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VOL. 121 | NO. 95 | Thursday, May 4, 2006

Who's Your Daddy? It's Easier to Find Out Than You Think

By Andrew Ashby

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NOT YOUR MAMA'S METHOD: It's a fast-paced world, and the DNA testing industry is no different - especially not locally. One Memphis company doesn't bat an eyelash at having parentage results in 48 hours. -- Photograph Courtesy Of Genetica Dna Laboratories Inc.

You don't have to see a billboard along Interstate 240 to know that DNA testing has been accepted as a part of the mainstream legal system. The "Who's the Daddy?" billboards posted across the city can seem sensational, but DNA testing is being used quietly in the legal community in everything from criminal to family law.

While DNA testing has been helpful to the legal community for years, the process constantly is improving, decreasing the turnaround time for test results.

A genome of an idea

Memphis-based Test Express Inc. can have DNA results within 48 hours of getting a saliva swab from potential parents and their children.

Ford Beach Jr., the CEO of Test Express, was introduced to DNA testing while he was a regional sales manager at MedExpress Laboratories in Memphis in the early 1990s. His company has been selling drug tests since 1998 and started DNA testing about six months ago. (To read our recent article about Beach's development efforts, visit www.memphisdailynews.com.)

One of the reasons the company is able to offer DNA testing in 48 hours is because it works in partnership with Cincinnati-based Genetica DNA Laboratories Inc., which guarantees a two-day turnaround.

Test Express sends a nurse to take a sample that is sent overnight to the laboratory. The cost for a non-legal test, one which will not stand up in court, can cost between $200 and $250, according to the company's Web site, www.testexpressinc.com.

Here's the lowdown on the rise of DNA testing:
- DNA testing is getting faster, with one Memphis-based company providing results in 48 hours.
- DNA evidence has become part of mainstream law, with results being used in everything from family to criminal cases.
- DNA testing replaced HLA tissue-typing tests in the mid-1980s.
- While DNA test results are not 100 percent accurate, the probability they are correct reaches into the upper 90th percentile.

Legal tests, which cost $525, include a chain-of-custody form charting the swabbing, along with Polaroid photos of the adults and children being tested. The form is a legal document that shows when and where the sample was collected in case it's used for evidence.

"The laboratory is the crux of the test and what you're paying the bulk of the money for," Beach said.

Irrefutable proof

Phillip Walker, a partner with Phillip R. Walker PLLC, has been practicing family law for 22 years. Before that, he worked in the Shelby County Juvenile Court's child support enforcement office.

He said the laws pertaining to the admissibility of DNA evidence were changed in the early 1990s to say that tests administered by a lab accredited by the American Association of Blood Banks were admissible unless challenged by the other side.

DNA testing is used in a variety of ways in the legal community, including the identification of perpetrators in sex crimes, assaults or homicides. Walker said using DNA results is very common in family law as well, especially in parentage cases, where it has become as easy to admit into evidence as an expert witness's testimony.

"DNA technology has been around for several years and the courts have begun to accept the fact that with this technology it's almost a certainty when identifying the parentage of a child," Walker said. "The procedure itself has become so routine, and is so commonly accepted that no one really questions it anymore. The law has begun to evolve to the point to accept that this technology can establish parentage or establish the identity of an alleged perpetrator to such a high probability."

Kramer v. Kramer

Walker said the court system has loosened presumptions about marriage over the years.

Old laws stated if a child was born during a marriage, one party couldn't challenge parentage unless he or she were away for an extended period of time, such as during military service.

"That law evolved when there wasn't any scientific testing you could use," Walker said. "The mother presumably knew, the father thought he knew, and there wasn't any way to tell."

Walker said the most recent appellate opinion is that any presumptions of parentage may be rebutted.

"If you have DNA evidence that establishes the child is not yours, then you can pretty much have a court rule to that effect," he said.

Although DNA testing occurs regularly in juvenile court, it also is used in divorce cases when there is a question of parentage for a child born during the marriage.

While DNA results are not 100 percent certain, the probability they are correct reaches well into the upper 90th percentile.

"The probabilities are so high that you're either going to be excluded or you're going to find that you're the father," Walker said.

As recently as the 1980s, courts used to rely on human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue-typing tests that detected the presence of certain genetic marker traits in the blood. HLA tests were accurate about 80 percent of the time. Walker said DNA testing came into the mainstream in the 1990s.

"The biggest impact it's had is that it provided a way for fathers to go back and challenge parentage of children that they couldn't have done previously under Tennessee law," Walker said. "It's also allows mothers and children to pursue child support from their fathers many years later."

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