Selected writing: UK

Dumped on our doorstep

February 4, 2007

Thousands of children traumatised by civil war or trafficked for profit are abandoned in Britain every year. But this is no safe haven. Asylum is routinely refused — and now they face being sent home to be exploited, tortured or raped

The language of the letter will make you blanch. The scepticism and sheer inhumanity of its tone cannot fail to anger you. Or it could not if you had sat, as I have for the past hour, listening to Maria describe how her childhood was brought to an end when her father was slaughtered in front of her by government soldiers, and how she was then imprisoned, repeatedly raped and tortured.

As Maria’s slight frame begins to tremble when she comes to the darkest details of her account, her young niece Madalea, who has been lying curled up by her 19-year-old aunt’s side, gets up and leaves. From the next room I hear the 11-year-old singing to herself, as if to block out memories of the atrocity she too witnessed.

Maria and Madalea, 15 and 7 at the time, had tried to escape the soldiers, like everyone in their small community in a remote part of Angola, by fleeing into the forest. But most were captured and forced to march through the night to a prison, where they were abused for five weeks until soldiers opposed to the government freed them. The two girls spent the next 18 months in a refugee camp, before being smuggled over the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo in the back of a lorry by an aid worker who had befriended Maria.

Though Maria does not say so, I later see documentation that suggests she was abused by the aid worker, who was white but whose nationality the girls did not know. Perhaps owing to a guilty conscience, he then took the two girls to an international airport and, using hastily acquired documents, accompanied them on a flight to London. From the airport he took them to a restaurant in east London, where he left them, saying he would return. When he did not come back, the girls were found crying by a customer who knew enough Portuguese to realise what had happened. She took them to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office, where they claimed asylum. Little over six months later their request was refused.

Like so many of the thousands of children who arrive alone in this country claiming asylum each year, many on the basis of appalling violence, deprivation and abuse they’ve suffered in their own countries, the two girls were held to be lying. As far as the government is concerned, the main reason nearly all have come here is to improve their education or standard of living.

The wording of the Home Office letter in which Maria and Madalea’s plea for safe refuge was refused illustrates how entrenched this culture of disbelief is. It throws into stark relief how some of the world’s most vulnerable children are treated on arrival here.

The girls’ account of being helped out of the country by a man the letter refers to as “the Good Samaritan” is dismissed as “implausible”. “She [Maria] would then have me believe that a complete stranger helped them,” it scoffs at their explanation of what happened when they sat crying in a restaurant after being abandoned. “It beggars belief,” the letter continues, that neither Maria, nor her legal representative or a medical professional, had “sought to elicit information” from Madalea about her experiences in the camp, nor have her “medically tested”. This takes no account of the fact that for two months the girls, whose only support initially came from the Refugee Council, repeatedly sought help at the offices of social services in the London borough where they were staying, and were refused.

As to what it calls Maria’s “alleged rape”, the letter says: “There was no evidence that she suffered untoward consequences like HIV

or sexually transmitted diseases. Even assuming she was raped, I do not find that it was for Refugee Convention reasons but for reasons of sexual gratification…” In other words, her rape did not contravene the Geneva convention, which defines a refugee as a person persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion – although her father was an opponent of the government. So, in the eyes of the immigration authorities, such abuse was not their concern.

A sinking feeling overwhelms me as I read the conclusion that the immigration official “does not accept” that returning them to Angola “to live in conditions, wretched as they are” would breach their human rights. Only when Maria leafs through her folder of correspondence from the Home Office and produces a more recent letter do I see that a year later, after two appeals, their account of what happened to them was finally believed and they were granted refugee status. Maria and Madalea are among the lucky few.

Of the 2,500-3,500 children who have arrived in this country seeking asylum alone every year for the past eight years, on average just 5% or fewer are granted permanent refuge. Most are brought on planes by adults they hardly know, and abandoned at airports before immigration control or later at the roadside, in restaurants or close to Home Office buildings. Others are smuggled in via ports and caught by immigration authorities or dumped by the road. They are usually brought in by agents paid by relatives or others, or by traffickers trying to sell them for domestic servitude or sexual exploitation.

Until now, most such children have been given leave to remain in the UK until they are 18, after which, like unsuccessful adult asylum seekers, they are liable to “removal” . But this temporary safety net now looks set to be taken away from thousands of children from some of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries, such as Angola and Congo, and from Vietnam, where children are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked abroad. Plans are being drawn up to repatriate children from these countries once their asylum claims are rejected and appeals denied. This is part of the government drive to step up removals amid mounting pressure over immigration controls, which culminated in the home secretary John Reid’s admission that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate was “not fit for purpose” in the wake of the foreign-prisoners scandal. If such a “pilot project” is deemed a success, child-protection experts fear it will mean the start of children from many more countries being swiftly dispatched back home.

I set out to speak to 10 youngsters – the average number arriving alone seeking refuge every day in this country – from the three countries initially targeted, to hear their stories and put names and faces to that stark statistic. Finding those willing to speak is no easy matter. Many are afraid. Since news of the government plan leaked out several months ago, some have gone on the run out of fear they will be returned. Of those I meet in different parts of the country – four boys, four girls and two young women, including Maria, who arrived here as children – only Maria and Madalea have been granted asylum. Half have already received the standard letter sent out to failed asylum seekers offering them financial incentives worth around £3,000 to go home voluntarily before risking arrest.

When I listen to the children’s stories it becomes clear – as the British charities that work with them say – that the government views them as foreigners first, children second. That is if they are seen as children at all. Their passports frequently having been kept by those who bring them into this country, many cannot prove their age. In recent years, growing numbers are not even believed when they say how old they are. Many are wrongly deemed to be already adult, often after little more than a swift visual assessment by immigration officials..

Such age disputes have serious implications for the level of support the children receive. Those who are believed when they say they are 16 or under are placed in the care of social services, many of them with foster families. Those aged 16 to 18 receive more limited support in bed-and-breakfast accommodation or shared housing, and can gain some access to further education, while those who are deemed to be adults receive the most basic support and face being sent to immigration detention centres, where it is prohibited for children to be held.

Maria, for instance, was initially held to be lying about her age and told she must be “at least 18” on the basis, she says, “that they didn’t believe a 16-year-old would be able to look after my niece the way I did”. Even when social services did finally help, she was treated as an adult, left to care for her young niece alone in a hostel, then put in a shared house with adult asylum seekers. “It was terrible,” she says. “As a child you know your age, but they don’t even believe that.”

“The culture of disbelief is so widespread that these children are thought of just as people who have been sent by their parents to get a job or an education,” says Nadine Finch, a barrister and co-author of the recent report Seeking Asylum Alone, partly sponsored by Harvard University.

“All too often the children are not held to be credible because what they have gone through is beyond the experience of the person assessing them,” says Sheila Melzak, principal child and adolescent psychotherapist at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which counsels hundreds of such children every year. “There is this dance that goes on between adults who don’t want to hear and don’t want to think about a child experiencing grotesque violence, and the children themselves, who don’t want to, or are unable to, speak about what they have gone through.” The halting steps children take in such a dance begin to fall into a familiar pattern, marked by long silences during painful recollections.

Hien is unable to keep still as he talks hesitantly of how he arrived here at the age of 11. “It’s hard to remember if I was in a happy place in Vietnam,” he says, fiddling with his anorak zip. “I know I did not feel safe. I was taken to a family and asked to do housework and sell bricks.” This is all he will say of the people his aunt left him with after taking care of him for six years following the death of his mother, father and sister in a flood when he was five years old. One day his aunt returned, he says, and told him he was going “on holiday”. Thinking she was going with him, he was taken to an airport and handed over to strangers, who brought him to the UK with a group of four or five others.

After a night in a hotel, he says, he was taken to a house “full of Vietnamese”, then driven to a town in the West Midlands, dropped at the roadside and told to wait until someone came to pick him up. “I was really scared,” says Hien, who had no idea where he was. When nobody came, he went up to a passer-by, a woman he describes as “looking Chinese”, for help. She took him to the police. They referred him to the immigration authorities. An asylum appeal was lodged before he was placed with a foster family.

There are striking similarities between Hien’s early life and that of 17-year-old Viet, whom I meet at the same location on the outskirts of Birmingham. Viet’s family was also drowned when he was young and, after being looked after for several years by a neighbour who he says did not treat him well, he made his way to Hanoi, where he scraped a living cleaning pots and sweeping floors in a street market. It was there that a stranger found him sleeping under a market stall, took him home and, after several weeks, told him he was going to a “better” country. “I thought he was a good man, but now I think he sold me. Sometimes I worry he will still try to find me,” says the teenager with spiky dyed-blonde hair and low-slung jeans.

Viet’s journey to the UK was more tortuous than Hien’s. After being flown to Russia, he was squashed into the back of a series of lorries for an overland journey to this country lasting several months. “One day I was in the back of a lorry full of wooden boxes. The door opened and I saw we were in an area of many trees. From there I was taken by bus to a city and left by the road and told to wait until someone came to collect me. But I was too scared to wait… I asked some people to take me to the police.” Viet, then 15, was put in a police cell for the night before being taken to the same immigration centre as Hien, where a statement was taken before he was placed in a hostel with two other boys seeking asylum.

Both Hien and Viet describe coming from “poor” families. The possibility that they were trafficked seems very real. Christine Beddoe, the director of the anti-child-prostitution and anti-trafficking group Ecpat, identifies Vietnam as a “very high-risk country” for traffickers. “It’s pretty outrageous that the government should be even considering sending children back to Vietnam, where we know there would be a very considerable risk of them being re-trafficked.”

It was partly in an attempt to crack down on trafficking that a national register was recently set up to log the whereabouts of children who arrive unaccompanied seeking asylum. But Beddoe warns that hundreds of children are still “going missing” – slipping from the care of the local authority that registered them. Many are not even registered, disappearing within 24 hours of coming to the attention of social services. Some are believed to be quickly tracked down by the traffickers who brought them here.

Some children do not come to the attention of local authorities until suspicions are aroused that they are being abused. Anh was referred to social services only after teachers noticed how tired and hungry she was. She will say little about her background in Vietnam before she arrived in the UK at 14 – only that she has no idea if her mother and handicapped older sister are still alive and that “police often visited” her father. When she was brought here by a man her father had handed her over to, he abandoned her before passing through immigration control at a London airport, leaving her with only the telephone number of a friend of her father – someone she had never met.

Speaking no English, she was detained by immigration control and, after 24 hours, asked if she was happy to go to live with her father’s friend; not knowing what else to do, she went. Anh was taken by him to claim asylum, but was told she looked 18, not 14, so would have to go through the asylum procedure as an adult, which meant she had to make a statement of why she was claiming refuge directly to immigration officials, rather than being able to submit the statement with a lawyer’s help. Her claim was refused, though her age was believed on a subsequent appeal and she started school. When her father’s friend separated from his wife, Anh was made to sleep under a table by his wife, and only given scraps to eat. Anh is now studying to be a nurse, but has just turned 18 and knows she is liable for deportation. “I am afraid,” she says. “I don’t know what is going to happen to me.”

Although children who are trafficked are victims, often of organised crime gangs, this does not entitle them to protection as refugees under the Geneva convention. For this reason, and because the experiences of many children who arrive do not fit easily within the terms of the convention, child-protection experts are calling for their claims to be assessed in a broader way that takes into account child-specific forms of persecution, such as child exploitation and the recruitment of child soldiers. While they do not claim that it is never in the best interests of children to be returned to their home country, every child, they stress, should be assessed much more carefully than is the case at present.

Those children who need it, they argue, should be given longer than the standard four weeks – compared with 10 days for adults – to disclose through a lawyer in a written statement what has happened to them. They should also be allocated their own legal guardian to protect their interests during the asylum procedure, rather than, as at present, having their fate left in the hands of immigration officials who start from the presumption that most are lying.

As I listen to Hien, Viet and Anh, I recall the words of Rhona Blackwood of Save the Children that “children are often given a story to tell by the person who brings them to this country, and these stories can be quite similar, while the true story of what has happened only emerges slowly and is often much more relevant in terms of asylum”.

Sheila Melzak has worked with traumatised children for 17 years. She stresses that boys in particular find it difficult to speak up: none of the adolescent boys she has counselled has been able to divulge that he has been sexually abused or raped until she has worked with him for at least six months: “Many children come from cultures where their private experiences are so perverse they simply cannot speak of them.”

Oswaldo has a haunted look when he says: “I think they don’t know what I have been through. If they did, they would never consider sending me back.” The 17-year-old Angolan has struggled to reveal the extent of the trauma he suffered before arriving in the UK. His father, an outspoken critic of the government, was killed after being arrested on suspicion of possessing material that would compromise a leading politician.

Oswaldo was arrested and tortured in prison before a friend of his father secured his release and paid for a flight to the UK. Yet he is one of those who has recently received a letter offering him money to return to Angola after his request for asylum was turned down. “How could they believe any amount of money would make me want to go back?” he says through an interpreter.

Antonio, also from Angola, who arrived in the UK at the age of 13, says: “I don’t like to talk, or even think, about what happened before I came here.” The broad-shouldered 16-year-old is full of swagger and bravado as he kicks a ball around with friends. But when we sit quietly to talk, he fights back tears as he explains how his parents were taken away by soldiers when he was just six, and his elder brother was recruited as a child soldier. Antonio spent the next seven years in a refugee camp until friends of his parents arranged to bring him here. One accompanied him on a flight to London and took him to an immigration office, where he was refused asylum but given leave to remain until the age of 18. He has since been living with a foster family but knows he now faces being returned.

In contrast with the reticent Oswaldo and Antonio, Mami, 17, from Congo launches straight into some of the most wretched details of her abuse by soldiers. Mami, whose mother had been killed by soldiers when she was 10, was arrested after her stepfather forced her to attend an opposition rally. “I was afraid they would kill me like they did my mother,” she says. “The soldiers kept taking me away at night. But one who came did not touch me. He said that he had a daughter the same age as me. He helped me.”

The sisters Vanessa, 17, and Aurelie, 15, also from Congo, talk only of the day their father’s body was brought to their house and their mother collapsed before being taken away by soldiers. “She was kidnapped; I don’t know where she is,” says Vanessa. “You know she’s dead,” says Aurelie, abruptly leaving the room as her sister sits with tears rolling down her cheeks. They say they were brought here two years ago by a friend of the priest at the church their family attended. They too have been refused asylum. All have been sent letters offering financial incentives to leave.

When I explain a little of what I am writing about to the taxi driver who takes me to the church hall in east London where I meet the sisters, his response is: “Shit happens everywhere. I bet these kids know more scams than any of us brought up in this country.” It is hard not to conclude that, as far as the majority of children who arrive here alone are concerned, many immigration officials hold a similar view.

The Home Office stresses its proposal to return many of these children is still “at an early stage”. But if the scheme is introduced – and many child advocates are convinced it is only a matter of time – it confirms that it would “most likely be applied to those already in the country”, not just new arrivals. Since the 1971 Immigration Act includes the provision that unaccompanied children whose asylum request and all appeals have been refused can be returned if “adequate reception and care arrangements are in place in the country to which the child is to be removed”, the scheme would not require new legislation. It could be implemented with speed if such arrangements could be proved to exist.

The Home Office insists the proposal is “not far advanced”, yet a team of its experts is known to have visited Congo, Angola and Vietnam in the past year, the last twice, to assess the suitability of various reception centres if they were provided with extra British funding. The Home Office says only that the visits were “fact-finding opportunities to see how to take things forward”.

In Congo the team is understood to have discussed funding an Italian monastic order in Kinshasa to look after returned children. In Vietnam the option being considered is to return children to state-run orphanages. Jeremy Stoner, director for Save the Children in Vietnam, who met the Home Office team, points out that traffickers are suspected of having drawn children from state orphanages in the past. “If those children were trafficked to the UK in the first place, there is a considerable risk they would be re-trafficked,” he stresses. “We are very concerned about this. We do not feel it would be appropriate in any context.”

The Home Office says Vietnam, Congo and Angola were chosen because of the large and growing numbers of children coming from these countries. Yet numbers from all three declined in 2005 – to 120 compared with 185 in 2004 from Vietnam; 145 compared with 150 from Congo; and 35 compared with 60 from Angola. The countries from which the greatest numbers have come in recent years are Afghanistan (530 in 2005), Iran (450), Somalia (235), Eritrea (195) and Iraq (170). The Home Office may balk now at returning children to countries with which we have tense diplomatic relations, or which we have recently bombed or which are in the throes of ethnic slaughter, anarchy and famine. But what does it say of its ethics that it does consider returning them to Congo, a country emerging from a civil war that has claimed the lives of 3m and where sexual violence against women and children has been widely used as a weapon of war, and to Angola, recently ranked by Unicef as one of the worst places in the world to be a child?

If you adopt the same degree of cynicism towards the motives of the Home Office as it does towards these children, you might simply conclude that they are easy targets. Unlike many of the estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants in this country, the government knows where these children are. (Apart, that is, from those who have “disappeared” from the system.) They are with foster families or in supported housing, and most are receiving some kind of education, perhaps for the first time. Many are beginning to nurture hopes about the future. Anh, Mami and Aurelie dream of becoming nurses. Oswaldo wants to become a computer engineer, Antonio a sports teacher. Hien says he wants to be an astronaut.

As with other recent proposals to move child asylum seekers to parts of the country where they can be looked after more cheaply, there is little doubt that the main reason for the proposed return of such children is cost. “This is being driven by concerns about the expense of looking after children the government doesn’t think should be here in the first place,” says Syd Bolton, the legal and policy officer for children at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. “But what price do you put on the life of a child?”

What beggars belief is not that a teenage girl who has seen her father murdered and been repeatedly raped and beaten will not pressure her equally traumatised younger niece to speak about the horrors she has gone through. What beggars belief is that we, one of the richest countries in the world, treat some of the world’s most vulnerable children in such a callous way and are now considering washing our hands of them even further.

Who’s your daddy?

August 1, 2004

It’s a father’s worst nightmare — and perhaps the mother’s too: discovering that the child you’ve loved for years isn’t yours. Thousands of suspicious husbands are turning to DNA testing to find out the truth. Christine Toomey investigates the problem lawyers have dubbed ‘paternity fraud’

Struggling to describe his feelings, Paul stares out of the window, then asks a question without shifting his gaze. “Do you remember watching on TV the father in America being told his son has been beheaded in Iraq? How he fell to the ground, his legs gave way. Well, that’s how I felt. I collapsed.” He pauses. Then a more surreal image comes to mind, revealing how he has kept replaying in his mind the moment we’re talking about. “It was like an old programme of The Simpsons, where Bart has a video recorder and keeps rewinding a section of a film saying, ‘Look, Lisa, look. You can actually see the moment where his heart breaks.’That’s how it was,” he says, half-swallowing a laugh, then bows his head, tears in his eyes. “The pain is physical. It’s so hard.” Paul’s wife, Marian (their names have been changed to protect their identities, as have the others in this feature), moves to sit by him and cradles his head on her shoulder. They fall silent.

For the past hour the couple have been explaining how Paul came to the decision to order a DNA test be carried out to determine whether Sam — “the little lad”, as Paul calls him, showing me a snapshot of a toddler leaning against his lap and smiling — was his biological son. Even though I had known the outcome of the test from talking to Paul and Marian on the telephone before coming to visit them, I found myself almost not wanting to know what happened once they received the result.From the moment Paul started talking about Sam, it was clear that he had been a devoted father to the boy, now aged seven. Not that he had expected to be, when his former girlfriend said she was pregnant, soon after they had split up. “For a few months I disappeared,” he says. “I was in complete shock. It wasn’t what I wanted.” But after attending Sam’s birth, Paul says he felt “humbled and happy. The nurses had to prise him out of my arms to do the normal tests”.

Paul and Sam’s mother were reunited briefly after he was born, but when they split again, Paul would continue to drive over 100 miles most weekends to see him. “We were very close,” says Paul. “We went everywhere together.”

Shortly after Sam’s fifth birthday, Paul, 38, met Marian and within a few months had asked her to marry him. Marian took on the role of a second mother to Sam. She also struck up a close friendship with Paul’s mother, who, during one of the couple’s visits to her home, let slip a comment that would set her son on a painful path of discovery. In a moment of frustration at the noise Sam was making as he careered from room to room, Paul’s mother said to Marian: “Well, he’s no grandson of mine!” Marian asked her to explain. “She was vague, and didn’t want to go into details,” says Marian. “She said, ‘At least his [Paul’s] previous girlfriend had always been discreet.'”

A few months after this first seed of doubt was planted, another was sown by Sam’s aunt. One day, when Paul was having trouble making arrangements to see Sam, the boy’s mother’s sister said there was something Paul did not know about Sam. “You should walk away now,” she advised.

Slowly, other people’s doubts about whether Sam was his son began to eat away at Paul. “I wanted them to shut up and leave us alone. I was convinced he was mine. People used to say how alike we looked. We both have big eyes, long eyelashes, webbed toes and a similar birthmark on our backs.” Marian was not so sure. A trained midwife, she was aware Sam had a double crown — often an inherited trait — and that neither Sam’s mother nor Paul had the same characteristic.

It was the couple’s wedding that proved the catalyst. The day before the ceremony, Paul’s former girlfriend threatened that he would never see Sam again if the marriage went ahead. Paul said that he would have a DNA test to prove he was Sam’s father and would then seek a court order granting him access. “I did not have any doubts that the test would prove positive and would settle things once and for all,” he says.

Faced, Paul believes, with the prospect that, if the test proved negative, Paul’s maintenance payments could cease, Sam’s mother changed her mind. She agreed that Paul could carry on seeing the boy whenever he wanted. It was this sudden change of heart, Paul says, that caused him to have his first real doubts about whether Sam was biologically his.

Scanning the internet, Paul discovered that it was easy to obtain and pay for a DNA test to establish paternity. In the past year, approximately 20,000 British parents are believed to have subjected their children to paternity tests — almost double the number requested two years ago — with around a third discovering that the children they have loved are not theirs by blood.

As the number of paternity tests requested escalates sharply, the government is attempting to tighten up the regulations under which such tests are carried out; at the moment, they are governed by only a voluntary code of conduct. The Human Tissue Bill currently going through parliament, for instance, proposes making it a criminal offence to take DNA from another person without proper consent; in the case of paternity tests this will, on the whole, mean getting both parents’ consent. Many paternity “home testing kits” available over the internet, often marketed as “peace of mind” tests, require the consent of only one parent. It was this type of test — widely referred to as “motherless tests” — that Paul ordered.

For months, Paul put off using the test. Then, during one weekend stay, Paul pretended to Sam that he was going to brush the boy’s teeth and his own especially thoroughly. With a small spiral brush from the £245 test kit, he scraped the inside of his mouth to gather his own cheek cells and sealed the brush in a sterile envelope. He then took a second brush, did the same to Sam and mailed the two samples off for analysis.Paul only had to look at Marian’s face when he returned from work several weeks later to know it had proved that Sam’s DNA did not match his own.

Paul is not sure whether he regrets ordering the test. And if adults find such dilemmas difficult, imagine what it is like for a child who has no say in the investigation being conducted. How can that child’s best interests be protected? And how can the interests of the child be balanced against the rights of its mother and father, or a man who is unsure whether he is the father or not?

Such questions go to the heart of the most complex and sensitive areas of human nature: sex, betrayal, money, parenting, abandonment and a yearning for genetic immortality. Some estimates go as far as suggesting that 1 in 20 people in Britain today has a different biological father from the one they believe to be theirs. Who is prepared to answer these questions for the general public? At the moment, the answer is nobody.

The issue of paternity, or at least responsibility for it, has been the subject of conjecture for centuries. In ancient times, seers and oracles were consulted on such matters.Modern medicine offered more reliable methods. While early blood tests could rule a man out as a potential father, they were less successful in proving definitively who the father was. But the advent of DNA testing in the past 15 years has left no room for doubt.

While paternity testing is advertised as “quick and simple”, the science behind it is very complex. The process of turning DNA samples into a multicoloured computerised graph, from which a test result with a statistical accuracy of 99.99% is derived, provides a fascinating insight into the most basic building blocks of our human make-up. At LGC in Teddington, Middlesex, one of the country’s largest private laboratories for DNA testing, the government’s voluntary code of practice regarding paternity testing is strictly adhered to. All samples sent for analysis must have been taken under a doctor’s supervision, and a mother’s consent for the test to be carried out on her child is required. Here DNA samples go through three colour-coded laboratories to unlock their hidden codes.

First the DNA contained within chromosomes in the form of two strands of molecules (the “double helix”) is gathered from an oral swab or a drop of dried blood before being purified by a complex “washing out” of the protein, fats and other cell constituents. The DNA sample is amplified using a process that repeatedly heats and cools the DNA, causing the sample to make multiple copies of itself, while incorporating special fluorescent dyes. Each sample is then added to a gel sandwiched between two glass plates. An electrical current is applied, causing the DNA to separate into a “bar-code-like” format. The results are shown in a computerised graph, which is then subjected to statistical analysis. The child’s graph is then compared with those from the samples taken from the child’s mother and putative father. The basic principle of the test is that we all inherit half of our DNA from each of our parents, and this comparative analysis of known areas of variation along the DNA strand holds the key to how our DNA matches with that of our parents.

While this process of unravelling the human helix may take a matter of days in a laboratory, unravelling the implications of the secrets that it reveals can take those involved a lifetime. In the past, DNA testing has overwhelmingly been sought by mothers trying to prove the fatherhood of men refusing to support their children. This still accounts for most tests conducted in the UK. In some cases, advanced medical screening for certain types of disease unwittingly reveals that men who believe children are biologically theirs are not genetically related. But there is a growing number of applications from fathers wanting to ensure that the children they are raising, or are being asked to support financially, are theirs.

As far as English common law was concerned, for the past five centuries a married man was always presumed to be the father of a child born within his marriage. But as society has changed, so has the law. In recent years, the rights of children born out of wedlock have increased and, as in parts of the US, there is now no limit to the maintenance a mother can claim from a “father” of the child.

In the US, this has long been a motivation for men seeking to ascertain paternity. One recent high-profile case was that of Kirk Kerkorian, the octogenarian billionaire who surreptitiously obtained a sample of dental floss from the refuse of Steve Bing, the Hollywood producer formerly involved in a paternity dispute with Elizabeth Hurley. Kerkorian believed Bing to be the father of a little girl whom Kerkorian had raised as his own with his then wife, Lisa Bonder, who sued him for more than a quarter of a million pounds a month in child maintenance after their divorce. Although the test result itself was never revealed, since the men settled their dispute privately, Bing later sued Kerkorian for breach of privacy.

In many American states, even if a man can prove through a DNA test that a child is not biologically his, he is still held to be financially responsible for that child’s upkeep. As a result, a growing number of men have been lobbying legislators to change the laws on what they call “paternity fraud”. Using the slogan “If the genes don’t fit, you must acquit,” they argue that while advances in DNA testing have liberated convicts from death row, similar advances in paternity testing have done nothing to address the injustice of their situation.

National debate on the issue has raged in the US. One family-policy think-tank concluded that once a child has reached the age of two, the harm of losing a father would outweigh the harm caused to a man paying to support a child who was not his own. In line with this thinking, some states insist that paternity tests be conducted at a very early stage in a child’s life. But a rising number of states, including Georgia, Ohio and Vermont, have introduced legislation allowing a man to stop paying court-ordered support if he did not father the child in question. Vermont is even considering making mothers who knowingly make false assertions that a man is the biological father of a child liable to two years’ jail.

With over a quarter of a million paternity tests — costing on average £400 a time — undertaken annually in the US, DNA testing is big business. Roadside billboards carrying freephone numbers alongside pictures of smiling babies and slogans like “Who’s my daddy?” are commonplace, as are TV ads mocking up delivery-room scenes where a man gives birth as an announcer declares: “This would be one way to know the father.” Given the speed with which social trends cross the Atlantic, it’s not inconceivable that such scenarios will show up here. Already British courts are having to deal with the fallout. One family court recently gave leave to a man to sue for the return of a proportion of many years of maintenance payments for a child who, as he was able to prove through a paternity test, was not biologically his. Legal experts believe that the judge ruled that only a portion of the full sum be returned to avoid a flood of similar court cases — and this may also be why attempts are being made to tighten up on regulations governing “motherless tests”.

The London-based lawyer Vanessa Lloyd-Platt, who represents mothers as well as fathers in family disputes, believes tightening the law this way will discriminate against fathers: “It is a potentially explosive area in which to legislate, which is why the government probably hasn’t done anything about it yet.A lot of us are fighting for the right of every individual to know if a child is or isn’t theirs. It’s a very modern moral conundrum.”

Daniel Leigh, spokesman for the London-based company DNA Solutions, which does not require both parents’ consent for a test to be performed, believes any attempt to make a mother’s consent compulsory will encourage those who don’t have that consent to use testing services based
abroad, via the internet. “The genie is out of the bottle,” he says, pointing out that most tests reveal the expected result. Although conducting tests without a mother’s consent may seem unfair on them, he says that “this pales by comparison to the anguish some supposed fathers go through”.

So what of the children whose lives may be shattered by the results of such tests? How is a child to understand if a sudden announcement is made that the man he or she has grown up calling Dad is not biologically related and perhaps no longer regards himself as their parent? It is hard enough for an adult to deal with such news — as illustrated by the deep trauma Paula Yates apparently felt at discovering, at 37, that Hughie Green was her biological father. Dr Pat Spungin, child psychologist and founder of the parenting website Raisingkids, believes it is vital for those requesting paternity tests to be honest with themselves about why they are doing so. “Once a father starts down the path of questioning whether he is a child’s parent, there is bound to be some ‘leakage’. Something in that parent-child relationship will change,” she says. “Unless that person is absolutely sure they can keep quiet about what they discover, then the child should at some point be told the truth. Otherwise half-truths can build up into something terrible in a child’s mind.”

At what age such news is likely to cause least trauma for a child is is a matter of debate. Spungin believes it may be best for a child to be told the truth once they are in their mid-teens, and the psychotherapist Malcolm Stern agrees that the most damaging time for a child to be confronted with the truth could be between the ages of 7 and 14. “It is the middle years, when children believe the world is meant to be a certain way, that they can find it hardest to deal with the situation.” But Stern argues that when children are very young they don’t have a fully formed idea of what a father is. “In some ways,” he says, “they may be better equipped to deal with something like this then.”

This is Paul’s hope. His decision to tell Sam followed a period of deep soul-searching and despair. For more than a week after hearing the result of the DNA test, Paul was in a dark room, unable to eat, trying to drown his pain in alcohol. “I felt a bitter hatred towards his mother. When I told her on the phone, ‘He’s not mine,’ she hung up. A few days later, she was full of apologies.”

But, convinced his mother would not tell Sam the truth, Paul decided the boy had a right to know. The next time Sam came to stay for the weekend, Paul told him that he was not his “real father”. Just six years old, Sam appeared to take little notice of what he was being told and immediately went to play on his PlayStation. Since that visit, however, Paul has not seen the boy. Though he has wanted to, Sam’s mother’s new partner does not, apparently, see why he should, and Paul refuses to arrange meetings in secret.

According to Stern, a huge factor determining how individuals will react in a situation of disputed paternity is the age of the child when a man starts having doubts about whether he is the father. “In my experience, once children are grown it is less likely that a man will want to know the truth, as it causes such psychological devastation. The attitude is likely to be, ‘I’m their father, anyway. What’s the point in pursuing it further?'”

This feeds into the nature-nurture debate about parenting and the development of personality, and the fury of many fathers about too little importance being placed on their role in a child’s upbringing. While fathers fighting for greater access to their children after divorce have started resorting to traffic-stopping measures, such as scaling suspension bridges and hurling condoms full of purple powder at the prime minister, at least they have some redress to the law. Those who find they have no biological link to the children they thought were theirs may have none.

Where more than one child is involved, the situation is more complicated. According to paternity-testing companies, it’s not uncommon for a man to learn he is the biological father of one or more of several children he has been raising as his, but not of another, and that the family breaks up as a result. When Tony, a 37-year-old service engineer from Hove, Sussex, discovered that his five-year-old son was not biologically his, but that the boy’s four-year-old sister was, he says it solved many questions he had about the stark difference between the children’s behaviour. The girl, he says, had a quiet personality, similar to his own, but the boy was constantly disruptive. It was when Tony tried to make an appointment to have the boy’s behaviour assessed that his mother, from whom Tony had separated when the children were very young, blurted out: “I don’t know why you’re bothering. He’s not yours, anyway.”

As with Paul, the outburst came before Tony was due to get married. When Tony had DNA tests carried out on the children — with the mother’s consent in the case of the boy, and without her knowledge in the case of his sister — they confirmed that only the girl was genetically related. As a result, Tony has decided to apply to the courts for custody of his daughter, and doubts he will see much of the boy in future. “I feel very sorry for him — I felt like his father and he still calls me Daddy, but he’s not my son and it’s better he knows that,” says Tony, adding that one of the reasons he’s relieved to have learnt the truth before his marriage is that he would not include the boy in their wedding photos.The impact this will have on the two children can only be imagined.

As the Human Tissue Bill goes through parliament, those charged with advising ministers on paternity testing are only too aware of the complexities of their task. “New companies come in and society’s attitudes change, so the regulatory environment has to be reviewed at frequent intervals,” says Phillip Webb, chairman of the subcommittee of the HGC (Human Genetics Commission, currently reviewing the structure of existing legislation for the government). “The courts believe generally that it is in the child’s best interests to know its biological parents.” Another member of the HGC subcommittee, Professor John Burn, who runs the non-profit paternity-testing laboratory NorthGene, which is attached to Newcastle University, acknowledges that the paternity-testing debate is treading on delicate ground: “It’s getting tangled up in the debate about how we view the role of the mother and father, and society’s opinion keeps shifting. There is a constant anxiety for all of us involved to keep the child’s interests in sight, and we go to great lengths to get the appropriate consent.”

But he also agrees that science has leapt ahead of public debate on this issue. “As long as technical barriers to finding out this sort of information existed, they acted as a fence to protect the public. Now these barriers have fallen, the legal and ethical barriers are being left behind.”

One aspect of paternity testing that Burn is particularly unhappy about is the lack of insistence on the need for counselling before and afterwards. “The power of the information revealed by paternity testing can be as devastating as if you’re told you carry a gene for a certain disease,” he argues. “Yet this information is being traded without a true recognition of the great cost that can be involved for the individual family.”

As he continues to struggle with the personal cost of the paternity test he carried out on Sam, Paul is clear about where he stands on the nature-versus-nurture debate. “Anyone can plant a seed,” he says, “but it takes a gardener to grow a flower. It takes a man to raise a child. For six years I know I made a good job of raising that lad. I fed him, watched him smile and cry. I taught him to ride a bike. When he was scared I was there.”

But for Paul and Sam, the clock cannot be turned back. Some time after receiving the DNA test result, Paul and Marian asked Sam’s mother if they could adopt the boy. Though she did not object in principle to him adopting Sam, Paul says she did not want Marian to become his adoptive mother. “When I speak to the little lad on the phone, he asks when he’s going to see me again and I can’t answer that. It is very hard. When he is older, I hope he will understand and not think I’ve abandoned him. Maybe one day I’ll be able to tell him not to let what happened become his cross or burden, but to become a better man because of it.”

The week before we meet, Marian gave birth to the couple’s first child, and most of the time as we speak, Paul cradles his newborn daughter in his arms. Finally, laying her back in her crib, he says that his advice to anyone thinking of requesting a paternity test would be to seek professional counselling before doing so. “Any man thinking of doing this should think hardest of all about how he’ll cope if the result of the test is the opposite of what he expects. Am I glad I did it? Yes and no,” he says. “Yes, I know the truth, but at what cost?”