In an unprecedented international collaboration, California crime scientists are analyzing DNA from hundreds of families in El Salvador who are searching for their children, lost during the civil war that tormented that country for more than a decade. The violence took 75,000 lives and, in the chaos, thousands of children were put in orphanages and adoption centers. Many were adopted by families in the United States and Europe. The war ended in 1992, but its aftermath is now playing out in a California laboratory.
During business hours at the California Department of Justice DNA Crime Lab, technicians analyze DNA from every felon in the state, creating a huge genetic database. But at night, in the same lab, a few volunteer DNA scientists, like Christian Orrego, work to link missing children from El Salvador with their biological families. As he feeds human cells into the robotic arms of the DNA-analyzing machines, he says, “I'm continually thinking about how to apply what we have in this laboratory to human rights investigations, and in particular in the search for the missing.”
In 1996, Orrego met Eric Stover, director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Stover had worked in El Salvador, and described in vivid detail how thousands of children disappeared during waves of massive military actions. “Families would flee, often children got separated from the families, other times the military surrounded villages, they actually took children away, families actually were so fearful that their children were going to come to harm that they gave their children up for adoption.”
Stover and Orrego realized they were a natural match – bringing human rights experience and high-tech crime solving techniques to solve the missing children mystery of El Salvador.
Back in the lab, Orrego prints out unique DNA profiles and carefully labels them. He runs his finger along the rainbow-colored graphic, explaining, “Each of the peaks are the genetic profile of that person -- very unlikely to be found in any other person on the face of this earth.”
But a parent and child have recognizable similarities in their DNA profiles. So, to establish a DNA database of children and parents, the California crime team went to El Salvador. They asked families searching for lost children to scrape their mouths with DNA collection sticks. Then they brought more than 700 samples back to California to be analyzed and catalogued.
Although their focus is on families in El Salvador, they’ve also collected DNA from Americans like Angela Fillingam. “I've grown up in Berkeley since I was 6 months old,” she says. “I have my family. I have a brother and a sister. I've always known I'm adopted. I've always known that my birth mother was out there.”
Angela was born in El Salvador, in a region of intense warfare. At six months old, she was placed in an adoption center; from there, an American couple brought her home, to California. Last year, at the age of 20, Angela traveled to her birth country. She met with Salvadoran experts trying to reunite war children with their parents. When they pulled out her adoption records, Angela was stunned by what they told her. “They were sitting there looking at my papers,” she recalls, “and they were going back and forth saying, okay, ‘era robada.’ Literally that translates to mean, she was stolen. So that really freaked me out, and I called my parents, crying.”
Eventually, the war adoption experts realized they were wrong about Angela. Her mother had legitimately given her to the adoption agency. And, with a bit more searching, they located the woman they believe is her mother.
“I have a letter from her,” Angela says, “and she's very religious, so she's just been thanking God for this opportunity to know that her daughter's okay. And my little brother has said the same thing, and he wants to get to know me. He saw some pictures of me, and he said I look just like my mom, and that means I'm beautiful.”
The Salvadoran experts asked Christian Orrego and his colleagues to use DNA profiling to verify the relationship between Angela and her probable biological mother. The scientists are in the process of doing that, and hope to obtain genetic samples from other internationally adopted Salvadoran war children, as well: 28 in Italy, 15 in France, and more than 50 in the United States.
This month, the scientists will transfer the data base to El Salvador, where an organization called ProBusqueda – 'For the Search' – will link the DNA profiles with adoption forms and war records, hoping to match more lost children, like Angela, with their parents.