Could DNA tests bring home missing kids? Lack of diversity in databases hinders searches

Donna Green held her infant son for only five days before he was kidnapped from her Atlanta home by a woman who had befriended the teen mom at the hospital. More than four decades later, Green still remembers the tightness of his grip around her finger. She dreams that one day she’ll see those beautiful hazel brown eyes again.

For years, there were no leads. It wasn’t until 2014 – more than 35 years after baby Raymond disappeared – that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children suggested Green provide her DNA for analysis. Among the millions of samples in growing private and law enforcement databases, she might find a match for her son – or even a grandchild who could lead her back to Raymond.

“At that time, I didn’t want to do it,” Green said. “There were people in my life who thought I should, and then there were people in my life who said they didn’t know nothing about it, so they don’t trust it.

“Trust issues in the Black community is a lot.”

In recent years, advocacy groups and law enforcement have turned to DNA analysis as a new tool to search for longtime missing children like Raymond. But complicated rules limiting the amount of genetic material police can search combined with a lack of diversity in the largest commercial databases means this new technology isn’t living up to its potential for missing people of color.

Law enforcement databases, which contain a disproportionate number of samples from Black people, can’t use DNA from the relatives of the missing to find a match with a living person. And while anyone can use commercial databases to try to find relatives, the vast majority of DNA profiles uploaded to them are from white people – and Black Americans can be hesitant to upload their DNA, a reluctance rooted in centuries of racial bias in policing.

The primary concern for people of color is that without tighter regulations on how their genetic material can be used, communities that have been historically overpoliced and surveilled by law enforcement could be at risk of future incarceration, detention or deportation, said Chandra Ford, professor and founding director of the Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health at UCLA.

“Once it’s collected and in the surveillance systems, it can be available for whatever new reasons are needed,” she said.

Green said she didn’t realize the power of genetic technology when she was first approached by the National Center. Rare cases like Raymond’s – investigations into infants taken by a stranger many years ago – have a greater chance of being solved with this modern technology. Statistically, they are more likely to have been raised by their abductors and may now have children or grandchildren who have taken a DNA test.

After a caseworker broached the idea, it took Green about six months to come around to it, she said. With the center’s help, she submitted DNA samples to law enforcement and the commercial databases. Her two daughters did the same.

Now, all they can do is wait. Police once told Green that Raymond could have been taken out of the country. If he were still alive somewhere, now 43, could she still find him?

“If he decides to do a DNA,” Green said, “That could bring him back home to me.”

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When CODIS fails, commercial databases can help locate missing people

About 46 million DNA profiles are housed in various databases, but they aren’t all collected for the same reason, and they don’t all end up in the same place.

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Perhaps the best-known law enforcement database is the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, which is used exclusively by law enforcement to store DNA profiles obtained through criminal investigations. Developed by the FBI in 1998, it contains more than 20 million DNA profiles, the vast majority from offenders or arrestees. That’s the place police would go to see if evidence from an unknown rapist, for example, matches someone convicted in a different crime.

Because of racial disparities in arrests and convictions, this database contains a large cache of DNA profiles from Black people.

For missing-persons cases, CODIS is less useful. Under federal law, police cannot search the full CODIS database for matches with the DNA profiles of families looking for loved ones who have vanished because CODIS is designed to search the criminal index for exact matches. Police can use the full database only in missing-persons cases in which they have samples from the people missing themselves, such as a tooth or tissue swab taken before they disappeared.

Barring that, a separate index in CODIS can match the DNA profiles of family members with unidentified human remains, according to BJ Spamer, director of investigative support at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. If the missing person is still alive, a search usually won’t yield any results.

The federal law that restricts the use of CODIS doesn’t apply to databases compiled by local law enforcement agencies, however. About 16 states allow investigators to search for familial matches against criminal DNA, according to Carol Schweitzer, program manager of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s forensic team.

Families also could search for their missing loved ones in commercial DNA databases. A 2019 study published in the MIT Technology Review estimated that more than 26 million people have taken an at-home ancestry test via a direct-to-consumer site such as Ancestry or 23andMe.

Police aren’t allowed to search most of those profiles without a court order.

Some people choose to download their data from those sites and share it through other sites, such as Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch, where they may give law enforcement permission to access it. Most don’t go that route, said CeCe Moore, lead genetic genealogist at Parabon Nanolabs in Reston, Virginia, which assists law enforcement.

“We’re probably working with 3 million profiles,” she said.

DNA tests create privacy concerns, especially in communities of color

Public and law enforcement interest in genetic genealogy increased dramatically in 2018 after California police used the method to identify the Golden State Killer. Investigators tracked down Joseph James DeAngelo by uploading DNA from the crime scenes to GEDmatch and reverse-engineering a family tree, which led them to the former police officer.

The high-profile case also sparked privacy concerns, which lapses by both the private companies and law enforcement have done little to allay – especially among communities of color.

In 2019, GEDmatch allowed Utah police to use the database to identify a suspect in a violent assault, which violated the terms of service that had allowed police access only to solve homicides and sexual assaults. After facing backlash, the company updated its privacy policy.

That same year, Family Tree DNA further fueled privacy concerns by confirming to BuzzFeed News that it had granted the FBI access to its nearly 2 million genetic profiles.

In California, state crime labs recently acknowledged that they are using DNA from sexual assault survivors and other individuals to investigate unrelated crimes, a practice that sparked proposed legislation to stop it.

Bicka Barlow, a defense attorney and former molecular biologist based in San Francisco who specializes in DNA evidence, said she doesn’t understand how relatives uploading their DNA could be helpful in most cases of missing children. She said she would advise anyone against it, especially people of color.

“Black and brown people are already exploited in the criminal justice system in the United States, and this just gives more uncontrolled access to all sorts of enemies you can’t do anything about,” Barlow said. “Once you’ve done it, it’s almost impossible to undo it. We’ve already done enough damage to these communities.”

Many people of color seem to agree with her. Fewer than half of Black Americans find it acceptable for DNA testing companies to share customers’ genetic information with law enforcement to help solve crimes, according to a 2019 Pew Research survey.

Green said she got a lot of conflicting advice when deciding whether to go forward. One common response, she said: “No, I’m not doing all that. You know you get your DNA, then all of the sudden this comes up and that comes up.”

Moore, the genetic genealogist, acknowledged the problems. She and others in her field are working to rebuild trust and create standards to prevent police from misusing genetic information, she said, even as legislators have started to catch up to the dramatic increase in the use of local and commercial databases.

She pointed to a new law in Maryland that requires investigators take steps like destroying all DNA samples and data gathered through forensic genealogy to help safeguard genetic privacy. Montana also passed a law last year restricting the use of genetic genealogy.

Moore said she hopes these steps will encourage more people to get tested: “We need more parties, more participation and a willingness to assist,” she said.

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To get more people on board, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children now offers free genetic testing to families who believe their missing loved ones are still alive, according to Schweitzer, the organization’s forensic team manager.

But not everyone accepts the offer of help, she said.

“They have misconceptions of how that data is visible and how it’s used,” she said. “They don’t want to, or they’re not ready yet to try something new like this because they feel like it could give them false hope.”

For those who do want to try, the national center facilitates testing through Family Tree DNA, one of the few websites that can be searched by law enforcement under certain circumstances. Their tests start at about $79, a cost the organization covers.

The national center then taps a genealogy company like Innovative Forensics to search for potential matches in Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch that could be the missing child or their descendants.

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The center has worked with about 40 families so far, but none have found their missing child.

Although working with police means limiting the search to smaller databases like FamilyTree DNA and GEDmatch, Schweitzer said it’s important for families to do so to preserve the integrity of any potential criminal investigation.

Moore, however, said families should test on their own with as many services as possible to increase their chances of finding a match.

“If you’re hoping to find them alive, you need to be in the biggest database,” she said. “I strongly believe that any family of missing children or missing loved ones should have their DNA in all the consumer DNA databases.”

Leads that don’t pan out can cause ‘heartbreak’

Through her own outreach and media coverage, Green has been approached by six men who believed they were Raymond. Three seemed to be solid leads. The first man was adamant that he was her son but refused to take a DNA test, Green said. The second lived in Belize. His DNA did not match.

The third and most promising tip came from an investigator in Australia, who put Green in contact with a man in his 30s named Prince Lenny Penaloza.

Penaloza, who discovered Green’s story while living in Germany, had been brought to Europe from the United States in the late ’70s but says he was abandoned at age 11 by the woman who adopted him. Much like Green, Penaloza had spent most of his life trying to find his missing loved ones.

He and Green grew closer, and Penaloza eagerly sent a DNA sample to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in January 2015.

“I just fell for this young man; I knew he was Raymond because his dynamic and my dynamic seem to be the same,” Green said. “How could he not be?”

For months, Green heard nothing. She called the national center that October to inquire about the results and was told she should have gotten them from police back in May. The woman on the phone informed Green the results were negative.

“I really thought he was Raymond, so it was more of a heartbreak when I found out he wasn’t,” Green said. “It really hurt.”

Even so, Green and Penaloza keep in touch. Green plans to travel to Germany to meet him for the first time next month.

Today, Green says she believes more people of color would be “willing and ready” to give a sample if advocates shared examples of successful cases of using DNA testing in missing-persons investigations with Black and brown communities.

She now encourages all families that she supports through her nonprofit, the Raymond Green International Outreach of Hope, to take a DNA test.

“Maybe I can’t find Raymond,” Green said. “But if I can’t find Raymond, maybe I can help somebody else find theirs.”

Contributing: Tami Abdollah. Anyone with information about Raymond Green is asked to contact reporter Gina Barton on Signal at 262-757-8640 or at [email protected], or fill out this form:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DNA test databases lack diversity, hinder search for missing children

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