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Infant Abductions: Down in Hospitals, Up in Homes

The good news: The number of babies abducted from hospitals has dropped dramatically since 1983.

The bad: That decline has been matched by an alarming increase in the number of babies abducted from private homes and public places.

An eye-opening report in the September issue of The American Journal of Nursing looked at trends in non-family infant abduction over 23 years, from 1983 to 2006. Reviewing data from two studies, one covering 1983-1992, the other 1993-2006, researchers led by Ann Wolbert Burgess, a professor in the department of psychiatry nursing at the William F. Connell School of Nursing at Boston College, found that the overall number of abductions of children under 6 months remained pretty steady over the two time periods, with 121 cases in the earlier and 126 in the later. (Here's a link; you have to pay to click through and actually read the whole study.)

But the study, conducted in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, found that abductions from hospitals and other health-care facilities dropped from 63 percent of all cases to 32 percent, while abductions from private residences rose from 29 percent to 49 percent of cases and those from public places rose from 3 percent to 9 percent.

Burgess and her colleagues also found a rise in instances in which abductions involved injury (including fatalities) to parents -- including forced caesarians -- and a rise (from 69 percent to 89 percent) in the proportion of abductors who had visited the abduction site before committing their crime.

Bright spots: Altogether, 95 percent of all the abducted babies were found. And more abductors are getting caught and indicted. Arrests were made in 88 percent of cases and indictments in 87 percent in the first period; those numbers both jumped to 94 percent in the later period.

Burgess attributes the decline in abductions from hospitals to stiffer security measures put in place following the release of information from the study that ended in 1992. That study included a profile of the typical abductor, which helped hospitals focus their security efforts.

The new study also proffers a profile, finding that in recent years a typical abductor has been:

- a woman between 12 (!) and 50 years
- overweight (perhaps making it easier to fake a pregnancy)
- able to use manipulation and deceit to get access to the baby
- familiar with the community where the abduction occurs
- able to provide good care for the baby she's snatched
- likely to have visited maternity wards to scope out the joint
- likely to have planned the abduction but not necessarily to have focused on a particular baby, leaving herself open to seize any opportunity that comes along
- likely to have impersonated a nurse or other health-care worker; this includes both those abducting from hospitals and those abducting from homes.

The study calls for heightened awareness among nurses and other health-care staff and the media, who can be enormously helpful in recovering stolen children. Expectant parents, the authors suggest, should verse themselves in their hospitals' security protocols and be on the lookout for strangers hanging around, showing excessive interest in their baby, or showing up at their homes unannounced.

Thankfully, abduction of infants remains rare. But just one is too many; it's hard to fathom the horror.

I remember taking my little girl to Cabin John Park one summer day when she was about five -- not a baby, but still my baby -- and losing sight of her. The panic that welled up in me nearly choked me. Of course, she was safe, and all was well. But that scare served as a reminder that you just can't ever let down your guard when it comes to keeping your kids safe.

How about you? Have you had a similar scare? Does this report make you think twice about strangers and your baby?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  September 6, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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In the second study, we have 126 cases over 14 years. That works out to 9 cases per year. Assuming that the average population of the U.S. during that time period was approximately 270 million, with an estimated 2-3 million of those people being babies under the age of 6 months, that means that the likelihood of this happening to a family was EXTREMELY low.

So, the question is: Why does the media (including you, Jennifer) insist on sensationalizing these things? It's comparable to what happened with West Nile Virus. WNV kills hardly anyone and yet you made a big deal out of it. On the other hand, the flu kills far more people per year and people treat it as if it's not a big deal.

Child abductions by strangers have always been and continue to be EXTREMELY rare, but the media are bunch of fear-mongers and love to go around inspiring paranoia among the population at large. Then, they ask people what they do to protect their children from all these kidnappers. When the reasonable people (like me) say they don't take special precautions (just the basic ones of life), you act like we're endangering our children.

STOP the sensationalism. STOP the fear-mongering. START being responsible journalists!!!!

Posted by: Ryan | September 6, 2008 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Quick, check the closets for boogeymen! THEY ARE COMING FOR YOUR CHILDREN!

Get a clue people. Ryan is exactly right.

Posted by: Thank you Ryan | September 6, 2008 9:54 AM | Report abuse

The prior two posts are incredibly insensitive. Even one child abduction is too many.

My baby has been abducted and completely concealed from me by her extremely abusive, yet extremely rich, biological father for over 1 1/2 years. Worse, officials have assisted him illegally, in particular the 2nd District DC MPD officers who forced entry into my home, facilitated his assault on me and my baby without arresting him, and coerced me under threat of arrest to "hand over" my baby when no DC court order allowed any of this.

Child abduction is very real and the emotional impact on the parent is extraordinarily cruel. Worse, the fact that there are corrupt officials or people posing as officials who assist in these abductions is astonishing and devastating.

Because the DC MPD assisted him in abducting my baby, they won't admit their mistake and prosecute him for the kidnapping and 1 1/2 year complete concealment of my baby from me -- no phone call, no contact, nothing.

If you're a rich white man in a position of power, in DC, the DC MPD is your own personal gang of thugs -- there is no other way to view this.

Posted by: Deanne | September 6, 2008 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Uh, Deanne, first off, we were talking about stranger abductions. Second, we were talking about the media making it sound like stranger abductions were rampant.

Third, you're lying to us. Sorry, but your story is absurd and you're obviously leaving out some "inconvenient" facts.

Posted by: Ryan | September 6, 2008 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Without knowing how many children under six months old there were during the two time periods, it's not at all clear what's happened other than that the proportion of hospital abductions relative to abductions from other locations has changed. If the number of children has increased, but the total number of abductions remained the same, it could even be the case that *both* types of abductions are less common, as a percentage of total children, but that the rate of abductions from hospital just improved *more* than the rate of abductions from other locations. If there were fewer children overall, then it's possible the rate of hospital abductions has actually, but the rate of abductions from other locations increased more. These alternative explanations could both be consistent with the facts given in the post.

On the third hand, if the total number of children has remained about the same, then the implications of the post would be correct (rate of hospital abductions down, rate of non-hospital abductions up), since we know that the total number of abductions is about the same.

So which is it?

Posted by: Denominator? | September 6, 2008 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Well, Denominator, I don't know the answer to your question, but you're forgetting a critical point. When you're dealing with very small numbers out of a very large population, you will see dramatic fluctuations in the rate of whatever you're looking at. This is simply a function of random chance. So, even if the number of stranger abductions in one year had doubled to the next year (e.g. from 9 to 18), I wouldn't think anything of it.

Posted by: Ryan | September 6, 2008 2:22 PM | Report abuse


I don't disagree with you -- I just find it more troubling that the reasoning of the post is so flawed that it wouldn't make sense even if the absolute numbers here were larger. There was no attempt to look at rates, or change in rates, which would have been necessary to support the conclusions that 1) things are better with respect to abductions from hospitals, and 2) things are worse with respect to abductions from homes and public places.

Posted by: Denominator | September 6, 2008 2:58 PM | Report abuse

I can't say I had a similar scare. I was a paranoid mother who made sure my children were always within eyesight. I had a terrible childhood, unfortunately. I was determined to protect my children and keep them safe from harm, like I wish someone did for me. You might think I was one of those helicopter moms, I wasn't. I made sure that my children grew up safe both mentally and physically. I created a very safe and loving environment, but never hovered. My children are now grown adults and they will attest to the fact that I wasn't a hovering mother. In fact, I think there were times they wished I did hover. LOL

Posted by: socrates3333 | September 6, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Ryan wrote:
That works out to 9 cases per year.

I wonder how you'd feel, Ryan, if YOUR child was one of those nine?

Posted by: socrates3333 | September 6, 2008 3:42 PM | Report abuse

So, are we going to fear all the things that kill/maim 9 out of the total population?

How many kids are killed by calendars? Or by pots and pans each year? Falling televisions surely account for some number of deaths...

Posted by: @ Socrates | September 6, 2008 6:47 PM | Report abuse


What are you so worked up about? If there are ANY child abductions happening in this country, parents and hospitals are going to want to know about them and study the trends. I think you'd agree that NO parent would want their child (or anyone else's) to be abducted. That doesn't mean we're not also interested in other things that can hurt and/or kill children.

Chill out. Your statistics-based "who cares" is insensitive.

Posted by: MountainMom | September 6, 2008 7:29 PM | Report abuse

Socrates, you didn't read my posts. In no way do I not have sympathy for those whose children are abducted. My point is that: on a societal scale, how widespread is this problem? Is this something that people should worry about? The answers are: Not very and no.

However, the media love to engage in this fear-mongering. They love to scare the crap out of people and make them live in fear of things are that are extremely unlikely.

Let's face it: Any death is unfortunate. Family members grieve and mourn, as would I. However, do you lie awake at night worrying about the potential meteorite crashing through your house and killing your child? No? Why not? Why haven't you built that meteor shield over your house?

Well, for the same reason, the media should be turning a rather rare event, such as stranger child abductions into a scare tactic. The headline to this article on the main webpage is: Infant abductions up in home. That sounds pretty scary to me, except that's all bunch of statistical (and, regardless of anything else, unlikely) hogwash.

So, my point has nothing to do with those 9 cases per year. The rarity of an event does not, in any way, indicate the seriousness of the event to those involved.

But really, Socrates, did I have to spell that out to you? I mean, seriously.

Posted by: Ryan | September 6, 2008 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Did you ever read 'The Ransom of Red Chief' by O. Henry? The kid kidnapped was such a monster the kidnappers took him back.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 8, 2008 2:31 PM | Report abuse

This past summer, my companion and I spent two lazy weeks sailing the Bay and enjoying the small towns bordering the Bay. We spent many beautiful days strolling through charming little towns, when we suddenly realized that we rarely saw children out playing. Once the realization hit, we started actively looking and listening for children. We found none! Where are the children? We both remembered spending whole summers running unsupervised over hill and dale. I remember being yelled at by grumpy old men because we trooped across their perfect lawns and made way, way too much noise. This is my memory of summer.

So, where are the children? Are their parents keeping them under lock and key because of fear that they may be taken by strangers? Do parents realize that the odds are much greater that their children could be hurt in an automobile accident than an abduction? Should we stop driving with our children? That would actually make more sense.

I miss the sound of children laughing, screaming, shouting and running. I believe that we are doing them a disservice.

Posted by: uninformed bystander | September 8, 2008 3:26 PM | Report abuse

The blog post is just talking facts - I don't think it overhyped the risk of abductions by strangers. If anything, the post is calming in that the numbers ARE so low.

It saddens me that some people choose to live in fear but I certainly can't blame this blog. I appreciate learning the the 'best practices' adopted by hospitals are having an effect and that there is a typical profile of the (usually mentally disturbed) people who take babies.

Ryan, I recommend the decaf and turning off the cable news on the TV. That is a media form that thrives on fearmongering and generally bad reporting. If you stick to the Post, the world is a lot less scary.

Posted by: Josey23 | September 9, 2008 10:30 AM | Report abuse

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