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The number of babies kidnapped by strangers in the U.S. fell from about 13 a year to less than 10, down from a high of 18 in 1987, according to more than two decades of data collected by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
updated 9/4/2008 8:28:37 AM ET 2008-09-04T12:28:37

More new babies are being kidnapped from public places — homes, parking lots and shopping malls — even as improved awareness and better security have cut the number of newborns snatched from the nation’s hospitals and health centers.

That’s according to just-released research that tracks every new parent’s rare-but-possible nightmare: A stranger stealing the baby.

Between 1993 and 2006, the number of infants taken by non-family members in hospitals and health settings, often by people impersonating nurses or other staff members, fell by nearly half, compared to an earlier period. At the same time, however, the number of babies kidnapped from homes and public places nearly doubled, according to a study published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Nursing.

“It is a small problem, but when it happens, it’s huge for the family, for the hospital and for law enforcement,” said Ann Wolbert Burgess, the lead author of the study and a trauma specialist in the William F. Connell School of Nursing at Boston College.

Video: Missing infant found, woman held And it’s a lingering fear for parents like Erica Ysasaga, 22, of Lubbock, Texas, whose newborn daughter, Priscilla Nicole Maldonado, was kidnapped in 2006 by a stranger who posed as a hospital worker and then came to Ysasaga’s home. More than two years later, Ysasaga says she’s still nervous about letting the toddler out of her sight.

“My daughter is fine, but she’s not allowed outside,” Ysasaga said. "I always worry."

Burgess and her colleagues studied 247 infant abductions that occurred during two time periods: From 1983 to 1992 and from 1993 to 2006.

Fewer than 10 babies taken each year
Overall, the number of infant abductions by non-family members fell from about 13 a year to fewer than 10, according to the data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That’s a drop from the high of 18 babies under age 6 months kidnapped by strangers in the U.S. in 1987.

And it’s only a tiny fraction of the more than 4.3 million babies born in the U.S. each year, emphasized John B. Rabun Jr., executive vice president and chief operating officer for the NCMEC.

“There’s no epidemic,” Rabun said. “This is important because we can prevent it.”

Of the 121 abductions logged in the first study, 76 occurred in hospitals or health centers and 45 occurred in other locations. By the second study of 126 kidnappings, only 40 occurred in health care locations, while 86 happened in private homes, parking lots and other public places.

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Burgess credits new training, protocols and security devices with the decline in hospital abductions. Bar-coded wrist bands, surveillance cameras, guards and alarmed doors now aim to thwart would-be abductors, she said.

“It’s too hard to get (the babies) out of the hospitals,” she said.

The time it took to recover abducted infants also improved. In the earlier study, about 25 percent of babies taken from hospitals were recovered within 12 hours; by the later study, that had improved to 60 percent. Five babies were never recovered at all in the more recent study, down from seven infants in the previous period.

But that doesn’t mean the kidnappers have stopped trying, noted Burgess and Rabun. The crime has just shifted to more public sites — with more potential for violence.

Some abductions turn violent
Of the 247 total cases studied, 44 involved violence. In 22 cases, the baby’s mother was killed; in two cases both parents were murdered. In nine of the cases, the baby was cut from the mother’s body in a forced Cesarean section. Eight of those mothers and three babies died, the study showed.

What didn’t change in the two studies was the profile of the typical abductor, Rabun said. It’s almost always a woman, and usually a woman who has lost a baby or cannot conceive and wants the child to cement a relationship with a man. The kidnapper typically plans the attack in advance, visiting the site or the parent at least once before taking the baby, researchers said.

In Ysasaga’s case, 33-year-old Stephanie Lynn Anderson Jones showed up at the Texas hospital dressed in scrubs several times after Priscilla’s birth on May 31, 2006.

“I thought she was a nurse,” Ysasaga said.

After befriending Ysasaga, Jones visited the new mother at her home on June 3. The women went for a walk, and when Ysasaga became distracted for a moment, Jones disappeared with the baby. Only an anonymous tip led police to Jones, who had abandoned the infant in a car in a parking garage in triple-digit heat.

Jones was sentenced this spring to two concurrent 10-year terms for kidnapping and child abandonment, but she could be eligible for parole in as little as two and a half years, said her lawyer, Mark Snodgrass of Lubbock.

Though such cases are alarming, they are rare, Rabun reiterated. Of the nearly 800,000 children under age 18 who go missing each year, more than 58,000 are non-family abductions and only about 115 are stranger kidnappings, according to NCMEC estimates.

Parents of new babies should be vigilant, but not paranoid, researchers said. They should beware of anyone who seems too interested in their newborn in public or who shows up at a private home unannounced.

Because some kidnappers have been alerted by lawn signs, balloons and banners welcoming a new baby, parents may want to think twice about advertising their little one, Burgess said. In some places, newspapers have stopped running birth announcements for the same reason, she added.

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