keep nonbiological fathers on the hook for child support.
That’s what happened to a Missouri man known as T.B. in court papers.
In 2001, T.B. signed a document acknowledging that he fathered a child without submitting to a DNA test. The Missouri Department of Social Services “made an administrative determination declaring T.B. to be presumed or legal father of the child,” according to court records.
That allowed the courts to order him to pay child support.
A decade later, the mother admitted that she had lied and that T.B. was not the father of her child, court records say.
T.B. took a paternity test, which confirmed he was not the father. He took those results to court to halt the child support payments that he had been making for a decade.
But T.B. had waited too long.
Even though a judge acknowledged that T.B. was not the father, the judge denied the petition because “T.B. learned of the DNA test results in June of 2010, his petition filed in August of 2012 was too late.”
In Missouri, the statute of limitations on paternity claims ends when the child turns two. By the time T.B. filed his claim, the child was 11 years old.
In the state of Washington, Sen. Christine Rolfes tried to make changes in the statute of limitations in cases of paternity.
The bill would have prevented cases such as T.B.’s in Missouri. If genetic testing excluded a man as the father at any time, his name would be removed from the birth certificate and he would not continue to be responsible for child support.
But the bill died.
“I think it’s complicated,” Rolfes said. “I think there is a different answer depending on every circumstance which is probably why this doesn’t lend itself easily to being solved — quickly resolved in the legislative branch.”
Sandra Fava, the New Jersey family lawyer, has had success fighting statute of limitation provisions in some rare cases.
She represented a woman who needed the medical history of her birth parents. Fava was able to help her client by establishing “extraordinary circumstances” that would allow paternity and genetic testing of a man suspected to be her father. After finding photos of her father her mom kept away, she was able to present that to court.
The paternity confirmed the man was her father. Because the man suffered from an undisclosed medical condition, the court ruled that it was important for his daughter to know his health history.
In January 2020, Olson went to court in hopes of removing the statute of limitations for his case.
“I wanted the court to open up an investigation into how this all happened,” Olson said. “I wanted the court to recognize this problem exists and can easily be fixed with modern DNA technology.”
He wanted to have Howard’s name added as his father on his birth certificate.
“I have spent the last two years of my life working to correct an error that means nothing to nobody except myself. An error that defined my history but will not shape my future,” Olson wrote in an opening statement.
After bringing the issue before a Minnehaha County judge, no changes to the law have been made, despite his sympathy for Olson’s case.
With support from his wife and mother Linda, Olson continues to press South Dakota state lawmakers to review his case and consider changing the law. Howard’s immediate family did not respond to our request for comment for this story.
“We’re able to solve murders and crimes that have been committed 20, 30, 40 years ago based on DNA,” Olson said. “There should be absolutely no statute of limitations that is denying a person, the ability to prove who they are, regardless of how much time has passed.”
Olson launched his website “DeNied Access” to share his story with other families who have experienced inaccurate DNA testing results or are looking to change the statute of limitations.
“I feel that no person should be denied knowing who they are especially when DNA evidence can prove the truth,” Olson said in GoFundMe statement.
But the problem continues as Olson tried to get his passport renewed earlier this year.
On the second page of the application, it asks for his father’s information. But the document states that knowingly falsifying any information is punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000.00 fine.
No governmental agency has recognized Howard’s paternity. Olson has no choice but to leave the section blank even though he knows the truth.
Megan Luther contributed to this report.