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INSIDE STORY

Is He or Isn't He?

When the Biological Father Is in Question, a Little-Known DNA Lab in Long Beach Devoted to Parentage Testing Delivers an Answer That's 99.9% Sure.

September 07, 1997|Debra J. Hotaling | Debra J. Hotaling is a frequent contributor to The Times

As Dr. Jeffrey Morris escorts his visitor into the blood-drawing room, he glances over to the phone where 10--no, 11--lines light up the console, half of them blinking anxiously.

'Everyone wants to tell his story," says Morris, shaking his head.

While the particulars may vary, most of the calls will recount the same tale--the woman claiming her former boyfriend/husband/lover is the father of her child, his denying it.

Now it comes down to Morris and his staff at Long Beach Genetics to sort it out, amid test tubes and spectrophotometers and computers busily performing Bayesian statistical analysis to answer the $64,000 question: Is he or isn't he?

Tucked away in a nondescript Rancho Dominquez business park, Long Beach Genetics is one of the country's largest DNA testing labs devoted exclusively to parentage testing. This year, the facility will determine--with greater than 99% accuracy--whether the man in question is indeed the father in more than 16,000 cases. According to the American Assn. of Blood Banks, a nonprofit organization responsible for accrediting genetic testing facilities, there are about 75 DNA testing labs operating in the United States, up from 20 in 1988. Last year, the 51 labs accredited by the AABB performed 172,316 of the roughly 200,000 DNA tests done annually. While some parentage tests are performed to privately settle a question of paternity, the majority are conducted as part of legal action.

For entertainers, long the targets of paternity suits, the availability of genetic parentage testing adds a new wrinkle to predicaments once settled quietly between lawyers. After the conclusion in July of the Bill Cosby-Autumn Jackson case, in which Jackson was convicted of attempting to extort $40 million from Cosby by alleging he was her biological father, Cosby voluntarily took a blood test to settle whether he or the man named on Jackson's birth certificate, Jerald Jackson, is the 22-year-old's biological father. Jackson's lawyer has said she will probably submit to a blood test, but not until her sentencing Oct. 22.

The bulk of Long Beach Genetics' work comes from the offices of district attorneys as the courts try to track--some would say hunt--down the biological fathers of women applying for financial assistance through Aid to Families With Dependent Children, more commonly known as AFDC, as well as mothers not on welfare seeking child support from biological fathers. Between 75% to 80% of AFDC applications involve only one parent. Since 1988, single mothers have been required to name the biological father before they can receive child-support benefits. According to Barbara Catlow, assistant director of the L.A. district attorney's Bureau of Family Support, paternity is in question in 90% of the 314,000 cases her office is processing where child support orders are pending.

"We do between 200 to 250 blood tests per month," Catlow says, "although I expect that number to grow as we're able to locate more of the men to be tested."

Since very few of the men named in AFDC applications willingly step forward, the courts can compel them to submit to a blood test to determine whether the paternity allegation is true. The state of California pays medical technicians from Long Beach Genetics to make weekly visits to local prisons to draw blood for pending cases. (In far-flung cases, the lab can call on 2,000 hospitals and clinics worldwide where blood can be drawn.) As many recall from that popular genetics course, O.J. 101, DNA testing is performed by isolating and removing DNA from white blood cells. It isn't necessary to examine all 100,000 pairs of genes in paternity tests; instead, geneticists isolate a handful of DNA markers so variable that, in 99.9% of the cases, only a parent could share the same genetic markers.

*

This afternoon at long Beach Genetics, lab employees busy themselves opening sealed packages from the counties of San Joaquin, Stanislaus and San Diego, all containing blood samples waiting to be tested. For the mother, child and alleged father to be tested, it costs $450 and takes about 10 days to receive results.

"Here," says Morris, a large, avuncular man in his mid-50s, as a staffer hands him a test tube filled with a clear liquid. "Look closely."

As he swirls the vessel, something delicate and white--like a tiny piece of wet Kleenex--floats daintily in an alcohol solution. Morris smiles proudly. "This is a sample of about 600 micrograms of extracted DNA."

Morris ushers his guest into the heart of the lab, where technicians bend carefully over racks of test tubes. Once extracted, the DNA strands are inserted into a slab of gel and suffused with an electrical charge that causes the DNA fragments to line up according to size. The fragments are sorted, and DNA probes--distinctively marked pieces of DNA--identify the specific fragments that will be used to assess the likelihood of paternity.

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