TOPICS > Science

DNA Testing Reunites Families Separated by War

February 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT
Thousands of children were kidnapped during a civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s, but new DNA procedures are helping reunite parents with their now grown children.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: In a tiny village in El Salvador recently, 21-year-old Angela Fillingim met her biological mother for the first time. Angela had left El Salvador with adopted parents 21 years ago, and it has taken DNA testing and the support of organizations and scientists in California and Central America to bring together mother and child.

ANGELA FILLINGIM, Adopted from El Salvador: There’s a really cute one where I’m painting my forehead.

SPENCER MICHELS: Born outside the capital of San Salvador, Angela was six months old when she was adopted by Jerry and Greta Fillingim of Berkeley, California.

GRETA FILLINGIM, Mother of Adopted Daughter: The phone rang. And they said, “A little girl was born yesterday, and she’s yours if you want her.”

SPENCER MICHELS: The Fillingims were told only that Angela was the daughter of an unwed mother who couldn’t afford to keep her during perilous times. At the time, in 1985, El Salvador was in the midst of a decade-long civil war between a right-wing junta, supported by the United States, and a coalition of leftist, anti-government groups.

The war left 75,000 dead and 8,000 missing. Their names are carved into this memorial wall in San Salvador. Thousands of children were kidnapped, and some ended up in Europe and America.

Aiding the missing children

Angela was not kidnapped, but her mother, fearing for the baby's safety in a dangerous area, put her up for adoption. Today, about to graduate from college, Angela says her own past was always a source of mystery and some confusion.

ANGELA FILLINGIM: That's like a conflict I've had for a lot of my life, is really how do I identify, because, I mean, my heritage, yes, is El Salvadorian, but my upbringing was very white, middle class.

SPENCER MICHELS: She went to El Salvador in 2005 to look for her mother and contacted an agency, Pro-Busqueda, that a dozen years before had pioneered the use of DNA in trying to reunite families by matching samples.

Eric Stover, director of Berkeley's Human Rights Center, helped set up that first DNA testing, along with a Catholic priest, Father Jon Cortina. Cortina had risked his life during the civil war to protect villagers, and later began trying to reunite families broken apart by the war.

ERIC STOVER, University of California, Berkeley: When I came up here to the village, we then went to the local radio station, and we made an announcement asking families to come forward who had disappeared children. And the buses arrived, and people came off, and we went into the church, and we started taking blood samples.

SPENCER MICHELS: Since then, Pro-Busqueda has taken DNA from hundreds of Salvadorans who are missing children. Many of them live in remote areas, where the civil war raged hardest, like Chalatenango, in the mountains north of San Salvador.

Margarita Zamora, an investigator for Pro-Busqueda, brings her kit of swabs, and paperwork, and her own history.

MARGARITA ZAMORA, Pro-Busqueda Investigator (through translator): I have four brothers who disappeared in 1982 in a military operation. And my mother, who was with the children, was murdered. This is one of the main reasons I do the work I do.

SPENCER MICHELS: Zamora has been to this village countless times. On this visit, she met with Enma Orllana, who hasn't seen her daughter, Milagra, in 24 years. The baby was snatched from her arms by soldiers attacking her village, and today she has no clue to her whereabouts.

ENMA ORLLANA, Lost Daughter in Civil War (through translator): We know that the soldiers took several children away the same time they took mine. Some killed the children; some took them away and donated them to some other countries. We think she was taken away and donated.

SPENCER MICHELS: To find Milagra, Orllana has already given a DNA sample. And now her surviving daughter, 25-year-old Florentina Navarro, gives one, as well. Margarita explained the process and showed Florentina how to get the sample.

Government involvement

Investigators like Zamora and groups like the Human Rights Center say their work would be easier if the government would release any records it has of what happened to those children and families during the civil war.

ERIC STOVER: It's not political at all. It's simply to establish what happened to these children and that their families have the right to know that. And it can be dangerous for all of these groups who are trying to establish, you know, the truth, because you're digging back into the past that a lot of governments would like to forget.

SPENCER MICHELS: The president of Pro-Busqueda has called on the government to provide names of commanders in areas where children were taken.

JOSE LAINES AYALA, President, Pro-Busqueda (through translator): The biggest obstacle we have is that the state, together with the army, harmed the families and hasn't been willing to help. We need these names to have justice served.

SPENCER MICHELS: The government denies those charges and says the guerillas also kidnapped children during the war. Rafael Carballo, the Salvadoran consul general in San Francisco, says a special government commission has been established.

RAFAEL CARBALLO, Consul General, El Salvador: Their main objective is precisely looking and searching for missing children and missing parents and try to bring them together.

Processing and tracking DNA samples

SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, Margarita Zamora travels the hills and fields leading to small villages to get as many samples as possible. Zamora sealed the samples immediately and shipped them to this California state DNA crime laboratory in Richmond, where on nights and weekends analysts, many who work here during the day, volunteer their time to process the swabs from El Salvador.

Lance Gima is chief of forensic services.

LANCE GIMA, California Bureau of Forensic Services: On the swab, essentially, is our cells from the inner lining of the cheek. Now, the cells have a nucleus. And within the nucleus is the DNA.

So our robotics will bust open the cell, bust open that nucleus, and then remove and separate the DNA from all those other materials, away from the cell and away from the nucleus. And then, once we have the DNA, then we can analyze that DNA and develop a DNA profile.

SPENCER MICHELS: The scientists here have created an El Salvador database with about 800 samples currently; they eventually hope to get 3,000 to 5,000. Using a software program, volunteers, like Nicole Inacio, look for and find matches.

NICOLE INACIO, Criminalist, California Bureau of Forensic Services: The database will run the search, and the computer will let us know, "We have a child that might belong to this potential family," looking at those genetic profiles.

Reuniting with birth parents

SPENCER MICHELS: Out of 250 children from El Salvador who have located their birth parents, nearly 70 families have actually been reunited using DNA.

ANGELA FILLINGIM: They took my DNA and, you know, that was in, what, July. And in December, I got an e-mail saying they'd found, you know, possible -- well, my mother, that they had taken the DNA and found a match.

SPENCER MICHELS: In Berkeley, Angela received photos of her mother and talked to her on the phone, and that raised a few apprehensions.

ANGELA FILLINGIM: Every other word out of her mouth was "Thank God," "Thank God," "Thank God," and that's a little scary, because growing up in Berkeley, religion isn't exactly a big thing.

SPENCER MICHELS: In December, Angela, with the support of her adoptive parents and the Human Rights Center at the University of California, traveled to San Salvador. The country she found is no longer at war, but the left and the right still don't trust each other. The capital is a dangerous place with a high crime rate.

MARCO PEREZ NAVARETTE, Psychologist: So, Angela, I know, I'm guessing you're really excited for tomorrow. So what do you expect tomorrow for meeting your biological mother?

ANGELA FILLINGIM: Honestly, I don't really know what to expect.

SPENCER MICHELS: Angela spent part of her first day talking with Pro-Busqueda's psychologist, Marco Perez Navarette, who counsels both children and parents before and after a reunion.

The next day, Angela and a friend helping her traveled to San Rafael, a small, poor village an hour from the capital, for the reunion, held at the home of Angela's mother's parents.

Her mother, Blanca Rodriguez, and a brother she had never met were waiting as Angela walked up a dirt road.

For two hours, the long-lost family members got to know each other, in the modest home where many of Angela's relatives live and work. Rodriguez said that she was advised by a lawyer and a doctor to give Angela up for adoption, even though she didn't want to.

BLANCA RODRIGUEZ, Reunited with Daughter (through translator): Yes, it was difficult times for me. You didn't know if you were going to be back, because you might be in the middle of a shooting. Even in my family, a lot of the members of the family died. And at that time, I thought it was a good decision to give her to a family, that nothing was going to happen to her.

SPENCER MICHELS: Was it hard to talk to her?

ANGELA FILLINGIM: Yes, it was. It was kind of hard, because it's one of those things where -- there's no way to explain it. It's like, "Oh, hi, I'm your mom." Like, what do you say after that?

SPENCER MICHELS: Angela concentrated on the simple, everyday things.

ANGELA FILLINGIM: And I got to make tortillas with my grandmother. Like, that was so cool.

ERIC STOVER: We all have that intense need to know. And the strongest human force on Earth is a parent searching for their disappeared child.

SPENCER MICHELS: Currently, DNA is playing ever-increasing roles in North and South Korea, Vietnam, Rwanda, Chile and Argentina. Stover and scientists at the lab in California are hoping the El Salvador database will be a model to reconnect families.