Point of view

The DNA way to valid adoptions

February 28, 2010 

— As eight Americans charged with kidnapping in Haiti returned home earlier this month, I was less moved by their reunions in Idaho than I was frustrated anew that the episode occurred in the first place.

After all, even before the earthquake hit, there were more than 350,000 orphans in Haiti. It was already past time to ensure that they and others who might be adopted from poorer countries aren't stolen by local operators looking to profit from well-intentioned couples in the United States or elsewhere.

DNA technology exists to confirm that a supposed orphan doesn't actually belong to a mother looking for her lost child. The technology is affordable and reliable, and if implemented properly, it could enhance our confidence in international adoptions just as it has in missing-persons cases and criminal prosecutions within our own country.

The recent controversy in Haiti reminded me of the less-publicized case of Esther Zulamita, a girl from Guatemala. Armed men stole the 6-month-old child from her mother in 2007. More than a year later, her mother happened to see Esther in the National Adoption Council's office, where she was in the process of being adopted by a couple in the United States. The mother was able to prove through DNA testing that the child was her daughter, and they are now happily reunited.

International adoption advocates prefer the term "adoption fraud" over "child trafficking" in cases where children are not taken for sexual exploitation or slavery. But as we have been reminded by the controversy in Haiti, poor children around the world are in danger of being taken from their families, sometimes through fraudulent adoptions for hidden profits and sometimes for slave markets.

It's an issue fraught with emotions. Altruists embrace adoption as a way to protect children without parental care from poverty and hunger. They want adoption processes simplified so children do not suffer for years waiting for a family. Simultaneously, all of us are repulsed by the thought of people exploiting children, but it's often difficult to identify or prosecute the offenders.

The U.S. government is working with the government of Guatemala to routinely collect DNA to verify the biological relationship of birth parents to children relinquished for adoption. But because DNA testing was not required there for children deemed abandoned, local lawyers used the loophole to process adoptions even when DNA tests revealed the relinquishing adult was not the mother.

Partly because of this confusion, there has been a hiatus on adoptions from Guatemala for nearly two years, which only harms children awaiting valid immigration visas and families.

Similar problems have arisen with DNA reviews of adoptions from Vietnam.

We should learn from these experiences. The fact remains that DNA is invaluable for determining identity, and governments around the world should embrace it in all cases of cross-border adoptions. No tool is more effective for verifying that someone relinquishing a child really is the parent. And for children who appear to be abandoned, DNA enables their identities to be checked against databases of missing persons.

In Haiti, the FBI and State Department have already taken steps to use DNA to help reunite parents and children, thanks in part to DNA-ProKids, an initiative supported by the Spanish government and a team at the University of North Texas. It's a laudable effort but still largely a reaction to an emergency.

What's really needed, and not only in Haiti, is for the world's nations to embrace DNA technology to fortify their commitment through the Hague Adoption Convention to "prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children." Done correctly, routine DNA testing could streamline the process of adopting relinquished children while protecting others from trafficking.

Privacy is essential whenever collecting genetic information, particularly with children. Any new protocols will need to protect access to DNA profiles and guard DNA databases against fraudulent claims of custody or of "relinquishing parents" seeking custody at a later date. Fortunately, we now have years of experience with similar genetic databases, such as for people convicted of crimes and victims of mass disasters. With careful forethought, the privacy interests of children and family members - both adopting and biological - can be protected.

We'll probably hear more in the coming weeks about the two Idaho missionaries still held in Haiti. Regardless of what happens to them, though, we need to focus on the bigger challenge of using DNA analysis to prevent children everywhere from being removed inadvertently from their families or criminally trafficked via fraudulent adoptions.

Sara Huston Katsanis is a genetic policy researcher in the Center for Genome Ethics, Law & Policy in the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke University.

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