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Hospitals add safeguard against baby snatchers


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001

When Michelle Neader had her first three babies at St. Anthony's Hospital, she never worried that someone might try to abduct one of them. There were so few babies born there and so many nurses watching over them. But hospital security is more on her mind as she nears her due date for baby No. 4, who will be delivered at Bayfront Medical Center.

"I'm a little nervous about it this time because Bayfront is such a big hospital," she said.

There are few stories of babies stolen from maternity wards, but some hospitals report that it's a top concern of pregnant women before giving birth.

So Michelle was pleased to learn that Bayfront has just installed a laser identification security system that tracks each baby's location around the clock. "That makes me feel great," she said.

The new surveillance system triggers sirens if a baby is taken out of the maternity ward without being released by hospital staffers. Another alarm sounds if someone tries to remove or tamper with the plastic bracelet around the baby's ankle.

St. Petersburg General Hospital expects to have a system in place by the end of the year.

"We've never had any problems whatsoever. But in the coming years it's going be a recommendation that all hospitals put in some kind of electronic safety system," said Leona Gans, St. Petersburg General spokeswoman.

The Bayfront Health Foundation spent $150,000 on the new Hugs Infant Security System. Scanners are on every door in the maternity ward, but the system allows visitors to come and go on their own. (Visitors are still not allowed in the nursery.) Before, everyone had to be verified and admitted through a locked door by a nurse.

"It's a lot more family-friendly now," said Bayfront spokeswoman Cassandra Morrell. "Within visiting hours, (visitors) have more freedom to come and go from the unit."

And if someone comes to see baby and baby is not in Mom's room, nurses can check the computer and see exactly where the infant is in the hospital. The Hugs system also allows nurses more time to focus on the patients instead of guarding the doors and demanding name, rank and serial number.

When the system went into place in July, nurses and hospital staffers were running wild checking on false alarms. Too many curious parents were pulling at the anklets, and that's all it takes to set off the tamper alarm.

"When that happens, the nurse would go to the computer and punch in a code to see which baby it is. Then she would run to the room and investigate it," Morrell said. With better explanations, the false alarms have decreased significantly.

These security systems are just another layer of protection, along with locked exits, matching identification bracelets for parents and baby, abduction drills and education of new moms.

"When we have a drill, we stop people in parking lots carrying a suitcase or a bag or anything like that. We have to apologize and tell them we're sorry, but they can't go anywhere until the police come," Gans at St. Petersburg General said. "When the alarm goes off, we don't know it's a drill. We have to react like a baby has been taken."

Baby abduction drills are conducted regularly at All Children's Hospital, Bayfront, Morton Plant Mease hospitals in Clearwater and Dunedin, and St. Joseph's Women's Hospital in Tampa. Educating mothers about who they can release their baby to is one of the most important lines of defense, hospital spokesmen agreed.

"We tell them no one is to ever let their baby out of their sight unless the person (taking the baby) is identified with a particular type of badge," Gans said. "If you don't feel comfortable or you're unsure if somebody walks in and says they need to take the baby for an X-ray or something, we tell them to ring for a nurse immediately."

"We've had instances when a mother has challenged someone coming to check on her baby and that's good," said Beth Hardy, spokeswoman for Morton Plant Mease. Although the nurses asking for the babies were legitimate, the hospital would rather mothers err on the side of caution.

Bayfront's new security system goes off only if a baby is taken where he shouldn't be. Another safeguard going into hospitals such as Christ Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago scans bar-coded bracelets on babies and parents to make sure they match.

With KidMATCH, a short lullaby rings when parents and babies with matching bar codes go past scanners. If the bracelets don't match, an alarm sounds. Bayfront and other local hospitals count on people, not electronic scanners, to check that all identification bracelets match. So don't complain if Grandma isn't allowed to retrieve the baby from the nursery because she doesn't have a corresponding bracelet. And don't ask for a looser bracelet if you think it's too tight on your baby's wrist.

New mothers in Pinellas can be sure their hospitals work hard to prevent any problems. But moms still need to be aware of those identification bracelets and the person handling their babies.

- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

Clothing sale

A huge selection of "gently used" children's stuff is available at the annual Mother's Outreach Movement clothing sale, 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, 1600 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. More than 40 families will offer bargains on clothes, toys, books, videos, kids' furniture, strollers and maternity clothes. Brand-name outfits with the tags intact go for $2. Many books and videos are 50 cents. Fifteen percent of all money raised is donated to a local children's charity along with unsold items.

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