Can DNA Tests Stop Child Trafficking?


UNICEF estimates that 1.2 million children a year are trafficked worldwide. Until recently, international investigators had few useful tools to address the theft of children, but a new science-based initiative could help put some of the worst child traffickers out of business.

In May 2010, Bolivian authorities detained a group of 25 Haitian children accompanied by several adults who were trying to enter on suspicious visas. The adults claimed they were taking the kids on a “South American vacation” that included visits to Argentina and Brazil. Instead, the authorities discovered, the children, were being smuggled by human traffickers.

But how to get them back to their families? The Bolivia Forensic Research Institute, alerted by the Bolivian Attorney General's office, called in DNA-Prokids, an international nonprofit that uses DNA sampling to reunite child victims of human trafficking with their families.

DNA-Prokids tested the children in the Haitian group, and to date 13 of them have been reunited with their families. (Information on what happened to the adults is unavailable.)

The nonprofit was not as successful in its efforts to help at-risk children living in Haiti. When last year's earthquake crumpled buildings and tore apart thousands of Haitian families, DNA-Prokids prepared and shipped several thousand DNA sample-collection kits, along with computers and other technical equipment, to the Spanish embassy in the Dominican Republic.

In an effort coordinated through the American Red Cross and other relief organizations, the kits were intended for taking DNA samples from unclaimed children. Those samples would help reunite the kids with their biological relatives—or at the very least forestall the traffickers who prey on the impoverished island's youngest victims,

But Haitian officials stonewalled. Although the DNA kits relied on minimally invasive buccal samples, obtained by taking swabs of the inside of the cheek, the authorities claimed that DNA collection is unsafe.

To this date, DNA-Prokids remains unable to bring the program to Haiti.

Nevertheless, the organization has been crucial to helping hundreds of youngsters caught in the shadows around the world. Since traffickers may claim that the children are related to them, DNA tests can quickly establish whether this is true. Children, particularly very young ones, often can't tell their rescuers who their family is or even where they are from. Until DNA testing was made available, there were no infallible tools available to concerned governments who wanted to help.

The initiative began in 2004, when Dr. Jose Lorente of the University of Granada's (Spain) Genetic Identification Laboratory proposed using DNA technology to connect recovered trafficked children with their families.

Originally funded by the Spanish government and private corporate donations, the effort expanded in 2009 when the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) joined the effort. DNA Pro-Kids received another boost when a $500,000 donation from a private company, Life Technologies, allowed it to expand.

Currently, DNA-Prokids staff consists of several translators, a secretary and three world-renowned scientists: Lorente, U.S. molecular geneticist Dr. Art Eisenberg, and former senior FBI scientist Dr. Bruce Budowle, now a professor of genetics.

Trafficking Worldwide

Can such science-based initiatives effectively slow the steady stream of individuals trafficked from mostly poor, undeveloped countries?

The majority of those trafficked are young women, many of whom are forced into slave labor or the sex trades. But kids are among the most poignant victims, often compelled into servitude and sexually abused, and DNA tests could save them from even more horrible fates.

According to Eisenberg, chairman of the Department of Forensic and Investigative Genetics at UNTCHI and chairman of the US DNA Advisory Board, some children are trafficked in order to harvest their organs for transplants for wealthy people who “don't want to go on the transplant list.” Stolen children, or kids deliberately sold to traffickers by their families, are also used to fill adoption lists, he added.

Noting that at one time 25 percent of all (foreign-born) children adopted in the U.S. came from Guatemala, In an interview with The Crime Report, he said there were widespread suspicions that a significant number of these adoptions involved children who were kidnapped and sold for adoption purposes.

“A pilot study done in Guatemala showed that in the cases of 220 children put up for adoption, over 90 of the individuals putting those kids up for adoption were not biologically related to them,” he said..

The U.S. Department of State's annual Trafficking in Persons report in 2010 for the first time included the United States in its tiered breakdown of countries, which outlines the level of human trafficking within its borders. The U.S. is viewed primarily as a recipient country, or consumer of trafficked humans, including adoptive children.

Eisenberg says DNA-Prokids decided to pursue illegal adoptions because countries like Guatemala had so few regulations in place. Guatemala seemed like a good starting point.

“Anyone could show up at an orphanage and claim a child,” said Eisenberg.

Proving – or disproving – a biological connection in these cases was relatively simple. All that was required was the ability to collect and test DNA, something for which Guatemalan authorities were not equipped. Since DNA Pro-Kids began assisting with DNA testing, authorities there have tightened the rules surrounding adoptions with the result that fewer illegal placements are slipping through.

Lack of Communication

Eisenberg says that his organization can be especially useful in overcoming hurdles to the global effort to curtail the trafficking of minors. Those hurdles include the lack of a uniform international protocol for handling such cases, civil unrest which disrupts communication across borders, and a general lack of scientific facilities.

Some “Level 3” countries (defined by the State Department as a country whose government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for protecting children from traffickers and is not making a significant effort to do so), are both source and destination countries. One example is the Congo, where foreign militias abduct Congolese children and impress them as soldiers. Others are Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Somalia.

DNA Pro-Kids has begun to address this problem through signing separate protocols with individual nations. Eight protocols now exist, with Brazil, Guatemala, Indonesia, Mexico, Nepal, the Philippines, Sir Lanka and Thailand; and an additional 10 are currently being negotiated.

The organization also works actively with the United Nations GIFT program, a collaborative effort with criminal justice agencies in 117 countries to stop military abductions and other types of human trafficking.

The DNA detective work could make a real difference. “For all these years, these traffickers have had little fear they would be caught or their victims traced back to them,” said Eisenberg.

Now, DNA testing can not only be used to reunite families, but enable investigative agencies throughout the world to share information that can help return children, he added.

“We're never going to stop (the trade in children),” Eisenberg said. “But if these traffickers realize there are ways to trace things back to them, maybe it will act as a deterrent.”

Carole Moore, a former police officer, is a columnist and contributing editor at a major law enforcement trade publication. Her book, The Last Place You'd Look: True Stories of Missing Persons and The People Who Search for Them, will be released this spring by Rowman & Littlefield.

Photo by Venetia Joubert Sarah Oosterveld via Flickr.

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