The science of DNA can correct injustices, but it can also verify heartache.
John Robert Barnes of Michigan felt sure he was not the flesh and blood of the people who raised him. The older he got, the more Barnes believed that he had little in common with his “mother” and “father.”
“Something wasn't right,” Barnes said. “I wasn't sure if I was kidnapped, or switched at birth, or adopted. I just knew I didn't come from these people.”
As he grew into middle age, Barnes no longer spoke to his father, who lives only a few miles away. He began to suspect that his real name was Steven Craig Damman.
In October 1955, 3-year-old Damman had disappeared outside a Long Island grocery store where his mother was shopping. The boy was never seen again. Authorities could not be certain if the boy was kidnapped. For 54 years, the case was an unsolved mystery.
Barnes became so sure he was the missing boy that he submitted to DNA testing. Members of the Damman family met Barnes and felt strongly that he was Steven.
But last week, the FBI came back with the definitive DNA results. The genetic testing proved conclusively that Barnes isn’t Steven Damman. He is John Robert Barnes, just as his parents always told him. Barnes’ birth certificate also showed that he was born three years after Steven Damman.
That all of this came to pass around Father’s Day was especially bittersweet. The case confirmed the identity of Barnes, but it didn’t solve the mystery of what happened to Steven Damann. Damman’s father, now 78 and living in Iowa, had to relive the tragedy of his long-lost son all over again. He said he was disappointed that Barnes didn’t turn out to be his boy.
Authorities say they probably won't charge Barnes with a hoax; they believe he was sincere in his mistaken theory. It seems unlikely that he was motivated simply by a desire for attention, when the DNA was capable of proving him wrong so publicly.
Children and parents unfortunately sometimes do become estranged from one another. The rifts can become so hardened that each side eventually feels incapable of reaching out. And in the case of John Robert Barnes, those feelings of alienation led him to believe he was actually someone else.
If Barnes’ sad, odd story persuades one other estranged parent or child to reflect and soften, perhaps there will have been value in it, after all.