How our fear of infant abduction could be causing real harm.

The state of the universe.
Feb. 5 2010 9:36 AM

Invasion of the Baby-Snatchers

Our irrational fear of infant abduction could be causing real harm.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Last summer, a woman wearing hospital scrubs and a backpack stepped into a room of the maternity ward at the Darnall Army Medical Center in Fort Hood, Texas. She picked up a 2-day-old baby that didn't belong to her and made for the stairs.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

The hospital was just two miles up the road from where military doctor Nidal Hasan would open fire on his fellow soldiers three months later. While that crime seems to have been enabled by sloppy oversight and missed signals, the attempted kidnapping in July was foiled by an efficient, well-designed security apparatus. The baby thief tripped an "infant abduction alarm system" on her way out of the ward, and the building was placed into lockdown. Panicked, she abandoned the infant—later recovered, unhurt—and raced out of the building. Surveillance cameras in the hallway captured her face, and she was arrested four days later.

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This astounding level of protection for newborn babies—hallway cameras, alarm systems and auto-locking doors—isn't unique to Army installations. Over the past 20 years, medical administrators have become increasingly attuned to the danger of baby-snatching, in which intruders posing as medical staff pilfer newborns straight from the nursery crib. In a recent survey of hospital security directors conducted by the industry trade magazine Campus Safety, 32 percent reported the purchase or planned purchase of an "infant abduction prevention solution" in 2009. That answer ranked higher than patrol vehicles, fire alarms, turnstiles, emergency lighting, and backup generators. Even with dwindling resources at their disposal, hospital managers are investing in advanced baby-snatching countermeasures like the one used at Fort Hood.

The movement to ward off kidnappings—to "harden the target," in hospital-security parlance—began in 1989, when the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) published the first edition of its cautionary manual for healthcare professionals, Guidelines on Prevention of and Response to Infant Abductions. That book, now in its ninth edition, calls for installing alarms in maternity ward stairwells, locks on every door, and security cameras for the hallways. The NCMEC also recommends that each newborn be footprinted and photographed (in color) within two hours of its birth and "quad-banded"—tagged with a pair of ID bracelets matching those worn by its mother and father. The book further suggests that a sample of the baby's cord blood be stored (to allow for later DNA analysis), and that all medical staff be given appropriate security badges. Some hospitals change the color of those badges every day, like pins at the museum, and tell the mothers which colors to expect.

Then there are the really high-tech measures, like the "Hugs" Infant Protection System (with optional "Kisses" add-on for enhanced mother/infant matching). These consist of radio transponders that tie around a baby's ankle or clamp to its umbilical cord, so the infant's location can be tracked from a nurse's station and an alarm sounded if it leaves a designated area. Here's a video demonstration. It's like baby LoJack.

Hospital administrators take the security guidelines very seriously. An institution's anti-abduction protocols are worked into marketing copy on its Web site and highlighted in recruiting tours for expectant mothers. Having a safe and secure maternity ward—a hard target for baby-snatching—has become a valuable part of the hospital sales pitch.

But there's something fishy about the newly fortified birthing centers. The truth is that no one is trying to steal your baby. It doesn't matter what kind of ID tags your hospital employs, or how many surveillance cameras are mounted in the hallway. The incidence of nonfamily infant abductions is so impossibly low—the actual crime so rare in practice—that it hardly matters at all. Yes, the attempt at Fort Hood points to the fact that a small handful of newborns are stolen every year. Yet our obsession with security has turned the figure of the baby-snatcher into a paranoid fantasy. The precautions that are now in place aren't merely unjustified. They're doing more harm than good.

Consider the stats. The NCMEC has systematically compiled information on every case of baby-snatching (PDF) since 1983, a 26-year stretch in which it has recorded a total of 267 incidents. Over the same period, 108 million babies were born in the United States.  That is to say, the chance a stranger will steal your newborn—from your hospital room, your home nursery, or anywhere else—is about one in 400,000. That's a very, very small number. Here's some perspective: Your baby's odds of getting snatched are considerably smaller—five times smaller, in fact—than her odds of being struck and killed by a lightning bolt.

Some parents are more worried about baby-switching than baby-snatching. We don't have any good data on switches, but a 1996 study by the security consulting firm Inter/Action Associates estimated they're somewhat less common than abductions—happening just two or three times per year.

Even the baby-snatching numbers grossly overstate the dangers of infant abduction. With help from the FBI, analysts at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have thoroughly profiled the 267 criminals in their database. Some clear patterns emerge: The thief is almost always a woman of child-bearing age, usually in a relationship with a boyfriend or husband. She often commits the crime in an effort to salvage her romance: She fakes a pregnancy and tells her partner that the stolen infant belongs to him. Even when she's not trying to dupe a lover, the snatcher's intentions tend to be uncomplicated: She will care for the baby as if it were her own.

Another fact about baby-snatchers is that they almost always get caught. Like so many other parents, the rare successful baby-snatcher basks in the attention that comes with a newborn. So there's a good chance the missing infant will be paraded around the neighborhood even as the crime is covered in the local news. According to NCMEC, more than 90 percent of all infant abductions result in the baby being returned to its real family in good health. That low rate of violence is more than just a happy detail. It reveals that stolen babies are much less likely to be harmed by their captors than older kidnapping victims. The Department of Justice estimates that 100 or so children and teenagers are abducted by strangers every year. Half of these are sexually assaulted, and 40 percent are killed (PDF).

That's not to say the growth of the baby-security industry hasn't had any positive effects. The numbers show that total infant abductions are down by one-third since 1995, with thefts from health care settings reduced by two-thirds. The quad-bands and baby LoJack work—but only in the sense that a virtually insignificant problem has now become ever-so-slightly less significant. Even before the advent of high-tech umbilical tags, the likelihood of your infant getting stolen was one in 300,000—and the chance of her being physically harmed during an abduction was at most one in 3 million. (More perspective: One in 3.8 million Americans is crushed to death by a nonvenomous reptile.)

So if baby-snatching was never much of a problem to begin with, why are health care administrators across the country so focused on its prevention? The history of the panic—with its abrupt beginning in the late 1980s and gradual inflation over the following decade—mirrors a broader shift in the medical industry. Hospitals now advertise their services directly to the public, and their efforts are directed, first and foremost, at the most valuable health care demographic: young, pregnant women.

The idea that patients might be wooed with perks and gimmicks emerged in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of managed care. The size and scope of HMOs helped insurance companies squeeze lower rates from the providers. ("Cut your prices, or you're out of the network.") So the hospitals were forced into a more aggressive posture: They stayed in business by actively recruiting customers.

From the beginning, women of child-bearing age were central to the business plan. Maternity wards provided a steady source of revenue in uncertain times. But it wasn't the babies the industry was after so much as the moms. Studies showed that women were responsible for 60 to 80 percent of the health care decisions for their entire families. If you could get a young woman into your hospital when she was just starting a family, you'd have a shot at locking down four or five customers for life.

So began the "Maternity Wars." Birth centers across the country were renovated and ramped up to attract market share, and the maternity ward started to resemble a luxury hotel. Hospitals advertised single-occupancy rooms with flat-screen TVs, plush bathrobes, and deep Jacuzzi tubs. (The unspectacular New York City hospital where I was born in the 1970s now sports Italian glass tile, elegant sconces, and decorative mirrors.) Once all these perks were in place, enhanced infant security was a logical next step. Come for the lakeside views, the fresh-baked cookies, and the motion-activated surveillance cameras …

A competitive marketplace for moms has turned the baby-snatching panic into an expensive arms race: If Mercy West is using umbilical transponders, what kind of parent would risk delivering at Seattle Grace? Now we're seeing hospitals shell out for infant protection and identification systems with six-figure price tags. Those investments, along with the rest of the money that goes into birth center perks, shake out in higher insurance premiums. That's not the only source of increased medical spending: The inflated standards for infant safety may leave some institutions more vulnerable to baby-snatching lawsuits—and multimillion-dollar settlements—in those very rare cases when abductions do occur. According to risk-management expert Fay Rozovsky, some hospitals are buying liability insurance to hedge against this scenario.

The panic over baby-snatching carries a further emotional cost for young parents already dumbfounded by the living, breathing, gurgling creature that just entered their lives. Following the NCMEC guidelines, many hospitals are now stoking our more natural anxieties by warning parents against posting photos of their babies online or decorating their front yards with "signs, balloons, large floral wreaths, and other lawn ornaments." (These might "call attention to the presence of a new infant in the home.") Newspaper announcements are also discouraged, despite data showing that these have played a role in just 2 percent of all known infant abductions.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the baby-snatching panic is its potential for inciting violence. It turns out that heightened security at the hospital has pushed the snatchers toward other venues where they can find newborns. While infant abductions from health care settings have dropped by two-thirds since 1995, the number of attacks in other places—shopping malls, parking lots, people's houses—has risen by 13 percent. That's a danger in itself. Women who stake out hospital nurseries tend to grab a baby and run, like the snatcher at Fort Hood; the ones who end up inside a mother's home are more inclined toward confrontation. According to the NCMEC data, the risk of physical harm goes up by a factor of almost four.

Thus the case of Maria Gurrola, who was choked and stabbed in the neck and chest at her home in Tennessee in September after a woman posing as an immigration official tried to steal her 4-day-old son. And that of Andrea Curry-Demus, the Pittsburgh-area woman who was found guilty last week of murdering an expectant mother in her apartment after removing the victim's unborn child. (The baby survived and remains in good health.) America's most famous baby-snatching—of 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh Jr. in 1932—also took the form of a home invasion and ended with a murder.

These are awful, terrifying crimes, but a few grisly news reports needn't make us panic any more than we already have. Real-life infant abductions (and baby switches) are freak events, affecting an infinitesimal subset of the population. That doesn't mean we shouldn't make smart choices to minimize tiny risks. Footprinting and ID bracelets offer sensible and appropriate protection against unlikely mistakes. But a consumer-minded, zero-tolerance policy that pushes for high-tech alarm systems isn't saving any lives. The real problem here is the handful of baby-snatchers who will always live among us, desperate and insane. These women will find their opportunities, one way or another—and they won't be deterred by the "Cuddles with Kisses" system in the maternity ward. We have an obligation to keep babies and mothers safe, but the frenzy over infant abduction isn't helping.

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