Image: Facebook/Joe Cartellone / Facebook/Becca Cartellone

When Rebecca Cartellone purchased her mom and dad DNA testing kits for Christmas, she thought that the trio could explore their family history together. Perhaps she and her parents could bond, too, over tracing their roots. At the time, though, Rebecca had no idea just how much trouble her well-intentioned gift would cause. You see, when the Cartellones received the results of their respective tests, they uncovered a dark – and completely shocking – secret.

Image: Facebook/Joe Cartellone

Rebecca had been born in November 1994 to Joseph and Jennifer Cartellone, and she had remained the couple’s much beloved only child even as she grew up. In time, though, the Cartellones’ daughter was eager to learn more about her unique family heritage, which was Italian on her father’s side.

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With that in mind, Rebecca decided to gift her parents DNA tests so that they could all learn more about their roots. She would undergo the same procedure, too, so that she and her mom and dad could examine their shared heritage together. As Rebecca handed over the presents to her folks, though, she had no idea that the findings would come to tear her world apart.

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It’s fair to say that at-home DNA testing has emerged as something of a phenomenon in the last decade. That rise seems to have been fueled, moreover, by the public’s interest in family history. In 2014, in fact, genealogy became the second most popular hobby in the United States. And the concept of tracing one’s heritage is now a billion-dollar enterprise that is catered to by a number of websites, books and TV shows.

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Meanwhile, genetic testing kits as we know them today first hit the market in 2007 – the same year that 23andMe launched its saliva-based DNA test. Family history giant Ancestry followed by launching its own DNA service in 2012, and this has since risen to become one of the most popular such schemes in the world. It may have helped, however, that as of 2019 Ancestry has accumulated over ten million people on its database – thus making the chances of finding previously unknown relatives a distinct possibility.

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So, how do these tests work? Well, naturally, they require a user to provide a DNA sample, and this typically comes by way of a spit cup, a cheek swab, mouthwash or even chewing gum. The customer then returns their completed kit to a provider, which subsequently analyzes the DNA to give an estimate of that person’s ethnicity. But while the results can give some fascinating insights into your heritage, there are nevertheless some risks to the process, too.

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You see, as DNA genealogy testing has risen in popularity, occasional horror stories have emerged. There are people who have been given the wrong results, for instance, while others have made discoveries that have changed their lives forever. So while the equipment used in the analysis of your DNA is generally sound, the findings themselves may come as a shock.

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For example, one man claimed online that he had unknowingly been dating his half-sister. According to the poster, the couple had known beforehand that they had both been born through IVF and sperm donation, and so they had each hoped to learn more about their paternal heritage. The anonymous Reddit user added that his girlfriend had therefore bought both of them DNA test kits for Christmas.

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The Redditor said, however, that when the pair had received their DNA results, they had found that they were in fact half-siblings who shared the same father. It seemed likely, then, that both had been conceived using sperm from the same donor. And when sharing the news in 2019, the poster revealed his astonishment, writing, “I have to express what my mental state is now. To put it in simple words: I feel traumatized.”

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The man in question also posted what appeared to be the results from the DNA service and claimed that he’d been torn between his love for his girlfriend and the notion that they’d been unwittingly committing incest. And as you can imagine, the discovery apparently left both him and his partner in utter shock and desperately seeking further answers.

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Elsewhere online, there are countless stories of people who have found out the real truth of their parentage. For instance, in 2018 The Guardian relayed the story of a woman named only as Michèle, who had reportedly discovered that the man who had raised her as his daughter wasn’t her biological father.

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Prior to sending off her DNA for analysis, Michèle had taken a keen interest in her heritage. In fact, she’d managed to trace her supposed father’s bloodline all the way back to the 1600s. When the results of the DNA test came back, however, they were at odds with what Michèle had learned; instead, they claimed that she was around half Italian. And, understandably, the puzzled woman duly went to her nearest and dearest for answers.

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But while Michèle’s mother claimed not to know anything about her daughter’s Italian ancestry, another family member appeared more clued up. You see, the Ancestry database suggested that Michèle had first cousins with an Italian surname in her hometown of Syracuse, New York. And Michèle’s aunt was able to link her niece to the strangers, too.

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In fact, Michèle’s relative recalled something astonishing: when Michèle’s mom had been 18, she’d had a prom date who happened to possess the same last name as the cousins in Syracuse. And while, sadly, this man had since died, it nonetheless seemed likely that he was Michèle’s biological father.

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Yet genealogist Debbie Kennett knows that Michèle’s experience is not all that uncommon. Indeed, Kennett told The Guardian that DNA testing may actually open up a “can of worms” for certain people. She added, “There have been a lot of secrets covered up in the past, and they are starting to come out.”

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Revealing what happens in such cases, Kennett continued, “When people get these unexpected findings, they tend to distrust the science at first… But even close matches can only reveal so much in isolation. The DNA on its own doesn’t give the science; you need the contextual family information as well.”

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As a result of such cases, then, Catherine St Clair launched the NPE Friends Facebook group in 2017. “NPE” stands for “Not Parent Expected,” with the community itself being a place that people can join after DNA testing reveals that their mothers or fathers are not who they believed they were. St Clair created the group, moreover, after she discovered that the man who had raised her was not her biological dad.

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Describing how she had felt when she had unearthed her true parentage, St Clair told the New York Post in 2018, “You feel completely alone and isolated. It’s like having an infection that’s deep under your skin that keeps festering. And it’s painful, and it’s getting worse and worse. Only after it’s exposed to air can it start to heal.”

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It’s safe to say, then, that some people who’ve partaken in at-home DNA testing have discovered more than they bargained for. And as it happens, the Cartellones would find themselves among that unfortunate group. Yes, after they had received the results of their individual genealogy kits, the tight-knit family came to see that they had been living a lie.

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It only became clear that something was amiss, however, when Rebecca, Joseph and Jennifer’s DNA results came back in February 2019. These findings showed that while Rebecca appeared to be matched to her mother, there seemed to be less of a link with her father. In fact, it appeared that Rebecca and Joseph had no genetic makeup in common.

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And when talking to Good Morning America in August 2019, Joseph revealed what had subsequently transpired. The distraught dad said, “When we looked at the results, what we immediately noticed was that there were no traces of Italian DNA in [Rebecca’s results] at all… And her DNA matched my wife’s pretty closely.”

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At first, then, Joseph believed that there had been some kind of mistake with the DNA results, and this led him to call the kit’s maker. In response, though, the company explained the process that the samples underwent. And, ultimately, Joseph began to realize that there was a chance he and Rebecca weren’t related after all.

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So, in order to get to the bottom of the mystery, Joseph and Rebecca took a paternity test together. And when the results of that study came back, the pair’s greatest fear was realized: they were not biologically connected at all. Joseph went on to explain to Good Morning America, “My disbelief turned quickly to shock and then ultimately to anger that this could possibly be the case.”

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In an attempt to find answers to his questions, though, Joseph had to go all the way back to 1993. During that year, he and Jennifer had visited what was then named the Greater Cincinnati Institute for Reproductive Health after they had experienced difficulties conceiving. And after seeing what offers they had on the table, the couple had decided to try in vitro fertilization, or IVF.

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As many will know, IVF involves an egg being fertilized with sperm in a lab environment before it is implanted inside a woman’s uterus. And before the Cartellones underwent the procedure, they had been assured that Joseph’s sperm would be used to inseminate Jennifer’s eggs. So, just what had gone wrong?

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Well, in light of Rebecca’s DNA results, it appears that sperm belonging to someone else was used during the IVF process. Naturally, then, the Cartellone family felt as though they had been betrayed. Speaking at a news conference in August 2019, Joseph explained, “This has been extremely difficult for my family.”

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Joseph continued, “I never would have imagined the Christmas gift of a home DNA kit would unveil this kind of abuse of our trust. For our daughter Rebecca, it’s even tougher. She’s experiencing significant emotional stress and confusion concerning her own identity.” It appeared, too, that the results had also had a major impact on the man who had previously assumed he was Rebecca’s biological father.

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Speaking candidly at the news conference, Joseph said, “It’s hard to explain the shock and agony when you find out that someone you love and care for — your own daughter — is not genetically related to you… There’s a mix of anger, pain and confusion that comes along with having to accept this and having to break the news to our family.”

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And while speaking about Jennifer’s reaction, Joseph revealed, “She has to deal with the fact that this clinic… fertilized her eggs with a complete stranger’s sperm and placed them in her body… She’s profoundly disappointed that she can no longer give birth to a child with both of our genetics… And that’s exactly why we sought the help of doctors… in the first place.”

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So, after making their shocking discovery, Joseph and Jennifer filed a civil lawsuit against The Christ Hospital Health Network, Ovation Fertility Cincinnati and what is today called the Institute for Reproductive Health. In particular, the Cartellones alleged that the original lab that had helped them conceive Rebecca had in fact used another man’s sperm.

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The law firm representing the family, Peiffer Wolf Carr & Kane, specializes in taking on fertility clinics for alleged misconduct. And while speaking at the Cartellones’ press conference, managing shareholder Joseph C. Peiffer said of the family’s case, “This is a massive betrayal of trust and an unthinkable break of trust.”

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According to the firm, moreover, only one of five people could be Rebecca’s biological father – with a doctor at The Christ Hospital allegedly among these individuals. Crucially, The Christ Hospital had previously been associated with the Greater Cincinnati Institute for Reproductive Health, where Joseph and Jennifer had undergone IVF.

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Commenting on Rebecca’s potential paternity, the Cartellones’ lawyer Adam Wolf told the Daily Mail, “The defense should go through their records and find whose sperm they used to create the embryo… We have no idea if this was intentional or a horrifically negligent accident. We’ve asked, but we’ve been met with radio silence.”

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And as you would expect, Joseph and Jennifer had signed a contract with The Christ Hospital before the procedure went ahead. However, according to an August 2019 report by CNN, the medical establishment was withholding comment owing to the pending litigation. Instead, The Christ Hospital simply stated that it was “evaluating the allegations surrounding events alleged to have occurred in the early 1990s.”

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The affiliated Institute for Reproductive Health, by contrast, issued a statement that said it hadn’t been in operation in 1994. Any possible error, then, lay at the feet of The Christ Hospital’s former lab. The message to CNN read, “Because this alleged incident occurred in The Christ Hospital’s laboratory before our practice and laboratory existed, we cannot comment on what may or may not have occurred in their laboratory.” But perhaps it’s not that straightforward.

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You see, Wolf has claimed that the lab director and doctor who had previously worked at the original Greater Cincinnati Institute were now based at the newer Institute for Reproductive Health. Even so, neither of those people were named as defendants in the lawsuit, which alleges negligence and breach of contract.

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According to CNN, the lawsuit also asserts that Jennifer was the victim of battery, as she hadn’t agreed to have her embryo fertilized by a stranger. With that in mind, the Cartellones were seeking financial compensation of an unknown sum; the couple have also requested the name of Rebecca’s biological dad along with his medical history.

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In addition, the Cartellones are apparently eager to know if Joseph’s sperm was used elsewhere. In August 2019 Wolf told NBC-affiliated channel WCMH-TV, “If you provide sperm to create an embryo, and you find out that sperm was not used for your daughter, you have to wonder, ‘Where did your sperm go?’”

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Plus, Wolf and his clients have called for a change in the way in which the fertility industry is run in the United States. The lawyer explained to the Daily Mail, “There needs to be mandatory inspections of facilities, consequences if something in the facility [goes wrong] and certification requirements for fertility clinics… In most states, you don’t need even need to be certified to run. In Ohio, you can open up a center in your basement.”

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The Cartellones’ suit continues to make its way through legal proceedings, although it may be a long journey to the truth. And in the meantime, Rebecca can only wonder about who she is and whether she has further biological relatives – ones that she may not have known about if it hadn’t been for an at-home DNA test.

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