DNA Reuniting Salvadoran War Orphans with Parents DNA collected in El Salvador is being analyzed in California to help Salvadoran parents identify children who went missing during that country's civil war. Thousands of Salvadoran children were separated from their families in the 1980s. A human rights group hopes to match up adopted children with their birth parents.

DNA Reuniting Salvadoran War Orphans with Parents

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DNA is also being used to help reunite hundreds of families in El Salvador. 75,000 people died in that country's civil war, and in the chaos, thousands of children were put in orphanages at adoption centers. Now, more than a decade after the war, its aftermath is playing out in a California DNA lab. Lonnie Shavelson reports.


During business hours at the California Department of Justice DNA Crime Lab in Northern California, technicians analyze DNA from every felon in the state, creating a huge genetic database.

But at night, in the same lab, a few volunteer state DNA scientists work to link missing children from El Salvador with their families.

One of them is Christriano Orrego(ph). He feeds human cells into the robotic arms of the DNA analyzing machines.

Mr. CHRISTRIANO ORREGO (DNA Scientist): 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.

Mr. SHAVELSON: In 1996, Orrego met Eric Stover, of UC Berkeley's Human Rights Center. Stover has worked in El Salvador and described, in vivid detail, how thousands of children disappeared during waves of massive military actions.

Professor ERIC STOVER (Director, Human Rights Center, and Adjunct Professor of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley): 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.

Mr. SHAVELSON: Stover and Orrego realized they were a natural match, bringing human rights work and high-tech crime solving techniques to the missing children mystery of El Salvador.

Back in the lab, Orrego prints out unique, rainbow-colored DNA profiles.

Mr. ORREGO: Each of the peaks are the genetic profile of that person. Its very unlikely to be found in any other person on the face of this earth.

Mr. SHAVELSON: But, a parent and child have recognizable similarities in their DNA profiles. To establish a DNA database of children and parents, the crime team went to El Salvador. They asked families searching for lost children to scrape their mouths with DNA collection sticks. Then, they brought over 700 samples back to California to be analyzed and catalogued.

And although their focus is on families in El Salvador, they've also collected DNA from people like Anela Fillingim.

Ms. ANELA FILLINGIM (Adopted from El Salvador): Like, I've grown up in Berkeley, since I was six months old. I have my family. I have a brother and a sister. I've always known I'm adopted, and I've always known that my birth mother was out there.

Mr. SHAVELSON: Fillingim 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 Berkeley, California.

Last year, at the age of 20, Angela traveled to her birth country. She met with Salvadorian experts trying to reunite war children with their parents. When they pulled out her documents, Angela was stunned by what they told her.

Ms. FILLINGHAM: They're sitting there looking at my papers, and they were going back and forth, saying, okay, roballa(ph). And, like, literally that translates to mean, she was stolen. So that really, really freaked me out, and I called my parents, like, crying.

Mr. SHAVELSON: Eventually, the war adoption experts realized they may be wrong about Angela. With a bit more searching, they found a woman, alive today, who is likely to be Angela's mother.

Ms. FILLINGIM: I have a letter from her, and she's very religious so she's been thanking God for this opportunity to know that her daughter is 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 that I'm beautiful. So…

Mr. SHAVELSON: The crime team collected DNA from both Angela and the woman likely to be her mother. They've also found, and are seeking samples, from other internationally adopted Salvadorian war children: 28 in Italy, 15 in France, and more than 50 in the United States.

This month, the scientists will transfer the database to El Salvador and an organization called Pro-Búsqueda, For the Search, which will link the DNA profiles with adoption forms and war records to match lost children, like Angela, with their parents.

Ms. FILLINGIM: I realize that I can't change the past, but I can be grateful for this opportunity to have two families.

Mr. SHAVELSON: For NPR News, I'm Lonnie Shavelson.

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