Matt White remembers that day in September 2016 when a mystery began to unravel that would change his life.
It started when White read a news report that Dr. Donald Cline, a retired Indianapolis fertility specialist, faced charges for lying when he denied he'd inseminated unwitting patients with his own sperm decades earlier. He searched out Cline's address online, recognizing it as the location of his mother's former doctor. Then he Googled the doctor's name. When a photo popped up, he was stunned: He looked like Cline.
"It was just too similar to be coincidental," he says. White had long known he was a donor baby, but that day, he had an eerie feeling he was staring at the man who was likely his biological father…
These two women and White recently crowded into an Indianapolis courtroom to hear Cline receive a one-year suspended sentence for lying to investigators when he denied wrongdoing; DNA tests determined he is the biological father of Ballard and another woman whose mother was his patient. Cline apologized "for the pain my actions have caused" but didn't specify how often he used his own sperm in procedures — court documents say he told Ballard about 50 times….
Cline's sentencing, though, was not the end of this story. Instead, in an extraordinary epilogue, three one-time strangers — White, Harmon and Ballard — have forged a kinship as brother and sisters, even as they wrestle with the revelation about their identities. They've also reached out to 21 other men and women, all in their 30s, who've been identified through DNA tests as half-siblings — evidence, they say, that Cline is likely their father, as well. About a half-dozen of them live in central Indiana.
Many stay in touch through a private Facebook page, and several gathered last fall for a cookout with their spouses, children and three mothers who'd been Cline patients. Others have gone on social outings, shared childhood photos, taken note of similarities (most of the men are over 6 feet tall) and, at times, confided in one another private details of their lives.
"It's a very surreal experience," White says. "I've shared personal stories that I haven't shared with anyone but my wife. You have almost this instant bond with people who are not only part of this horrible situation, but you can relate to them on an intimate level in a way you can't with anyone else."…
Jacoba Ballard was angry when she sat in court in December, describing a three-year ordeal that determined Cline is her biological father.
"There has not been one part of my life that has not suffered," she told the judge. "I find myself mentally drained by thinking of this constantly. I now have anxiety, panic attacks. ... I isolate myself from family and friends."
Ballard, 37, says Cline told her mother he used donor sperm from medical residents. She'd known since she was 10 that she was a donor child, but in 2014, Ballard grew curious about her family history and thought she might be able to track down some brothers and sisters. She took a DNA test from 23andMe.com, a biotech company that uses saliva samples to determine ancestry and identify distant and close relatives, health risks and physical traits.
Clients can choose whether to be identified in a "DNA relatives tool" that connects them to others. When Ballard's results came back, they listed seven half-siblings, all but one identified by name. Ballard and two others got together, assembled a family tree and realized one common thread: Their mothers had gone to Cline for fertility treatments…
Ballard and a half-sister arranged to meet with two of Cline's adult children. At first, she says, they denied their father had been a donor, then said he'd done so in a small number of cases. About a month later, Ballard and a group of the half-siblings met with Cline himself, and she says he told conflicting stories, finally saying he'd donated sperm about 50 times to help unknowing patients who desperately wanted children….
Ballard's DNA match to Cline was 99.9997, court records show.
The case wasn't the first of its kind. In Virginia, Dr. Cecil Jacobson was convicted in 1992 of fraud and perjury for using his sperm to impregnate patients without telling them. Cline was convicted of obstruction of justice for lying to investigators, but a measure pushed by Ballard and others was introduced in the Indiana Senate this year to make it a crime for doctors to treat patients for infertility by using their own sperm or egg without consent. The measure didn't receive a hearing, so it's dead for this session; its sponsor has not yet decided if he'll reintroduce it.
"I feel like our mothers were violated," Ballard says. "He has torn all of our lives apart."
If there is any comfort, she says, it's in the camaraderie that's developed among several half-siblings. They've gotten together for concerts, an occasional softball game for one of their kids and a few Christmas celebrations. White and Harmon attended the high school graduation ceremonies of Ballard's two children, and the two women speak every day. They laugh about their similar tastes; they even prefer the same order at McDonald's — no onions…
The connection, though, goes beyond appearances. White says he clicked instantly with another half-sister who was a 99.998 DNA match to Cline. At their first meeting, White says, they talked for five hours, developing an instant rapport.
White, a biologist, says he's been able to open up with his new half-siblings, even discussing his own infertility problems, something he's spoken about with very few people. White and his wife have two children conceived through in vitro fertilization.
"I've pretty much given up all my life's secrets," he says.
For a time, White says everywhere he'd go in the Indianapolis area, he'd be searching for anyone who resembled him, wondering: "Are they my brother? Are they my sister?"
With DNA tests becoming more popular, White believes their group will grow. As recently as a few weeks ago, he learned of another half-sibling. All were born between 1979 and 1987, and considering that's a long span, he says:
"To think we've found all of us in a two-year period? That's not likely. There's got to be many more children out there."