Friday, August 1, 2003

Ads for DNA kits play to parents' fears

Tales prompt some to pay for peace of mind

By Breuse Hickman
Florida Today

[IMAGE] Charlotte Hoyt opens wide so dental assistant Tinell Butler of Melbourne, Fla., can put plastic in her mouth for a Toothprints impression.
(Florida Today photo)
| ZOOM |
While driving home to Florida from Georgia, Gary Harrell heard a radio commercial selling home kits that parents can use to get DNA samples from their kids.

The pitch was that if a child were kidnapped by a stranger, parents would have DNA information to give to the authorities.

Although Harrell, a homicide agent, maintains that DNA can help accurately identify abducted children, he found the tone of the ad disturbing.

"(The ad) was hitting you like parents had to have this done right away, because someday they would need it," Harrell says. "Actually, very rarely is a child abducted by a stranger. It's usually by a family member. However, when it does happen, we always have the mother or other family members who can provide the DNA sample."

Children abducted by strangers account for less than 4 percent of all child abductions. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, about 4,600 children are abducted each year by strangers. Most are held briefly before being freed. In the United States, only 100 abductions by strangers are more serious cases in which a child is killed or held for an extended period.

News stories feed paranoia

Yet in an era when top news networks seek to compete with reality television by airing play-by-plays of cases involving abducted and murdered children, it's little wonder that the parents' paranoia outweighs statistics.

Elizabeth Smart's abduction from her Salt Lake City home in June 2002 and two high-profile abduction-murder cases in California have created a perception that child abductions are on the rise.

Whether the fear is warranted or not, parents are in the market for peace of mind.

And they might just find it at their dentist's office.

Dentist Ronald Richardson offers DNA dental imprints to any parent who wants them. But he is not out to make a buck. His services are free.

Richardson uses Toothprints, a commercial product that consists of a wafer that children bite into.

'Foolproof identification'

The wafer not only records the teeth prints, it also captures the scent and saliva, which contains the DNA and "provides the most foolproof method of identification," Richardson says.

The way he sees it, why would dentists with access to up-to-the-minute technology not want to provide peace of mind to concerned parents? When a parent's fear is real, low abduction rates are irrelevant.

"How many kids get kidnapped like Elizabeth Smart and then come back two years later after they've been brainwashed? Of course, it doesn't happen very often," Richardson says.

"But face it, we have parents that are afraid to go to Disney (World) because they're afraid their kids will be snatched and taken into a bathroom and have their heads shaved."

Harrell doesn't doubt the DNA wafers would help officials track down a child who has been kidnapped by a stranger.

The wafers could provide a DNA record more accurate than samples from a missing child's parent or close relative, he says.

"It would make it easier for us, because it would provide a nuclear DNA sample that can't be argued with," Harrell says. "I'm just concerned about the marketing of many of these services that I see out there - the ones trying to make a buck, these home kits that charge $20."

Harrell suggests parents save their money on mail-order DNA kits and use a cotton swab to gather saliva from the back of the child's mouth that can then be placed in an airtight plastic bag and frozen.

But parents who use household materials run the risk of either contaminating the DNA or not storing it correctly, says Scott Woods, who owns Vision Media, which markets corporate-sponsored child safety events around the country in conjunction with Code Amber.

Parents want to feel in control

To help promote the Amber Alert system, a volunteer partnership between police and broadcasters to activate emergency bulletins for missing children, Code Amber provides Web site tickers that offer information about missing children. In addition, parents can purchase DNA kits through Code Amber Web sites (

Woods says the kits endorsed by his company are unique, because they provide the best necessary equipment that has been tested to provide safe, long-term storage of DNA. The kits include cards treated with the FTA chemical, which allows for the rapid isolation of DNA.

"Yes, the fears of parents are being exploited - there are companies out there that are creating all kinds of products that will not help their children," Woods says. "But considering we have states that aren't regularly updating their records on registered sex offenders, parents feel it's up to them to take better control."

What about prevention?

Monique Levermore, assistant professor of psychology at Florida Tech, is pleased that parents are more vigilant and are seeking the latest scientific measures to keep records of their children.

But she says the media's focus on high-profile abduction cases has led to a misplacement of parental anxiety.

"When it comes down to the nuts and bolts, such (DNA-gathering) measures are so after-the-fact," Levermore says.

"As a parent, I would like to see more emphasis on prevention - getting parents to be more aware of the strangers who might have access to their children," she continues. "Whether it's a case of the handyman or allowing kids to be picked up by multiple people from day-care centers, the parent's anxiety should be placed more in the prevention area."

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