HRC co-publishes report on DNA reunifications in El Salvador with Pro-Búsqueda

December 14, 2022

UC Berkeley Human Rights Center co-publishes report on DNA family reunifications with Salvadoran NGO on 30th Anniversary of UN Declaration 

  A smiling girl next to a memorial reading "donde están?" or "where are they?" in reference to people forcibly disappeared during the Salvadoran Civil War.

The Human Rights Center (HRC) at UC Berkeley School of Law has co-published DNA Family Reunification Project: Pro-Búsqueda's History of Reuniting Familieswith Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos (Organization in Search of Disappeared Children), an NGO in San Salvador that reunites families with children who were abducted or surrendered under duress during the Salvadoran Civil War. The report is eleven years in the making, and represents nearly two decades of collaborative family reunification work. It serves as a history of the project and an educational tool detailing how to collect and preserve DNA, how to create and use a family reference database, and what to consider when conducting family reunifications. The release of this report coincides with the 30th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance

"The moment I saw my biological mother, I felt like I was home,” said Jana Leigh Woodiwiss, a third year PhD student at the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work, who was reunited virtually with her birth mother and biological family in 2019, and face-to-face in El Salvador in 2022. Woodiwiss, born Sandra Patricia Martínez Hernández, was given up for adoption under duress and grew up in an American family in Georgia. She submitted a DNA sample after learning about the family reunification project through HRC Faculty Director Eric Stover, and was alerted to a maternal match a few years later. Woodiwiss now researches the impact on children of parent-child separation as a result of immigration, deportation, and detention within Latin American communities. She authored the foreword to DNA Family Reunification Project: Pro-Búsqueda's History of Reuniting Families

The launch of this report coincides with a Pro-Búsqueda campaign to locate mothers who were forced to give their children up for adoption during El Salvador's civil war. Children were separated from their families in many forms during the conflict. Some mothers voluntarily gave up children who couldn’t be cared for in hopes of providing a better life, many children were abducted by the military after their parents were killed, and others were stolen and sold to adoption agencies. Collectively, children forced from their families are known as los desaparecidos, or the disappeared. Although the DNA collection process is voluntary, confidential, and free of charge, to date, many mothers have not provided DNA samples because they are not aware their biological children are looking for them, they are unfamiliar with Pro-Búsqueda’s work, or they fear sharing genetic information. 

HRC has worked with Pro-Búsqueda in multiple capacities since its founding in 1994, by collecting DNA samples, building relationships with forensic laboratories, helping to establish a family reference database, working with Salvadoran geneticist Patricia Vásquez to run the database and train colleagues to use it alongside Chilean molecular biologist Dr. Cristián Orrego Benavente, and establishing the Forensic Project at HRC to support Pro-Búsqueda’s mandate. HRC continues to support Pro-Búsqueda’s work with external forensic labs and communications with people adopted outside El Salvador seeking to submit DNA samples.

DNA Family Reunification Project: Pro-Búsqueda's History of Reuniting Families is dedicated to  Dr. Cristián Orrego Benavente, who ran the HRC Forensic Project for nearly a decade until his death in 2018, and who was heavily involved in editing this report. As of November 2022, 463 of Pro-Búsqueda’s cases have been resolved, with many resulting in a family reunion. 570 cases remain unsolved. It is estimated that hundreds, if not thousands, of children were disappeared or forcibly adopted during the armed conflict in El Salvador. An in-depth book on the search for El Salvador’s disappeared children and the impact of family separations and reunifications titled Reunion by HRC student fellowship alumna Dr. Elizabeth Barnert will be released by UC Press in February 2023. Dr. Barnert, who works as a pediatrician and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at UCLA, will donate all book royalties to Pro-Búsqueda and related causes.

Please direct press inquiries related to Pro-Búsqueda, Jana Leigh Woodiwiss, Dr. Elizabeth Barnert, or the Human Rights Center to Maggie Andresen [].