Printer Friendly

Best foot forward: infant footprints for personal identification.

Every new mother feels certain she knows her own child. This "woman's intuition" makes baby-switching incidents that much more terrifying. If an infant's mother cannot positively identify her own offspring, who can? The answer to this question rests on the soles of the baby's feet.

Whenever sensational crimes such as baby-switching or the abduction of infants or young children appear in the news, interest in footprint identification techniques increases. In recent years, however, the print media, including several medical journals, have expressed the opinion that hospitals waste time and money by footprinting newborns. To support their arguments, the authors of these articles point out that delivery room personnel do not take consistently legible infant footprints suitable for identification purposes.

One article cited a study in which footprints were obtained from 20 newborns at 5 different nurseries with techniques known to provide maximum detail. An unidentified "police dermatoglyphist" examined the footprints. This print identification expert found 89 percent to be technically inadequate for identification purposes, with only 1 percent possessing sufficient ridge detail for positive identification. The article concluded by stating that the typical health care professional is not fully aware of " unreliable footprints of a newborn happen to be for purposes of identification."(1)

In a 1988 publication, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) stated that "...individual hospitals may want to continue the practice of footprinting or fingerprinting, but universal use of this practice is no longer recommended."(2) Both organizations based their findings on studies that demonstrated that the majority of infant footprints taken by hospital personnel prove inadequate for identification purposes. They also contend that better identification techniques, such as DNA genotyping(3) and human leukocyte antigen tests,(4) exist.

In contrast, the FBI continues to advocate and encourage footprinting infants at birth, believing that this process represents a reliable, expeditious, and cost-efficient method for establishing probable personal identity. This article offers justification for continuing this important practice and provides information for law enforcement professionals desiring to train hospital personnel in proper printing techniques.

The Value of Footprinting

Print experts agree that every individual's prints contain friction ridge minutiae, i.e., ridge detail, that are unique to that person. Even the footprints and fingerprints of identical twins are different. Furthermore, friction ridge minutiae remain naturally unchanged throughout a person's life. Because of this consistency, FBI print experts have identified the adult victims of such disasters as fires and airplane crashes by using the footprints of the individuals taken in infancy.

A common misconception exists today that DNA genotyping represents a means of identification superior to fingerprinting or footprinting. In reality, just the opposite is true. A legible footprint with clear friction ridge minutiae provides the most certain form of identification available and, further, may be of more immediate value to law enforcement officials for the following reasons:

* Fingerprints and footprints of identical twins are different, but DNA genotyping technology presently cannot distinguish between them

* Fingerprints and footprints can be compared and a positive identification made by a print expert, usually within a relatively short period of time; DNA genotyping and analysis can take up to 3 months to complete

* Fingerprints and footprints can be taken at negligible expense, while DNA genotyping and analysis can cost several thousand dollars.

In short, although DNA genotyping represents an excellent technology for determining probable identity, it may not satisfy the immediate investigative needs of law enforcement officers due to its cost and the time required to complete testing and analysis. Infant abduction cases often move quickly, requiring law enforcement officials to react swiftly. Friction ridge minutiae examination and analysis offer law enforcement a fast and accessible form of identification.

Training Hospital Personnel

For decades, the FBI has advocated using infant footprints for identification purposes, encouraging hospitals to learn proper techniques. As early as 1966,(5) the FBI provided guidelines, procedures, and recommendations concerning why and how hospital personnel should obtain the footprints of newborns. The procedures remain largely unchanged today. In fact, inkless methods now available make obtaining footprints even easier.

If infant prints prove technically inadequate for identification purposes, it does not mean the method itself is unsound. Rather, hospital personnel lack the necessary skills and knowledge to carry out the printing process consistently and accurately. Hospitals must ensure their delivery room personnel receive proper training so that they obtain legible and identifiable prints.

The nearest FBI field office or other local law enforcement agency can provide a fingerprint expert to train hospital personnel in footprinting procedures. In a short period of time, health care professionals can acquire the skills and knowledge they need to complete the practice on their own.

A comprehensive training session should consist of discussion, demonstration, and practice. Instructors should emphasize the value of footprinting infants, explain how fingerprint and footprint friction ridge identifications are made, provide examples of ink and inkless methods for recording footprints, and explain and illustrate the difference between legible and illegible footprints. After reviewing the materials necessary for footprinting, the instructor can demonstrate the footprinting procedure.

More important, participants learn by doing. Hospital personnel should practice taking infant footprints, with the instructor offering helpful suggestions and feedback. Personnel should concentrate on the ball of the foot when printing, because this area typically contains sufficient ridge detail to make an identification. Quite often, however, the portion of legible friction ridge minutiae needed to identify a footprint is very small.

In addition, including the fingerprint of the mother on the infant's footprint document links the child to the mother, eliminating any doubt of parentage. For this reason, hospital personnel also should learn how to take fingerprints.

Finally, the instructor may wish to provide a written handout outlining the printing procedure for the participants' future reference. Some instructors even award their students certificates, documenting their successful completion of the training.


Arguing that hospitals should discontinue footprinting infants because inadequately trained personnel cannot take legible prints compares to advocating that law enforcement stop fingerprinting criminals because officers sometimes take illegible prints. It simply does not make sense.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in its infant abduction prevention guidelines issued to medical facilities nationwide, advocates footprinting all newborns within 2 hours of birth, preferably before the infant is removed from the delivery room. The center describes the footprinting procedure as a necessary, proactive prevention measure that every medical facility should conduct.(6)

The identification of individuals by their friction ridge minutiae continues to offer law enforcement officials the most certain, expeditious, and cost-effective method for establishing probable personal identity. When properly trained, hospital personnel can assist law enforcement efforts by successfully and consistently obtaining footprints of newborns. Whether used to save a life or merely to give worried parents peace of mind, these tiny footprints make a big impression on health care professionals, law enforcement officials, and parents nationwide.


1 Frank A. Oski and Beryl J. Rosenstein, "Newborn Identification," Pediatric Currents, 42, (1993): 10.

2 AAP Committee on Fetus and Newborn and Committee on Obstetrics, Maternal and Fetal Medicine: Guidelines for Perinatal Care, 2d ed. (Evanston, Illinois: AAP/ACOG, 1988), 85.

3 DNA genotyping is the process of establishing probable individual identity through scientific analysis of DNA contained in some human cellular material.

4 A human leukocyte antigen test can establish probable individual identity through scientific analysis of hereditary protein material.

5 "Footprinting of Infants," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1966, 8.

6 John B. Rabun, Jr., National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, For Healthcare Professionals: Guidelines on Preventing Infant Abductions, 3d ed., June 1993.

Training Hospital Personnel

* Emphasize the value of footprinting infants

* Explain how fingerprint and footprint friction ridge identifications are made

* Provide examples of ink and inkless methods for recording footprints

* Explain and illustrate the difference between legible and illegible footprints

* Review the materials necessary for footprinting

* Demonstrate the footprinting procedure, emphasizing the ball of the foot

* Offer advice and feedback as hospital personnel practice taking infant footprints

* Teach participants to fingerprint mothers and to include the print on the infant's print card

* Provide a written handout outlining the printing procedure for participants' future reference.

Special Agent Stapleton serves in the San Jose Resident Agency of the FBI's San Francisco Division.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Stapleton, Michael E.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Nov 1, 1994
Previous Article:Combating bank fraud in Arizona: a team approach.
Next Article:The National Law Enforcement Council: a law enforcement umbrella.

Related Articles
Babies' 'interfaces' go beyond mom.
How to calm children through massage.
Becoming an infant caregiver: three profiles of personal and professional growth.
Infant victims: an exploratory study.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters