Genealogy sites lack diverse DNA, struggle to ID people of color

Target 8

COVERT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — When Michigan State Police began submitting DNA from unidentified remains for genealogy testing, the agency was elated by how quickly the process achieved results.

“We knew she was a white female, but we didn’t know who she was,” Lt. Scott Ernstes with Michigan State Police said about the remains found on October 12, 1988, in Van Buren County’s Covert Township.

“Within six weeks, we had her identified. She was from Oklahoma. And with the other 2010 case out of Wayland, same thing. White male, (and) we had it identified very quickly,” Ernstes said.

But that wasn’t the case when it came to three other sets of unidentified remains found over three decades in Covert Township.

A rendering of what a man whose remains were found in 1979 may have looked like (courtesy)

“It was quite shocking that (the genealogy testing) was taking so long,” recalled Ernstes.

“That’s where conversations with DNA Doe (Project) came in. They said, ‘this is why. The populations you’re looking for are underrepresented in the system,'” he said.

In the three Covert Township cases for which no DNA family-tree connection emerged, the unidentified remains were those of two men of Hispanic or Latino origin — both victims of homicide — and one man of Asian descent believed to have drowned in Lake Michigan.

In 1979, the remains of one of those men was found in a debris pile, charred beyond recognition.

He was a Hispanic man, early to middle age. He wore a religious medallion with Spanish writing on the back that translated to “our lady of Guadalupe – pray for us.”

A rendering of what a man whose remains were found in 2010 may have looked like (courtesy)

Despite police efforts, including a clay reconstruction, the case remains unsolved. In 2018, MSP submitted the details to a national missing persons database, and in 2019, the man’s DNA to a public genealogy database.

But the remains have yet to be identified.

Neither have the remains of the Asian man found in 2010, or the Hispanic man found in 1987 in the woods.

Margaret Press, Co-founder, and CEO of DNA Doe Project, told News 8 there are many reasons some population groups are less likely to submit DNA to genealogy sites and are, therefore, underrepresented in the databases.  

Press, who was careful to note she didn’t want to speak for any group, said the least represented populations include Indigenous people, Black people in America and around the world, people of Hispanic or Latino descent, and any group that resides outside the United States.    

“Indigenous people, for obvious reasons, distrust testing,” said Press, who also noted that such testing may contradict that group’s cultural belief system. 

Additionally, Press said testing to show the percentage of Indigenous ethnicity in a person may be problematic for other reasons, including tribal requirements for enrollment and Immigration and Naturalization Service requirements for free travel across borders.  

“I’ve heard lots of reasons why someone may not want (an official record) of their Indigenous percentage.” 

The second least represented group, said Press, are African Americans, as well as Black people around the world. 

“In (the United States) particularly, partly it’s a matter of economics. You know, testing costs money so people who are economically disadvantaged are not likely to test. Those often impact African Americans, Hispanics more than Caucasian, European people. So there tends to be a bias in the database because of the economics associated with testing and, again, distrust.” 

The third population Press noted as underrepresented in public genealogy records was anyone residing outside of the United States.   

“(The U.S.) has the big testing companies, Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, 23andMe, and (direct to consumer genetic testing) has been marketed to the U.S. It’s only been marketed to a few countries outside,” explained Press. 

“There are different countries, too, where – culturally – people just aren’t interested. They feel they’ve got great records. They feel they know who they are,” offered Press. 

Michigan State Police Lt. Scott Ernstes hopes more people of diverse origins will begin submitting DNA to public genealogy databases. 

He also hopes they will check the box that allows police agencies to access their sample and potentially use it to solve a cold case, give someone their name back and their family the answers they desperately seek.  

If you have information regarding the cases outlined in this story, you are asked to call Lt. Scott Ernstes, commander of MSP’s Paw Paw post, at 269-657-5551. 

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