By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor
Jacque Mitchell has seen the fear with her own eyes: Every mother in a maternity ward clutching their babies to their chest and not willing to put them down, even for a second.
That's what happens when word of the abduction of a newborn sweeps through a hospital. It's a horror that Mitchell, the risk manager at the Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Va., has experienced.
In July 2007, according to published reports, Norfolk resident Shameka Pittman, 21, tried to spirit a 2-day-old baby out of Norfolk General in a diaper bag. Alert Norfolk General staff members stymied the attempt and recovered the baby unharmed.
But the few minutes that baby was in the hands of a stranger is considered an abduction for reporting purposes, according to Mitchell.
Nationwide, between 1983 and 2008, there have been 123 abductions of newborn children, either from the home of the mother or from the maternity ward. The good news is that, in many of these cases, friends or family of the abductor come forward to inform on the abductor and the child is recovered unharmed.
The bad news is that the maternity wards in many hospitals are vulnerable. By their very nature, hospitals are workplaces where there are a lot of people moving from room to room administering one medical service or another.
"I don't think that people realize how many ways there are to get in and out of a unit," said Sharon Groves, an assistant vice president for risk management with Berkley Medical Excess Underwriters, based in Columbus, Ohio.
Groves and Mitchell were speakers at a session on infant abduction risk at the American Society for Healthcare Risk Management's annual conference in Boston in October.
Groves and Mitchell also said that would-be abductors tend to prey on the openness that attends an event that by its nature would prompt a woman to share. Let's be honest, pregnancy is something that will get people talking.
But for mothers, abduction risk management rule No. 1 might be: "Don't advertise."
That means, don't participate in Internet chat rooms where lonely mothers might go to share pregnancy and childcare tips. When you give birth, don't festoon your home with plastic storks, balloons and signs with three-foot lettering that shout, "It's a boy!"
Hospital risk managers, according to Mitchell and Groves, should also train their staff to ask questions when a "friend" shows up to chat with a new mother.
"If you see a woman that has befriended a mother, ask her, 'How did they meet?' " said Groves. If they met in an Internet chat room, hospital staff should stay on their toes.
In the Pittman case, the newborn's grandmother was being chatty about her daughter's pregnancy. Pittman, who had entered the hospital through the emergency room, where she had complained about a toothache, dressed herself in stolen scrubs, hung out in a waiting room and got all the information she needed from the chatty grandmother.
Like Pittman, according to Groves, the majority of women who are child abductors are in their 20s. They may be mourning the loss of their own child or their inability to have a child, or they may be trying to patch together a relationship with an estranged boyfriend or spouse by claiming to have given birth.
"This is a person that copes through manipulation and lying," said Groves.
Other measures that Groves and Mitchell recommend include running practice drills that mimic an abduction, locking up scrubs that could help disguise a pretender and making sure that video security systems are functioning. A camera that records someone's back as they come off an elevator and not their face, for example, isn't doing anyone any good.
In addition to the trauma that families suffer in an abduction and the liabilities that they can create for hospitals, Mitchell and Groves said the self-esteem of nursing staffs that were on the clock when an abduction occurred sometimes never recovers.
"This has truly changed their life forever," said Groves.
December 1, 2008
Copyright 2008© LRP Publications