Who would think of stealing another woman's baby? How can you prevent your child from being kidnapped?
Sadly, official, public, and media reactions to these challenging and difficult events vary tremendously. Properly conceived media exposure of such stories can be extremely helpful in the safe recovery of the child. If simple precautions were made routine at all hospitals, safe recovery of the children would be more common, and these incidents would occur less frequently.
Where do abductions happen?
Many infant abductions take place at hospitals, but it is important to recognise that they also can occur in homes, malls and shops, offices and parking lots. Abductions can happen in any size of hospital - from small and busy clinics, to very large hospitals.
The abductor may prefer places which are busy, and where staff, other patients, and mothers are more likely to be distracted, and be less likely to recognise or bother about a stranger who may look as if they don’t belong there.
Fortunately, around 95% of children taken from hospitals are located and returned safely within a few days to two weeks. The good news is that abductors almost always look after the child very well, as they indeed treat them as their own. They often live in the same general community as the mother and in the vicinity of the hospital.
An obstetric unit is well suited to the abductor's purposes. It is busy, not only because of the comings and goings of its own staff, but also because of a higher turnover of new patients and their families than in most other parts of the hospital. "New faces" become routine, rather than being remarked on.
In days gone by, an infant spent most of the time in a nursery with other babies. These nurseries were watched over by fairly observant nurses. Nowadays, it’s more often the case that the babies are left for longer periods of time at the mother's bedside and in her care. This may have many advantages, but it also makes the abductor's task much easier.
The profile of an abductor
This person is almost always a woman, generally between the ages of 14 and 45 years, and often overweight. They usually have no other criminal record, but if they do, it is often for fraud or passing bad cheques. They often have reasonably good employment. The abductor is usually someone with low self-esteem, and is involved in problematic relationships. She often lies and deceives to try and hold on to ailing alliances. She may have lost a child of her own, or may have significant problems in trying to conceive or carry to full-term.
Generally the abductor matches the missing child in ethnicity and skin colour, for the obvious reason that she will be intending to pass the child off as her own. Around half of the babies who are stolen are less than a week old, and boys and girls are equally at risk.
The actual abduction may seem impulsive and depends on a specific opportunity arising, but the abductor has usually prepared for this for some time. She seldom acts entirely on the spur of the moment. She may have carefully scouted out one or more hospitals and maternity units, checking staffing movements, timing of meals and other routines, as well as potential escape routes. At home, she has often talked to family and friends about "her pregnancy", and may even have arranged for suitably placed pillows to mimic the growing bulge of pregnancy, and may have prepared by buying baby clothes, toys, etc.
How do they get to the baby?
Often, abductors pose as a nurse or nursing assistant when approaching the mother. She may say she needs to take the baby for some "tests", or to be weighed.
Getting the baby back
The media need to publicise the fact that the child has gone missing and to provide information about where, when this happened and what the child looks like. (This is one good reason for parents and indeed clinics and hospitals to arrange to take a photograph of all newborns early on). It is vital for the media not to encourage a demonisation of the abductor, as the more she feels at risk, the more likely she becomes to harm the child.
The abductor can't exactly hide a baby as they cry and make their presence obvious. So she tends to show the new baby to neighbours and pretend that it is her own, or she could say that she is caring for the child on behalf of a relative. The suspicions and concerns of alert neighbours to the sudden an unexpected arrival of a new baby in a household where this doesn't quite seem right, can be very valuable in recovering abducted babies.
How can abductions be prevented?
Simple preventative measures can prevent many abductions, and at least greatly reduce the frequency of abductions. This has been shown clearly in America. All institutions where babies are born and where babies and infants are cared for, need to have a clear routine set of practices to provide such safeguards.
There should be good security, with CCTV cameras, recordings, and alert security guards specifically aware of this particular risk. It'd be worth both photographing newborns and infants, as well as taking clear footprints. It would also be a good idea to have special identity bracelets, which would be hard to remove rapidly, and which would sound an alarm if the child passed through any of the exits from the ward area. If they can do that with a CD or bra, it can be done with babies. Make sure that the infant's ID band matches that worn by the mother.
Staff need regular training in what they need to do. They need to know how to recognise unusual and suspicious behaviour, such as the following:
people who frequently visit a ward just to see or hold the babies
people who try to steal hospital uniforms and IDs (and staff need to be very careful to make this difficult to achieve)
visitors who ask too many questions about feeding times, the movements of babies between mothers and nursery, emergency exits, and so forth
people seen carrying a baby other than in whatever way is the normal practice there - a mother would usually be in a wheelchair, a baby perhaps in a baby basin
people carrying parcels and bags large enough to conceal a baby, especially if they appear to be carrying these with extra care
Parents should always be fully informed of all such security measures, so that they can fully co-operate; and should be warned that they should never allow their baby out of their sight except with a nurse wearing proper hospital uniform and ID, and they should never allow a stranger, however friendly, to play with and hold their baby.
If the maternity unit plans for home visits after the discharge of mother and baby, the staff should make sure the mother knows who will be visiting, when, and with what specific ID. And if anyone visits the home without the right ID or at a time that has not been pre-arranged by the hospital/clinic, they should not be admitted until the clinic has confirmed that they are genuine and trustworthy.
These are not highly elaborate or high-tech methods, but can make a great deal of difference in preventing babies being kidnapped.
(Professor M. A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, updated July 2012)