SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – A DNA test led to a shocking discovery for one Utah family who learned their son is not related to the father after an IVF mix-up over a decade ago.
In an exclusive interview with ABC4, both families are speaking out in hopes that those going through in vitro fertilization don’t have to experience the same thing.
The Johnson family thought it would be fun to do a ’23andMe’ DNA kit, which have become increasingly popular over the years. However, when they got their results a month later, this family activity turned into a devastating revelation.
“When I looked on that page and saw mom for him and saw father unknown and I thought what do you mean father unknown I am his father,” Vanner Johnson said.
Vanner and Donna Johnson started their IVF journey in 2007 after they were unable to have a second child on their own.
“You understand there’s that possibility but it’s so remote,” Vanner Johnson said.
However, over a decade after they gave birth to a baby boy, their worst nightmare quickly became a reality.
“When my results showed up showing two sons immediately and seeing our oldest was a half-sibling to his younger brother, through me, we knew there must’ve been something wrong,” Donna Johnson said.
A simple DNA test revealed that Vanner Johnson is not his son’s biological father and that Donna’s egg was fertilized by someone else’s sperm during the IVF process.
“There were a lot of emotions we had to work through including separating the love of our son which has not changed…to the issue that we were dealing with. This mistake that happened, how could it happen, why did it happen and what do we do now?” Vanner said.
The Johnsons waited over a year to break the news to their son who is now 12 years old.
“I took him on a drive in our car, and we were going to ice cream actually. I wanted to make sure his attention was just on our conversation,” Vanner said.
Vanner said his son knew he was the result of an IVF pregnancy.
“I said well as it turns out when we had that done, something happened and we’re not sure what happened but I’m actually not your biological father. And he stops, and kind of looks forward in the car, it wasn’t a crazy look but kind of just turned to me, looked at me, and said ‘really?’ And I said ‘yeah’, and he goes ‘yes’,” Vanner said.
While Vanner doesn’t remember all of that conversation with his son, he told ABC4 that he remembers what both of them felt and that his son said he loved him still.
As the family grappled with the shocking news, they decided to take another DNA test through Ancestry to find out who his biological father really is.
Through research, Vanner believed Devin McNeil was his biological father. He found his phone number and decided to cold call him. Devin said he ignored both calls because he thought they were spam, but on the third phone call, he finally answered.
“I say to him… if I understand you are Devin McNeil, your wife is Kelly, both of you did in vitro a number of years ago and he said ‘yes’ and I said ‘well I have something I need to talk to you about,'” Vanner said. Vanner asked Devin if he could Facetime him so he could see him while he broke the news. Devin agreed but told him to call back in a little bit.
“We decided to answer it and covered up our camera. We could see him in the car, he told us the story, obviously, we weren’t very credulous at first but the more details that came out the more evident it was that there was something that had happened that involved us,” Devin said.
Eager to get some answers, the two families began piecing together times and locations of when the two of them were both at the University of Utah Center for Reproductive Medicine.
“There was one date that we were in the clinic at the same time. I was doing transfers so that’s when they put the embryos back inside and she was doing retrieval when they take your eggs and retrieve them and it was that same day…we think around the same time um 14 years ago,” Kelly McNeil said.
However, they didn’t know that day would change their lives in more ways than one.
“There’s really no manual for what we’re trying to do. The process is ongoing, when you ask for advice there’s not really advice that can be given and so what do you do?” Vanner said.
Both families are supporting one another as they figure out what is next given, the McNeils live in Colorado and the Johnsons live in Utah.
“However comfortable the McNeils are with what he would like, and our son would like, that’s what we would like to do,” Vanner said.
In the meantime, the families aren’t letting distance separate them any longer. The two families have FaceTimed, emailed back and forth, and even met up at a park in Utah to finally meet up in person.
While the conversation was difficult for the McNeils to have with their other children, Kelly said her children have responded well.
“Just to accept that they have a half-brother out there and just someone else to love, we see them at the park together playing and they just turned this hard situation and something that should’ve never happened into something good,” Kelly said.
While the four of them process this turn of events, they believe no one should have to go through what they are.
“With this being something that affects all our lives, Devin never signed away his parental rights, and we didn’t consent to this, which is another part of that, and we’re just expected to work it out? Vanner said.
“We’re decades into this. We shouldn’t be looking back and trying to fix problems, there should be things in place to prevent these problems and issues and it shouldn’t fall on the patient to take charge,” Devin said.
Until changes are made, the families encourage anyone who has done IVF to take a DNA test.
“This isn’t something that I would have ever guessed would be a part of our story,” Kelly said.
Devin said you should be aware, be alert, ask questions and do your research if you’re planning on doing IVF.
When Vanner and Donna were asked if they wish they never got the DNA testing done and figured out who their son’s biological father is they were mixed.
“Yes sometimes. But whether it’s now or it would’ve been in 20 years… it would’ve been known. I don’t think there would’ve been a way that we would’ve avoided not knowing,” Donna said.
Both families are preparing to file 2 separate lawsuits against the University of Utah Center for Reproductive Medicine.
“It’s grossly inadequate with that we are dealing with. And as we got going through that process…I thought because of what we are dealing with, it would be treated differently or more gingerly and it’s not at all,” Vanner said.
“They make you feel it’s as secure and safe as anything when you go in… and there’s triple verification and you are physically and visually verifying everything that you’re providing. So, they make you feel and think that the checks and balances are in place when they likely are, but we are obviously a case amongst a few others where things happen and there’s some mistakes,” Devin said.
The University of Utah released the following statement to ABC4:
“Although we cannot comment on patient cases without consent or ongoing litigation, the safety and care of our patients is our primary goal. If patients come to us with questions or concerns about their care, we evaluate our care and procedures and, if necessary, make changes to prevent harm from happening to other patients. Our providers and staff strive to provide excellent care and we constantly work to make improvements.”