Sarasota, Fla. Linda Hammer has helped thousands of adoptees find birth families through her people-finding Web site, weekly radio show and newspaper column.
Now she wants to add another tool: a database that would contain DNA evidence from thousands of people. The theory is that DNA could be the only way to reunite adoptees with birth parents in the many cases where names were changed, birth certificates were altered or babies were bought on the black market.
"This isn't really about search and reunions, it's about knowing who you are," said Hammer, a former private investigator and co-founder of the nonprofit Touched by Adoption advocacy group, based in Walton, Ky. "A lot of this stuff is life or death."
Hammer wants the service to be free, which means her organization is starting to raise money for the project, to be based at DNA Diagnostic Center Inc. in Cincinnati. It is expected to cost more than $1 million to set up the project and bank the first 5,000 samples.
While many labs offer paternity testing and various other services, this is likely the first time the technology has been used to assist people searching for family members, said Jim Hanigan, a spokesman for DNA Diagnostic Center, one of the country's largest labs.
Adoptees and birth parents who want to participate will be sent a kit with cotton swabs to take three samples from the inside of their cheeks, Hanigan said. The swabs are then mailed back to the DNA lab.
Hammer, 50, who is not adopted, said she had seen the profound impact that such reunions had on people's lives. She remembers a caller to her radio show who told of spending $100,000 for medical tests trying to find the cause of a young daughter's mysterious illness.
The child eventually died, without doctors ever figuring out exactly what happened. It wasn't until two years later, when the girl's mother found her own birth mother after years of searching, that she learned of a rare genetic disorder in her biological family, a problem that likely killed her child.
If she had found her birth mother earlier, the woman lamented, her daughter might have been saved.
In many cases, the genetic fingerprint could be the only way to reunite adoptees with birth parents. Sometimes no paper trail exists, and adoption records remain closed in all but a handful of states.
"The opportunities for DNA testing are widening all the time, and it's more than the normal forensics things you see on TV," Hanigan said. "And this is a great one."
The National Council for Adoption, based in Alexandria, Va., estimates that 5 million to 6 million people in the United States have been adopted. Lee Allen, spokesman for the nonprofit advocacy group, said many states already had registries for adoptees and birth parents who were looking for each other, which is basically the low-tech method of doing what Hammer wants to do with DNA.
The organization welcomes any effort that will help bring together adoptees and birth parents who want to find each other, Allen said, but he questioned whether the cost would warrant the relatively few reunions such a project was likely to produce.
"I think it could be helpful," Allen said. "I think the difficulty will be promoting it and getting this kind of registry well known."