Loss of innocence
On Friday, June 12, 1992, I reported after work for my usual volunteer duty at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California. I worked in the nursery as a "cuddler," holding and touching the ill and premature infants. Normally I signed in at the desk, entered the nursery, scrubbed in and then reported to the various nurseries to see who needed some TLC that day.
But that summer day was different. There was security at the nursery entrance and a stressed, hyper-aware atmosphere. Though it had only just hit the news, there had been an infant abduction that day. The nurses weren't really allowed to speak of the incident.
The next morning's paper carried the details: Jessica Mammini had handed her two-day-old daughter over to a kind woman who had introduced herself as a social worker. Jessica was told the baby needed to be weighed before financial aid could be approved. The woman then disappeared with "Baby Kerri."
The following September, a tip led police to Karen Lea Hughes, a woman who had apparently taken Kerri to soothe her upset over an earlier miscarriage. The baby was healthy and had been reasonably cared for and was returned to her frantic parents. In those few months, however, hospital nurseries nationwide wised up and implemented newer, more stringent security measures. (Hughes, sentenced to eight years in prison, served three before being released on parole in March 1997.)
Less than two years later after Baby Kerri was abducted, I delivered my first daughter at that same hospital.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the number of infant thefts are conservatively estimated at between 12 and 18 per year. Add to that number the equally high-profile cases of switched infants.
Even one stolen or switched infant is too many. How can you protect your newborn? Here are some tips.
Before delivering, take a hospital a tour or attend orientation so that you are familiar with the hospital and appearance of the staff. Before birth, take the time to inquire about nursery routines as well as security procedures. If you wait until you're in labor to become acquainted with these details, you may find it difficult to be very attentive to the finer points.
After the baby is born
Immediately after your baby is born, you, your baby and your partner/support person will receive matching identification bracelets. Personally verify that the bands have matching numbers and make sure your baby's band (usually around the ankle, or two bands, one each around ankle and wrist) is not loose enough to slip off. If you cannot keep your baby with you at all times, double-check these numbers to ensure they are the same.
Make a note of your baby's appearance and vital statistics: hair color and amount, weight, length. Some hospitals take photographs of the baby shortly after birth.
If you can't keep your baby with you at all times ("rooming in"), see if your partner or another family member can accompany the baby to the nursery (where bathing and other examinations may take place).
When baby isn't in your arms
Never leave your baby unattended and alone if your room for even a minute. This includes while you take a nap, go to the bathroom or have a shower -- if you or a family member can't keep a constant eye on the baby, ask to have the baby taken to the nursery. While in your room, it is preferable to keep your baby on the far side of your bed, away from the door. When you have a lot of visitors, you may get distracted.
Do not give your baby to anyone without proper identification: usually a combination of attire and a hospital photo ID badge, and usually a separate badge identifying him or her as nursery staff. If you have doubts, trust your instinct and don't take chances -- call the nursing station and ask someone on the staff to come in and verify. Do not feel as if you are being unreasonable: this is your baby, and you have the right, and responsibility, to protect your newborn.
If anyone unfamiliar enters your room or asks about your baby, feel free to question them and satisfy yourself that they're on the hospital staff.
The hospital staff should check your matching ID bands before you are discharged, but take it upon yourself to again check your baby's ID bands for yourself. Look at the baby, for the features you first identified after birth: hair color and amount and weight. Also take a quick peek into the diaper to check gender, and whether or not the baby is circumcised. If you have photos, also use those to compare this baby to the one you delivered.
When you're home
The risk of baby theft doesn't end when you leave the hospital: public birth announcements can trigger baby theft. That means: avoid the lawn signs, the "It's a Girl!" balloons on the mailbox, and other banners announcing the new arrival. It's hard to contain your joy at having a wonderful new family member, so dispense that energy in other ways: hang the balloons and banners indoors instead.
Keep in mind that some hospitals provide information about new births to the local newspapers, or parents/family members supply the details themselves. Don't. Send out birth announcements to your friends, family and co-workers, but don't take unnecessary risks.
You and your baby
Like many things in life, the buck stops with you. It's up to you to be extra cautious, to make yourself aware of any potentially improper situations, and to listen to your intuition. It's worth it for the peace of mind, and besides, there's almost nothing else as wonderful bringing a new baby home.