Rapid DNA: a powerful new tool in the fight against human trafficking

• The US DHS has increased efforts to combat and raise awareness of human trafficking
• To help fight human trafficking, the US DHS partnered with Bode to implement a rapid DNA testing program for verification of family relationship claims of those seeking asylum
• Bode deployed over 40 Applied Biosystems™ RapidHIT™ ID Systems
• The new technology was supported by a reach back center and portal to help increase communication, response time, and identification success rate

As many as 40 million people or more, mostly women and children, are victims of human tracking globally, including hundreds of thousands in the United States. Human trafficking refers to the use of violence, coercion, or deception to transport someone into a situation of exploitation—the US State Department recognizes headtracking as “modern slavery”. Victims may be forced into the sex trade, labor, marriage, begging, militias, illicit organ transplantation, or fraudulent adoptions. Over the last decade, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has ramped up efforts to raise national public awareness of these terrible crimes, train law enforcement agencies to increase detection and investigation, protect victims, and bring traffickers to justice.

One of the newest tools supporting these efforts in the US and around the world is “Rapid DNA”, a cutting-edge DNA technology already being used by many law enforcement agencies for quick human identification in fighting a range of crimes. Rapid DNA can help combat child trafficking in particular by quickly confirming the veracity when someone claims to be a parent of a child. Verifying authentic parent–child relationships while identifying fraudulent claims can help increase arrests, prosecutions, and convictions of traffickers, as well as minimize the need for victim testimony during legal proceedings.

As part of its effort to fight human trafficking, the DHS turned to Bode Technology to pilot the use of rapid DNA to determine the validity of parent–child relationship claims among individuals entering or attempting to enter the United States along the southern border. Since early 2018, the DHS has encountered a migration crisis at the southern border, including an increase in fraudulent family relationship claims. To help address this, Bode developed, deployed, and operated a wide-ranging program for DHS to utilize rapid DNA to identify and deter possible child trafficking by identifying fraudulent claims for parent–child relationships.

Rapid DNA is a newer and faster method of processing genetic information that makes it possible to analyze DNA right at the point of action. In the US, the introduction of rapid DNA technology led to the passage of the Rapid DNA Act of 2017, which allows for the upload of DNA profiles generated outside accredited forensic laboratories to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national DNA database for the US.

This approval of the use of rapid DNA for fighting crime at the national level in the US enabled the DHS partnership with Bode to implement a rapid DNA program in 2019. Bolstered with a “reach back” lab verification program to confirm results and other professional scientific support, rapid DNA technology can help law enforcement organizations increase DNA testing success rates while streamlining investigations and reducing costs. One of the main technologies at the center of Bode’s Rapid DNA program is the Rapid HIT ID System, a compact and easy-to-use instrument from Thermo Fisher Scientific, which can be operated directly by law enforcement agencies in the field to process samples and provide answers in 90 minutes or less.

Implementing the rapid DNA program

The program implemented by Bode for DHS was robust. Fifteen separate field-forward and geographically separated rapid DNA facilities were established and over 7,000 DNA samples were processed with greater than 94% first-pass success rates. Additionally, Bode deployed scientists to support the development of protocols and provide formal training and certification of operation to over 300 field operators. The first-of-its-kind program relied on a network of over 40 rapid DNA instruments spaced across the border in conjunction with Bode’s accredited laboratory, which was stated with personnel who provided around-the clock support. This large number of instruments and operators allowed for 24/365 operation of the program to support investigations at any time.

A reach back portal was also created to enable government personnel and the instruments in the field to connect, interface, and communicate with a scientist-stated rapid DNA reach back center, providing fast 24/365 field operations support. With reach back support, a forensic analyst can review the quality of data from flagged samples run on field-deployed rapid DNA instruments and provide additional insight.

Case Studies

The following examples of documented cases from the DHS program demonstrate the value of rapid DNA for supporting the efforts of the DHS to both root out fraudulent parent/child relationship claims by suspected human traffickers and verify authentic parent/child relationships.

Case study 1

A 22-year-old male claimed to be traveling with his 19-month-old daughter and presented a counterfeit birth certificate. Agents noticed discrepancies and questioned the validity of the document. A rapid DNA test revealed the subjects were not related. After being presented with the DNA evidence, the subject admitted that he was not the child’s father and instead claimed the child belonged to his first cousin. He also claimed that he did not have any contact information for the biological mother of the child. He admitted to utilizing the fraudulent document in an attempt to be released into the US as a “family unit”.

Case study 2

A 23-year-old male claimed to be traveling with his 5-year-old son and presented a counterfeit birth certificate. Agents noticed discrepancies and questioned the validity of the document. A rapid DNA test revealed that the subjects were not related. After being presented with the DNA evidence, the subject admitted that he was not the child’s father and instead claimed to be the boyfriend of the child’s mother, but he could not recall her complete name or contact information. He also admitted to utilizing the fraudulent document in an attempt to be released into the US as a “family unit”.

Conclusions

Bode’s comprehensive rapid DNA support program utilizing RapidHIT ID DNA systems provided the DHS with a complete human identification solution, from implementation to ongoing reach back support. The program increased the DHS DNA testing success rate from an average of 80% to over 94%. The program led to hundreds of arrests for child trafficking and or smuggling as the result of DNA-supported investigations. The program also saved the operators critical hours in their investigations while significantly saving tens of thousands of dollars. The reach back center fielded over 1,000 requests, providing an average response time of less than 15 minutes, with the majority of requests filled in the first 5 to 10 minutes.

Combatting child trafficking and verifying real family relationships through the collection and analysis of DNA using traditional lab testing often has long wait times for confirmation, but rapid DNA enables this process to be completed in hours or less, enabling action. Additionally, the DHS case studies suggest that the full potential of rapid DNA is realized when proper instrumentation and infrastructure are implemented together with 24/365 support to help increase success through ongoing reach back support. Such fully integrated implementation of rapid DNA shows significant potential to become a major tool to combat human trafficking, and the DHS example can serve as a roadmap for other agencies who wish to utilize rapid DNA technology to support their own efforts in this global fight.

References

  1. The Global Slavery Index (2013) United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking.
  2. Identify and Assist a Trafficking Victim, US Department of State. https://www.state.gov/identify-and-assist-a-tra!cking-victim/.