Many parents across the country are swabbing the inside of their children’s mouths to get a DNA sample just in case they need it if the youngster is kidnapped, runs away or suffers a terrible accident.
News reports about child abductions and television shows such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" are helping drive the interest in keeeping genetic records that could be used to identify remains, hair or blood.
"It’s the CSI mentality: that DNA is going to be the answer to any problem that comes up," said Jerry Nance, supervisor of the forensic assistance unit of the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Missing kids found murdered or those who are never heard from make up only about 2 percent of the 850,000 kids who are reported missing every year, he said. Most children are found within several days or come home on their own.
Despite those numbers, kits are available that include a photo, fingerprints, a collection swab and a special envelope in which to put the DNA sample.
The kits are distributed by private companies, police stations, orthodontists and others. Most cost from $5 to $60, Nance said, but some are provided for free.
Lisa Kubista, 33, said she took her two stepchildren, ages 6 and 7, to a car dealership in Chippewa Falls in September, where officials took photos and video of the kids, and gave parents a kit to collect a DNA sample.
"Things can happen and you need to be prepared to the highest extent that you can," Kubista said.
Brian Wagner, police chief in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., said his department created about 1,000 DNA collection kits and began offering them for free in September. Parents have picked up more than 300.
"We’ve been doing a lot of child fingerprinting, but that’s not always a reliable means of identification," Wagner said.
Joe Polski, chief operations officer for the International Association for Identification, said he would not use the kits but he would not discourage them.
"The chances are so slim that it’s questionable in my mind if it’s worth the work to have it," he said. "Parents would be far better off to pay attention to what their kids are doing, who they are hanging around with."
Craig Webre, first vice president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, said DNA collection could become standard within the next decade.
He backs a new program called Kid ID, started by Bob Chastant, an orthodontist in New Iberia, La., who has collected DNA from kids since 1994 in his practice and from second graders in schools. He later started doing it at fairs and other events.
In May, Chastant started encouraging orthodontists nationwide to join the program, in which the orthodontist takes a digital photograph of the child along with fingerprints. The items are entered into a Kid ID database. Parents are sent a kit to collect the sample, which they save or send to the University of North Texas to create a DNA profile.
"It allows law enforcement to use the DNA for tracking where the child has been," Chastant said.
About 19 orthodontists across the county participate, he said. He plans to try to get other health professionals involved next year.
Ed Smart said he wishes he would have known about the DNA kits before his daughter Elizabeth was kidnapped from her Utah bedroom in June 2002. She was found alive nine months later. He said investigators took boxes of her belongings to find her DNA and did not get a sample back for weeks. Having the sample ready could have narrowed down suspects faster.
"It is kind of like an insurance policy you hope you never use," he said.