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Fighting Back Against the Worst of Nature and Human Nature

Tue, 04/10/2012 - 1:50pm
Chris Asplen

I had a great conversation with a colleague at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Atlanta. We had spoken over the phone before and certainly knew of each other’s work, but we never really had the opportunity to sit down and discuss issues before. About forty five minutes into the conversation he finally says, “You know, you converse a lot differently than you write. What’s up with that? Do you just get up sometimes in a bad mood and start writing?”

A humorous, albeit fair, question I suppose. Given recent, shall we say somewhat sarcastic or acerbic commentaries on issues like immigration testing (or the lack thereof), familial searching (or the lack thereof), legislation in South Africa (or lack thereof), and national arrestee testing (or lack thereof) I can understand his query.

To some extent, I assume that if you are reading this magazine you don’t paint houses or sell cars or prepare taxes. If you are reading this magazine, it is probably because you are either a forensic scientist or police officer, lab manager or you may even be in the private sector at one of the leading forensic suppliers. In any event, most of you aren’t happy with the status quo when it comes to saving people’s lives. Me either.

That being said, it seems like poor form to spend less time acknowledging when we do, as a community, get it right. So let me take this opportunity.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 161 countries are affected by human trafficking. The majority of those trafficking victims are between 18 and 24 years of age. To further characterize and quantify the crime, an estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked every year. And 95% of victims experience physical or sexual violence.

As defined by the United Nations, human trafficking involves, “an act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring, or receiving a person through the use of force, coercion, or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them.” But the more tangible human tragedy comes in the end purpose of the “trafficking” itself: sexual slavery, forced labor, illegal adoptions, etc. A particularly insidious example of human trafficking comes in the context of mass human tragedy.

DNA–Prokids
In 2004, Dr. Jose A. Lorente from the University of Granada (UGR), Genetic Identification Laboratory suggested the development of worldwide DNA registries consisting of parents with a missing or abducted child, homeless children found living on the street or in shelters, and children found in orphanages or illegal adoption centers. From this idea the UGR launched DNA-Prokids (Program for Kids Identification with DNA Systems). DNA-Prokids is an international humanitarian effort to help identify missing children in order to reunite abducted and homeless children with their parents and to provide law enforcement agencies a scientific methodology to help deter the human trafficking of children. Initial funding for DNA-Prokids was provided to the UGR by the Spanish Government, the Government of the State of Andalusia, and donations from private companies and foundations within Spain. In 2009, Dr. Arthur Eisenberg and the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI), Fort Worth, Texas, partnered with the UGR to further the development and expansion of DNA-Prokids throughout the world. The UGR continues to act as the headquarters for DNA-Prokids and along with UNTCHI supports the establishment of the program within all participating countries. The UNTCHI, with its high throughput processing capability, will assist countries in the generation of DNA profiles as well as spearhead the development of the international databases to facilitate comparisons and help identify familial relationships.

The value of DNA-Prokids, and thus the value of expanded international applications of forensic DNA technology, can be seen in a simple but poignant example from a natural disaster of epic proportions. In 2004, the Indonesian tsunami killed 230,000 people and left approximately 42,883 people missing. The tsunami took its heaviest toll in the Aceh region, where approximately 160,000 were killed. When the tsunami prompted 60 foot-tall waves, the town of Meulaboh disappeared and from then on became known as “ground zero.” Thousands of bodies could not be identified. Meri Yulanda, an eight-year-old girl, was believed to be among them.

However seven years later, in late December of 2011, Meri appeared at a café in her home town in West Aceh telling anyone who would listen the only name she remembered “Ibrahim,” her grandfather’s name. Looking all of fifteen and not the eight- year- old who washed away, she brought with her a story in which mother nature’s brutality would not be outdone by human nature’s potential cruelty.

Meri had last been seen with her older sister atop a house when the waves hit the rooftop. Their father had dragged them there and told them to wait while he rescued their mother. Instead, he watched in horror as the house was destroyed by a wayward and out of control boat. And while Meri recalls none of the initial natural disaster, she does remember what happened afterward when she wound up in Banda Aceh, the province’s largest city. For seven years there, she was bullied and beaten into street begging by her captor Fatima. She explained that she was forced to join dozens of tsunami orphans pleading for cash outside coffee shops and the city’s grand mosque. One day, after beating her again, Fatima angrily divulged the name of Meri’s hometown, telling her to leave since she failed to beg well enough. Using skills taught to her by a seasoned beggar, Meri found a mini-bus driver going to Meulaboh.

While her parents believed they recognized Meri thanks to a birthmark and a scar, it was the DNA test performed by the DNA-Prokids program that removed any doubt that Meri had at last returned home.

DNA-Prokids works quite literally in every corner of the world. But the logistics, the travel, the personnel, and all the other factors that go into that kind of work is not inexpensive. The primary funding for the further development and expansion of DNA-Prokids has been provided by an award in 2009 to UNTCHI from the Life Technologies Foundation. These funds are being used for: 1) the development and distribution of DNA kits to facilitate the collection of samples from: parents or families with a missing or abducted child; children found working in prostitution rings or performing forced labor in sweat shops; homeless children found living on the street or in shelters; and children found in orphanages or illegal adoption centers; 2) to support the DNA analysis of samples from those countries lacking processing capability; 3) the development and distribution of software to facilitate database construction and profile comparisons; 4) the development of a campaign to drive awareness and encourage participation in underdeveloped countries; and 5) to help define best practices for the establishment of DNA repositories for international adoptions to identify abducted children. The ultimate goal would be to provide the participating countries with the training and resources to directly process the DNA samples they collect and administer their own national databases in a manner that would facilitate international data searches.

Meri’s story is just one of tens of thousands that exist throughout the world as an example of the horrors of human trafficking. DNA-Prokids provides an example that we possess the technology, the resources, and most importantly, the will to fight back hard against the some of the worst nature and human nature has to offer.

Chris Asplen consults with local, state, and foreign governments and law enforcement agencies on the use of forensic DNA technology. He may be reached at casplen@gth-gov.com.

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