When Lydia Fairchild was asked to prove her children’s parentage in order to receive public assistance, she presumably thought little of it. So she and her kids dutifully completed their DNA tests and sent them off for analysis. But little did Fairchild know that the results would be so unnerving that she would risk losing her little ones.
In 2006 Fairchild was 26, an unemployed mother of two and pregnant with her third child. At that time, she’d applied to her home state of Washington for public assistance. However, in order to receive government help, Fairchild’s children would be subjected to DNA testing to prove that they’d been fathered by Fairchild’s ex-partner Jamie Townsend.
Fairchild agreed to the testing, as she was confident of her children’s heritage. So when she was asked by the Department of Social Services to meet with them straight away, she presumed that she was being called in for a standard appointment. However, as she sat with a social worker, it soon became clear that this wasn’t the case.
All of a sudden, in fact, it dawned on Fairchild that she was being treated like some kind of criminal. However, she had no idea why. “As I sat down, they came up and shut the door,” she told ABC News in 2006. “And they just went back and just started drilling me with questions like, ‘Who are you?’”
It soon transpired that the DNA tests Fairchild’s children had completed had thrown up some unsettling results. They had proved that Townsend was indeed the kids’ father. But it was Fairchild’s link to her offspring that was now under question, with the state wondering whether the mom-of-two was guilty of welfare fraud – or perhaps something even more sinister.
Because of the unusual results from the DNA tests, Fairchild would now need to prove that her children were her own. And frankly, she couldn’t believe what she was being asked. “I knew that I carried them, and I knew that I delivered them,” Fairchild explained. “There was no doubt in my mind.”
Given her vivid memories of her pregnancies and births, Fairchild was convinced that there must have been some sort of mistake with her children’s DNA results. But her protests to the state fell on deaf ears. Fairchild recalled how one social worker had told her, “Nope. DNA is 100 percent foolproof, and it doesn’t lie.”
Because of the DNA results, Fairchild was unable to claim any public support for her children. And even more worryingly, Fairchild was also at risk of having her kids removed from her care. To make her dire situation clear, a social worker had warned Fairchild, “You know, we’re able to come get your kids at any time.”
Realizing how serious things were becoming for her family, Fairchild began to worry. She was nonetheless in no doubt that her children were hers. So in order to find some kind of proof of their origin, she rushed home to look for her kids’ birth certificates and some photographic evidence of her pregnancies.
Fairchild also informed her parents about the suspect DNA results, and they too were dumbfounded. In fact, they initially thought that their daughter was playing some kind of prank on them. Her mother, Carol Fairchild, had been with her grandchildren from the very beginning. And she knew for a fact that they belonged to Fairchild.
Revealing her shocked reaction to Fairchild’s DNA revelation, Carol told ABC News in August 2016, “I thought she was joking but then she started crying on the phone. I said, ‘Oh, it’s got to be a mistake.’ I was there when the kids were born. I saw them come out. I held them in my arms, you know.”
Moreover, Fairchild’s father, Rod, was as confused as his wife and his daughter by the DNA results. “I almost went insane inside,” he told ABC News. “I couldn’t imagine why this could happen. My daughter is not a liar.” As a result, the Fairchild family had no choice but to fight the DNA results in court.
One person who knew for sure that Fairchild had given birth to all of her children was her obstetrician, Dr. Leonard Dreisbach. So when Fairchild called him, he promised her that he would stand up for her in court. “I would have told them that she certainly had these three kids, and that they were hers, and that I don’t know what’s wrong with the DNA testing, but I know that she had the kids,” Dreisbach explained to ABC News.
However, even Dreisbach’s testimony was disregarded by the state. That’s because DNA was considered to be foolproof by the courts. And according to the results, Fairchild shared none of her genetic make-up with her own children. But for Fairchild and her family, things still simply didn’t add up.
Nonetheless, there was a small chance that the DNA results could have been mistaken due to some sort of human error. So, in order to eliminate this risk, new DNA tests were taken and sent to different labs. Fairchild endured an excruciating wait, but the results came back the same as the first ones.
Given that the new results appeared to confirm that Fairchild’s children weren’t hers, it now seemed that she would surely lose them. And following three hearings, she was advised by a judge to acquire legal representation in order to continue fighting her case in court. But Fairchild soon found that many attorneys weren’t prepared to go up against apparently infallible DNA evidence.
Eventually, a lawyer named Alan Tindell said he would represent Fairchild. But before he did so, he quizzed her at great length regarding her connection to her kids. He reportedly asked her, “These aren’t your sister’s children? These aren’t your brother’s children? You didn’t abduct these children from anyone?” And from Fairchild’s unyielding replies, he decided she was telling the truth.
So Tindell began preparing Fairchild’s case. In the meantime, though, the mom was still scared witless that her children would be taken from her. In her desperation, Fairchild even prepared to send her kids into hiding. But soon enough she received word that the state was ready to recommence legal proceedings.
Recalling this frightening time in her life, Fairchild told ABC News, “Getting that summons in the mail to go to court, that they were trying to take my kids from me, my stomach just went into a big old knot. I just started crying, and I called my family, and I held my kids and was scared.”
Fairchild tried to hide her anguish from her children but was sometimes overcome by emotion. “I’d sit and have dinner with my kids and just break out crying,” she explained. “They would just look at me like, ‘What’s wrong, Mom.’ They’d come get me a hug, and I couldn’t explain it to them, because I didn’t understand,”
For Fairchild, then, it must have felt as though she was in an impossible position. She would have to go up against the state and somehow prove that her children were her own. However, the gold standard of evidence – the DNA results – claimed the exact opposite. With that in mind, Fairchild had no idea how she would win the legal battle for her kids.
But a breakthrough in the case occurred when it was discovered that there was another woman in the U.S. with a remarkably similar story to Fairchild’s. Her name was Karen Keegan, and she came from Boston. But while she lived on the opposite side of the country, she’d experienced something that would doubtless sound familiar to Fairchild.
Keegan’s story began back in 1998 when she required a new kidney. In order to find a suitable donor, her family had given blood samples to see if they were suitable. However, that’s when something unexpected happened. Like Fairchild, Keegan discovered that her kids didn’t share her genetic makeup.
In an interview with ABC News, Keegan later recalled how the doctor had broken the shocking news. She remembered that they’d told her, “Mrs. Keegan, we have some unusual news to report to you. We’ve never had this happen before, but your children don’t match your DNA.”
Dr. Lynne Uhl is a doctor of transfusion medicine and a pathologist at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. As a result, she’d worked on the team in charge of Keegan’s transplant. But despite her considerable experience, Uhl had never seen a case like that of Keegan and her children.
“Any child from a mom and dad should inherit genes from both the mom and the dad,” Uhl told ABC News. “In Keegan’s case, it appeared that her two boys hadn’t inherited any of her DNA. They weren’t hers. So we scratched our heads and said, ‘This is really unusual. How can this be?’”
With that in mind, over in Boston medical experts began putting to Keegan the same kind of queries that Fairchild would later face in Washington. They asked where her children came from, given the fact they shared no DNA with her. But like Fairchild, Keegan had no other answer apart from telling them that she knew they were her sons.
“They wanted to know the name of the hospital where my children were born,” Keegan told ABC News. “They had some other thoughts, like perhaps this was some kind of in vitro fertilization or even worse, that this woman just might not be completely telling the truth or even be psychologically unbalanced in some way.”
Keegan’s doctors were clearly eager to get to the bottom of her case. “It was a medical mystery,” Uhl explained. “Certainly, there were individuals whom we ran the story by who said, ‘There must be a skeleton in the closet.” However, the medical team were about to discover that Keegan was being completely honest with them.
When samples from Keegan’s blood, mouth and hair still failed to tally with her sons’ DNA, she then told Uhl about a nodule she’d had excised previously. The team eventually located the tissue in a local laboratory and took it for testing. Finally, doctors found DNA that matched Keegan to her sons.
It was then that Keegan’s doctors realized she had a rare syndrome known as chimerism. Greek mythology defines a “chimera” as a monster that is a terrifying mash-up of a snake, lion, and goat. And in human biology, chimerism is characterized by an organism with more than one set of genetic codes.
Chimerism is believed to be caused when two fertilized eggs join in the womb and transform into a single fetus. Put simply, it creates one person that contains the genetic blueprints of two separate people. So, biologically speaking, it is as though chimeras, like Keegan, are also somehow their own twin.
The only evidence of the existence of the “twin” is their DNA, which lives on inside of the chimera as a distinct genetic code. So you get two biological human beings in the form of one. Explaining Keegan’s case, Uhl told ABC News, “In her blood, she was one person, but in other tissues, she had evidence of being a fusion of two individuals.”
In human biology, chimeras are extremely rare. However, they are seen more frequently in other species – for example, marmosets. So given the scarcity of her condition, Keegan was shocked to learn that, in a way, she was her own twin. “You wouldn’t imagine that that could even be possible,” she said.
So, after it was discovered that Keegan was her own twin, there was a chance that the same was also true for Fairchild. However, she would still have to prove that she too was a chimera. And in the meantime, she was forced to give birth to her third child in the presence of a court official.
That official was charged with witnessing a DNA test that would take place almost immediately after Fairchild delivered the infant. “They took DNA from the baby and myself right then and there, after birth,” she would later tell ABC News. “And it came back that there is no way possible that baby is mine.”
Despite the fact that the birth of Fairchild’s third child had been witnessed by a court official, the authorities reportedly still believed that she could have been carrying the baby as a surrogate. This meant that she may have been having the child for someone else in exchange for cash. As a result, she was still no closer to proving a biological link between herself and her children.
Thankfully, though, that’s when Fairchild’s lawyer Tindell read about Keegan’s case in The New England Journal of Medicine. Tindell believed there was a possibility that Fairchild could be a chimera, too, so the attorney decided to explore that avenue. “I asked the judge to postpone the case until these tests could be done,” Tindell told ABC News.
And Tindell’s hunch was right. Because it turned out that Fairchild, like Keegan, was a chimera – and therefore her own twin. Finally, the court accepted the evidence that Fairchild’s children belonged to her and threw out the case against her. But there’s no denying that she’d come worryingly close to losing her kids.
In fact, if it wasn’t for her attorney discovering Keegan’s case, Fairchild is all too aware of how things might have panned out. “I probably wouldn’t have my kids today if they didn’t discover her situation,” Fairchild told ABC News. “They wouldn’t have known to even consider me as a chimera.”