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DNA Could Help Find Missing Child

Katherine Morrison, executive director of the Campagna Center in Alexandria, was at the Braddock Road Metro station at lunch time Friday and noticed a little girl about 3 or 4 playing in a yard with no adult supervision.

“The yard was fenced, so she wasn’t going anywhere; but I’m thinking, it would be so easy for someone to snatch her right over the fence,” Morrison said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) recorded 17,095 missing children in Virginia for 2001. In 2000, there were 17,662 children reported missing. The NCIC does not have statistics broken out for Fairfax County, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria.

While organizations such as the Campagna Center focus on educating parents about health-risk issues for children before there is a problem, the DNA LifePrint program was designed to provide law enforcement an identification tool should a child be reported missing. The program consists of a kit that allows a parent to use a cotton swab to collect a DNA sample from his child and preserve it for at least 80 years.

“The reason we do this is twofold. If a parent is in an emergency situation, they can hand over the DNA sample to law enforcement who can look for trace evidence. Law enforcement, through the DNA, can find out where the child had been,” said Mark Bott, director of the program. “The second side of this is that we’re in it for the education. We educate by giving parents a brochure and hope they teach their child to keep them from becoming a victim.”

Besides the equipment needed to take and store the DNA sample, each kit comes with a brochure containing 12 safety guidelines for parents to teach their children.

THE KIT, created by a former Miami homicide detective, allows a parent to swipe a cotton swab inside his child’s cheek and store the swab in a vile containing a liquid that will preserve the DNA. The vial is then placed in a red envelope to protect it from ultraviolet light and can be stored at room temperature by the parents.

The kits are distributed free to parents at corporate-sponsored events, most recently at a car dealership in Falls Church for example, or cost $8 to $14 if ordered over the phone or Web site. The company distributing the kits, Community Concepts in Springfield, Ill., keeps no records regarding whom the kits have been distributed to or the DNA samples that were collected, and does not even ask for names when supplying the kits.

Since Community Concepts does not keep any records, Bott said they do not know if the kits have aided in finding any missing children. He does know that since the kit was created in 1998, more than 300,000 of them have been distributed nationwide.

“There is no pain, no taste,” Bott said of taking the sample. “We have fun with the smaller kids, telling them it tastes like a rabbit’s tail, and when they say ‘Ahh,’ we get the sample.”

FAIRFAX COUNTY law-enforcement officers have yet to experience a case where a parent has used the kit, so Officer Julie Hersey cannot say whether it would work. The public information officer does say, however, that having a DNA sample would be useful only if the police have a crime scene or have found a dead body.

“If a child is reported missing, we need a crime scene. If we have a crime scene, we collect all the evidence. If all the eggs fall into a basket, it sounds great, but we need a crime scene,” Hersey said. “A DNA sample is not going to help you find a child unless you have something to compare the DNA to.”

Bott said the overall goal of the program is child safety.

“One important thing for parents to teach their child is ‘Check first,’” he said. “If you can teach a 5-year-old that no matter what is said to them that they check first with an adult in charge before getting into a car with someone or talking to someone, then you may have saved that child.”

Morrison also said she too had yet to hear about the kits, so she did not know how useful they could be. Instead, Morrison said she’d rather see the center focus on protecting the child and educating parents.

“There are so many ways to educate parents, so to focus on DNA?” Morrison said. “There are so many health risks to children. Those issues, to me, are more important. If getting a DNA sample is what a parent wants to do, fine, but that is not what we focus on.”

Bott said the next DNA LifePrint event in this area is scheduled for Oct. 5 at all Darcars car dealership locations.

For more information about the kit, call toll free 1-866-DNA-Kits, or go to the Web site at www.dna-lifeprint.com.