DNA TESTING: The Ultimate ID for Your Child

Probably the most compelling evidence in the O.J. Simpson trial was the DNA match. It was also the first time millions of Americans were exposed to the use of DNA outside the purely scientific realm. DNA testing is now being launched in a new arena - child identification. It's new, uncharted territory, this simple test that identifies your child and only your child; and its uses range from protection against baby-swapping at hospitals, to help in locating children who are reported lost or missing. The introduction of DNA identification foresees uncontested answers to certain kinds of questions, in areas that remain clouded. GALINA ESPINOZA sheds further light on

DNA TESTING: The Ultimate ID for Your Child

In recent years, horror stories about baby-swapping at hospitals or parents mistakenly taking the wrong newborn home have been fodder for television movies-of-the-week as well as afternoon talk shows. What makes these cases particularly frightening is the feeling among doctors, hospital administrators and parents alike that the chance of such a mix-up is not at all unusual.

"Parents shouldn't be frightened, but they should be aware that they need to protect their child from being incorrectly identified," says Dr. Vivian DeNise, an osteopath and family practitioner in Rockville Centre who now informs parents that DNA testing is an option, and a reasonably priced one.

The testing is simple - a simple swipe of the inner lining of your infant's cheek with sterile cotton swabs. Its protection covers not only those cases of children being sent home from the hospital with the wrong parents, but also any of the more than one million cases each year of children reported abducted, lost or missing. After all, experts say a baby's fingerprints and footprints change until about age five, rendering such early records somewhat inaccurate. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics no longer recognizes these identification tools as effective. Similarly, an infant's blood changes during the first two years of life as she develops antibodies. And young children rarely have dental records that can be used as ID.

DNA, however, has none of these flaws. Every individual has his or her own genetic code, i.e., DNA, which is unique and different from anyone else's. The military has used DNA testing for about five years to identify fatally wounded soldiers. And, as we saw in the Simpson trial, DNA evidence is commonly used in court cases. When it comes to child identification, DNA testing's time has come.


"DNA is the only thing about you that never changes," says Rich Ulmer, president and CEO of InVitro International, an Irvine, CA company that released its Guardian DNA testing system for children this past July. "We hope parents never have to identify their child," he continues, "but if they do, DNA can make emotional closure possible."

There are fears, however, that DNA can be used for more sinister purposes. As a kind of genetic blueprint of an individual, DNA can, for example, reveal if one is a carrier of a certain disease - information which could hinder his chances for obtaining health insurance coverage, or getting a certain job.

"We're not necessarily against this testing being used to help parents identify their children," says Denny Lee, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City. "But we'd be interested in seeing what kinds of guidelines are being made to ensure the individual's privacy - and to make sure the information doesn't fall into the wrong hands."

The Guardian DNA system places a premium on protecting an individual's identity. How does it work? First, a DNA sample is collected by simply wiping the inner lining of the infant's cheek with sterile cotton swabs. The swabs are placed in a tightly sealed vial containing a preservative, and a bar-code label is affixed to the outside of the vial. A PIN number is selected, which later allows access to the sample if necessary. Nowhere does the child's name, the parents' names, or any other identifying factor appear on the vial, virtually assuring anonymity. The vial is then shipped to a storage facility, where it is kept for up to 16 years. If a law enforcement agency decides the DNA sample is needed, lab technicians at the facility can analyze it, thereby completing the identification process.

Thus far, the Guardian DNA system is available at only a handful of hospitals nationwide, as well as through private physicians and medical supply stores, usually for less than $75. Most likely, given its potential uses, it will become more commonly available soon.

"Just like discussing immunization with your doctor," says Dr. DeNise, "you should also discuss safety. You don't have to use DNA testing on your child, but it's nice to know the option is there."