One fall morning at approximately 10 a.m., a woman claiming to be a university student conducting research entered the hospital room of a patient who had recently given birth. The woman stayed with the patient all day, leading staff to believe she was related to or a friend of the new mother. When the mother went to the bathroom around 5 p.m., the “researcher” removed the baby from the bassinet and exited the room. The image of the abductor arm-carrying the baby from the room, as well as that of a nurse approaching the abductor and telling her to return to the room, was captured by video surveillance cameras.
Upon returning to the victim mother’s room, the abductor located a tote bag, placed the infant inside and left the room, cradling the tote bag in her arms. This image was also captured by the strategically placed surveillance cameras.
These taped images of the abductor were immediately provided to the local media. When aired on television stations that day, viewers called with information that helped identify the abductor. As a result, law enforcement officials were at the home of a member of the abductor’s family when she arrived with the infant later that day.
Helping health care providers and families prevent infant abductions is a priority for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children® (NCMEC). The successful resolution of the case cited above demonstrates how this health care facility utilized a combination of well-trained staff, technology and guidelines recommended by NCMEC when responding to this incident.
Created in 1984 as a national resource center for child protection, NCMEC is a private non-profit organization operating under a Congressional mandate. We work in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. NCMEC’s mission is to help prevent the abduction and sexual exploitation of children, help find missing children and assist victims of child abduction and sexual exploitation, their families and the professionals who serve them. As of December 2004, NCMEC has worked on more than 104,000 missing-child cases and played a role in the recovery of more than 89,000 children.
Profiling the “Typical Abductor”
For more than 15 years, NCMEC has been providing assistance to health care facilities, including nursing and security staff, to help them prevent infant abductions by nonfamily members. Since 1983, we have documented 232 infant abduction cases nationwide. An examination of the data shows that the majority of abductions (116) occurred in a health care facility (primarily the mother’s room), compared to 87 abductions from homes and 29 from other locations, such as malls, offices and parking lots. This averages to between 12 and 18 incidents each year. Of the 232 infant abductions documented, all but 11 children have been recovered.
Further assessment of the data shows that 69% of the infants abducted are children of color and the majority of the abductors are also persons of color. Of the 232 abductors, 92 were African American, 44 were Hispanic and 86 were Caucasian. (The race/ethnicity of 10 abductors is unknown.)
Our research has also enabled us to build a profile of the “typical infant abductor.” She is a female between the ages of 12 and 50, usually lives in the community where the abduction takes place, frequently indicates she has lost a baby or is incapable of having one, and is in a relationship (either married or cohabitating) that is on the verge of collapse. She is most likely compulsive and most often relies on manipulation, lying and deception in her everyday life.
Analysis of the cases yields some interesting information. The abductor will take an infant whose skin color “matches” her significant other’s to ensure he will accept the infant presented to him as “his baby.” We have also found that many non-English- speaking mothers are victimized by bilingual abductors who are able to portray themselves as different things to different people. To a victim mother, the abductor may present herself as a member of the hospital staff, while at the same time presenting herself to the hospital staff as a member of the mother’s family.
Prevention Through Education
Education is critical to preventing infant abductions from health care facilities, and that means educating both staff and patients. NCMEC’s publication For Healthcare Professionals: Guidelines on Prevention of and Response to Infant Abductions contains detailed information for health care staff, including nursing guidelines and security guidelines. It also has information for patients, including a chapter titled “What Parents Need to Know.”
NCMEC encourages health care facilities to share this important information with patients who will be giving birth in their hospital. These guidelines, available in English and Spanish, combined with specific information about security measures in your facility, will provide new parents with information on what to be aware of while they are patients, as well as precautions they should take after discharge. Health care facilities can obtain 10 free copies of these guidelines by calling our toll-free hotline 1-800-THE-LOST (800-843-5678) or by visiting our Web site, www.missingkids.com.
Mead Johnson Nutritionals, working in conjunction with NCMEC, has developed a free training video for health care professionals called Safeguard Their Tomorrows, which has been distributed to hospitals nationwide since 1991. NCMEC attributes the decline of infant abductions from health care facilities in recent years to this preventive education program. In 1991, there were a total of 17 infant abductions nationwide, 11 of them from health care facilities. By December 2004, there were a total of six infant abductions nationwide, with only two abductions from health care facilities.
Project ALERT: A Valuable Resource
During its 20-year history, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has expanded the depth and breadth of services it provides to those who are in need of assistance. In addition to helping health care providers reduce the number of infant abductions, NCMEC also provides services to law enforcement professionals and to parents of missing children at no cost. The Jimmy Ryce Law Enforcement Training Center provides training for law enforcement officers and prosecutors, and the Exploited Child Unit assists law enforcement in the investigation of child pornography and child sexual exploitation on the Internet via the CyberTipline® (www.cybertipline.com).
Our International Division assists the U.S. Department of State in certain cases of international child abduction in accordance with the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The Missing Children’s Division provides crucial support to investigators and parents, and the www.missingkids.com Web site provides access to booklets, brochures and online resources about child safety, as well as a more complete listing of NCMEC services.
Project ALERT (America’s Law Enforcement Retiree Team) is a program within the Missing Children’s Division that uses the skills and experience of more than 150 retired law enforcement professionals nationwide to help investigate missing-children cases. Each candidate, all of whom have an average length of service of more than 20 years, is certified by NCMEC through a background check and completion of an additional comprehensive training program.
The Project ALERT representatives provide assistance to relatively smaller law enforcement agencies across the nation whose access to available resources such as technology, personnel and logistical support is diminished due to budgetary constraints. Larger agencies that have access to substantial resources but have an overwhelming caseload also benefit from the skills of these retired veterans who are able to review older “cold” cases in search of new leads.
Project ALERT representatives respond only when requested by law enforcement agencies to help investigate missing-children cases or to provide community child safety awareness presentations and exhibits. This concept is not new, but rather has been a practice NCMEC has implemented and successfully administered for the benefit of law enforcement agencies and families across the nation for more than 12 years. The Project ALERT program is endorsed by 17 nationally recognized law enforcement associations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).
This is the nation’s challenge: that all agencies with the philosophy of creating a safer environment for children unite their resources in the common quest to make our communities a safer place. And, of course, health care facilities and nurses can play a crucially important role in this effort as well.
For more information about infant abductions, please contact Cathy Nahirny at (703) 837-6243 or [email protected]. For more information about Project ALERT, contact Ann Scofield at (703) 837-6219 or [email protected].
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