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Family history: DNA test results don't always provide happy endings

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Sometimes it's better to be emotionally detached from the work that I do and the impact that the results of my research can have on people.

This has certainly been true over the past few weeks while I've been helping a young woman try to find her father. It's one of those stories you couldn't possibly make up, since the truth is far more powerful than fiction.

DNA test results don't always provide a happy outcome

Michelle was a child of the 70s, her birth registered without a father's name. She was raised by her grandmother after her mother struggled with epilepsy and various mental health issues. At the age of 16 Michelle asked her mother about the identity of her father and was told the name of a man with whom her mother had had a relationship.

Several years later Michelle married and now has children of her own. Finding her father was growing increasingly more important to her and so using family history tracing skills Michelle thought she found him.

Plucking up courage she never knew she had she made contact. They quickly formed a bond and felt comfortable enough in each other's company to be able to commit to a DNA test, only to discover to their joint disappointment that they weren't father and daughter after all.

Understandably Michelle gave up, wounded and grown fragile by the impact of the search for her father and that disastrous DNA test.

I don't know what made her start again, but she emailed me last year asking for help and I could not say no.

After what I imagine must have been a very difficult conversation with her mother she was eventually given the name of another man, John. Luckily her aunt could remember where he had lived and some other brief details.

So I sent Michelle off to her local archives to hunt through the electoral registers for the address she had, to see if she could trace the family around the time of her conception. The registers are not alphabetical by surname or even street, but usually comprise apparently random streets which are laid out geographically according to polling districts.

However, once found in a single register it is easy to go sideways to see when the family might have moved to that address and when new voters are added to the list, indicating that a person recently reached voting age (not forgetting that this was reduced from 21 years to 18 in 1969).

These details can then be cross-referenced against the birth indexes to learn the actual age and middle names of a person. This makes it easier to look for them in marriage and death indexes and to trace their children.

And so Michelle acquired the birth and marriage certificates for John and the address matched. The next step was to try to find him, which is not that simple when you don't know where they live and they have a common name.

After some very careful consideration and much deliberation and debate it was decided that an ambiguously worded letter from me about researching a family history for that surname would be enough to establish whether the letter had been sent to the right man. This system is not without its flaws but, after toying with the idea of a personal visit or a phone call or making contact on Facebook by either Michelle or myself, it seemed the best way.

Several letters and some weeks later my phone rang. It was him. My mouth felt dry and my mind emptied of the facts. I told myself to breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

He had been waiting for this day. He knew about the pregnancy. He wanted to provide support. He wanted to do the right thing. But he was told that the baby was not his and since she did not share any physical similarities he felt it best to take a step back.

Neither could bear the thought of forming a relationship without being certain and so, incredibly, for the second time in her life Michelle completed another DNA test.

I'll let Michelle tell you the end of her story...

"After weeks of waiting for the whole process to be completed, I opened up an email that told me I still had not found my dad. The probability of paternity was 0% and the alleged father [John] was excluded as the biological father of the tested child.

"But what I now know is that without contacting Cat I would not have got to the end of this journey. Cat pointed me in the right direction with electoral registers and getting copies of birth and marriage certificates but, most importantly, she was able to speak to John and explain why I was looking for him without putting myself through extra anguish and anxiety.

"With Cat's help I managed to trace someone halfway around the world and even though it turns out that John is not my dad I think that my family and I will have a friendship with him for the rest of our lives.

"I have wanted a dad all my life and I still do not know where the other half of me has come from. It all could have ended up so perfect. As for my future, I do not have any more leads and have no contact with my mother, so I will lay the search for my dad to rest and resign myself to never knowing."

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