Hospitals typically employ a range of measures to prevent baby snatching, from special identification badges for nurses to high-tech ankle bracelets for newborns. But experts say old-fashioned staff watchfulness is key, especially for interlopers fitting an unusual profile: overweight women of child-bearing age who appear to be scoping out maternity wards.
The typical offender profile was developed by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from an analysis of 291 cases of infant abduction, primarily from hospitals but also homes, in the United States over the past 30 years. Canadian statistics on the phenomenon were not available.
"We really do now know this woman truly is out there. We don't know where, but conceivably everywhere," said John Rabun, the non-profit U.S. organization's director of infant abduction response. "And it's only if we do our part in health care and in law enforcement that we keep it from happening."
A newborn girl was allegedly abducted from a hospital in Trois-Rivières on Monday by a 21-year-old woman who posed as a health-care worker and had a "baby on board" sign on the rear window of her car. Baby Victoria was quickly returned to her parents after a young woman saw an Amber Alert and recognized the suspect as a former neighbour.
Advocates for missing children say the case should prompt all hospitals to re-examine their procedures for keeping babies safe.
"I think it's a fairly enormous wake-up call for all of us to make sure that we're revisiting some of the protocols and processes that need to be in place to prevent these things from happening," said Christy Dzikowicz, director of missing children services at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which has collaborated with Canadian organizations, urges hospitals to consider outfitting infants with electronic radio-frequency identification tags, either on their ankles or umbilical cord clamps. The devices emit alarms and automatically lock doors if newborns are moved too close to maternity ward exits.
"Tagging, I think, is very helpful, particularly in the larger units where there's a crush of patients, there's a lot of babies, a lot of stuff going on, a lot of visitors," Mr. Rabun said.
More than 40 hospitals across Canada use a form of the technology known as Hugs Infant Protection. "But none in Quebec, interestingly; we're pretty sure that's going to change very quickly as a result of this incident," Steve Elder, a spokesman for Stanley Healthcare, said by e-mail.
However, the cost of such systems can be difficult for administrators to rationalize given that infant hospital abductions are so rare. Mr. Elder said the price tag for a typical hospital is less than $200,000.
Other security protocols to prevent infants from being abducted include ensuring that maternity nurses' ID badges are visible and include a special feature – such as an image of a stork – for mothers to eyeball before allowing anyone to remove newborns from their rooms, where most babies now stay instead of in hospital nurseries. Some nursing staff also use code words that parents can request if they grow suspicious when someone asks to handle their babies.
Educating hospital staff on the typical offender profile should be a key element of prevention efforts, according to Mr. Rabun.
"Don't just rule out a female who's on your unit too many days, too often, too much time, asking too many questions, wanting to visit with too many moms on the unit, wanting to handle the babies. It's the too-too-too proposition," he said.
"The nurses, in particular, really have to make those visual assessments in order to figure out who is the woman who's on the unit who might be there for the wrong reasons, without getting paranoid and without upsetting everybody."
Many women who abduct babies from health-care settings – and such offenders are almost all female – do so because they are trying to keep their partners from leaving them by inventing false pregnancies, Mr. Rabun said. "It's the relationship or lack of one with him that is the motivation for this entire scenario."
While some offenders kidnap infants after suffering miscarriages or infertility, Mr. Rabun said the desire to maintain relationships is more common, adding that most have previously given birth to children of their own. In addition, some are mentally ill.
Compulsive and manipulative, Mr. Rabun said such women often begin wearing baggy clothes and stuff pillows under their shirts while telling family and friends they are expecting, thereby appearing overweight. They paint nurseries, stock up on baby gear and attend showers as part of the ruse.
They usually begin visiting maternity units at several hospitals to study floor plans, including fire exit stairwells far away from nursing stations, and sometimes ask questions about procedures.
Then they strike, inventing reasons to explain their presence to unsuspecting new moms, from dressing up as nurses and claiming they need to take the baby for testing before slipping out of the hospital, often staying within the same community, Mr. Rabun says.
Despite having committed unimaginable crimes, women who kidnap infants paradoxically take very good care of them. Some even later show up in emergency wards, saying they gave birth at home and want to ensure that their babies are healthy.
"In some weird sense of the word, that's a good mother," he said. "I get in trouble saying she's a good anything … but you've also got to kind of give credit where it's due. She doesn't take these babies to maim them or to harm them or to abandon them or to rape them or all of the other things that go on in society. She takes the baby intending to take care of it, intending to rear it as if it were her own."