The Dark Side of DNA Tests: Woman Uncovers Century-Old Family Mystery

Like all new technologies, DNA testing has a good side, a bad side, and as author Margaret Atwood said, a stupid side you hadn’t considered eight years ago. 72-year-old Washington native Alice Collins Plebeach made a decision that would change her life forever. She sent samples of her saliva for a just-for-fun DNA test. Alice, a devout Irish-American Catholic, thought she had a good idea about what the DNA test results would say. However, when the results came back, Alice was shocked. She wasn’t who she thought she was. This revelation sent Alice and her siblings on a years-long journey to uncover the mystery surrounding their identities.

Questions about her family had preoccupied Alice for years. Her mother, named Alice, was into genealogy and kept an old family book with handwritten names, births, and deaths of their relatives. Alice found her mother’s side easy to follow, even before genealogy records were available online. Her mother was Irish on one side and Scottish and English on the other, with some relatives in America dating back to colonial times. Alice traced some of her mother’s ancestors back to the 1500s. But with each update to her mother’s lineage, Alice felt guilty because her father’s side of the family was a different story.

Jim Collins, Alice’s father, was the son of Irish immigrants, and he knew little about his family history. His mother had passed away when Jim was a baby, and his father couldn’t care for him, so he gave Jim away to a Catholic orphanage. Jim didn’t even know his exact birth year, believing he was a year older than he really was. As her father grew older, Alice decided it was time to dive into his lineage and discover where he came from. She already knew some details of his tough childhood in the orphanage.

However, what Alice didn’t know was where Jim came from and what happened to his parents. When her father passed away in 1999, Alice couldn’t provide him with more information. In the years that followed, Alice tried to find a paper trail, discovering that Jim was born in the Bronx, New York, to Irish immigrant parents. She also found the name of the orphanage where he grew up, St. Agnes Home and School. But her research yielded little information.

Then, in 2012, at-home DNA kits became available. Alice saw an opportunity to make her research easier. She and her sister Jerry took DNA tests, expecting to find Irish and Scottish ancestry. However, their results showed a surprising combination of European Jewish, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern heritage alongside their British Isles ancestry. Alice was determined to get to the bottom of the family secrets and uncover their true identities.

The DNA test results were only the beginning, providing Alice with the « what » but not the « why. » Alice, an IT manager before her retirement, was well-equipped to handle data analysis and research. She began searching for patterns in the chaos, aiming to answer the complex questions about their family’s history. She considered the possibility of her mother having had an affair, but that seemed unlikely. The lingering fear was that her father might have been switched at birth or that his parents were not who they claimed to be.

To solve the mystery, Alice had two cousins take DNA tests, one on each side of her family. The results from her maternal cousin were as expected, but the results from her paternal cousin were peculiar. They showed that Alice and her paternal cousin were genetically unrelated, which meant that Jim’s sister was not actually his sister. This left Alice frustrated and feeling adrift, as her identity and family history became uncertain.

By 2013, the Collins children were getting closer to solving their father’s mystery. They had Jim’s birth certificate and learned that he had been sent to an orphanage by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Alice explored the possibility of a mix-up at the hospital but found no conclusive evidence. She even considered whether Jim had been confused with another child at the orphanage.

Then, in January 2015, Alice’s life changed forever when she contacted a cousin who had taken a DNA test. She discovered a stranger, Jessica Benson, who had taken a DNA test hoping to learn about her Jewish roots but found unexpected Irish ancestry. Alice and Jessica’s conversation revealed a connection, with both having grandparents born at Fordham Hospital in 1913. Further research uncovered that Jim and Jessica’s grandfather were born around the same time and were processed by the same doctor.

The truth was unveiled, indicating that Jim had been switched at birth with Jessica’s grandfather. Hospitals in 1913 did not have a robust system for keeping track of newborns, making it easy for a momentary lapse of attention to result in a baby switch. The Collins and Benson families exchanged photos, providing visual confirmation of the switch. Jim Collins looked much more like Jessica’s family, reinforcing the revelation.

Both families couldn’t help but ponder the « what-if » questions. While they consider it a blessing that Jim wasn’t alive during the era of at-home DNA testing, they also wonder about the different lives they might have led had the switch not happened in 1913. The Collins children owe their existence to a simple mistake with complex consequences, revealing a family mystery and a lifetime of identity mix-up.