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Safer Nurseries : 2 Hospitals Install Alarms to Prevent Baby Kidnapings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two Ventura County hospitals are turning to high-technology security systems to prevent kidnapers from stealing newborn babies from their maternity wards.

At Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, sensor systems similar to anti-shoplifting devices at retail stores have been installed at every exit on the maternity floor.

A nearly undetectable tag attached to the baby sets off an alarm if an unauthorized person tries to leave with an infant.

“Nine or 10 years ago, we didn’t even have to lock the doors of our nursery,” said Carol Dimse, Community’s director of patient care services. “But over the years we’ve had to evolve more and more with our security systems.

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“We couldn’t imagine anything worse that could happen to a patient than having their child abducted,” she said.

At Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, where a new obstetrics unit is under construction, sensors are being installed at each of the floor’s nine exits and should be working by September, when renovations are complete.

“There’s no way anyone will be able to get off this floor with a baby,” said Joanne Askew, Los Robles’ chief nursing executive. The Los Robles system, slightly different from Community’s, has a feature that automatically locks all doors when the alarms are activated.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, newborn abductions are relatively rare; 19 infants were taken from California hospitals or homes from 1983 to 1994.

But the fear of kidnapings and the lawsuits that can follow has prompted hospitals to lock maternity ward doors, put up surveillance cameras and install card-key entries.

Some baby abductors manage to elude those security systems, including a woman who was accused of taking a baby earlier this month from White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles. She allegedly followed an employee through a card-key controlled door.

A surveillance camera in the hospital helped police identify the suspect and return the baby safely to its mother. But as Askew pointed out, the camera did not stop the abduction.

“With TV cameras you can look at the film, but the baby is already gone,” Askew said.

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Officials at Community and Los Robles said they turned to the sensor systems because they are the most advanced safety alternative on the market. While there is no guarantee with any system, they said the sensors give both staff and patients a heightened sense of safety.

Two companies market the sensor systems: Sensormatic, a Florida-based company that has sold its Security Tag Systems to hundreds of hospitals nationally, including Community Memorial, and West & Associates of Los Gatos, which has installed its SecureCare sensors in 65 hospitals throughout the state.

Los Robles bought the SecureCare system from Lynn West, a registered nurse who started the company four years ago. The first systems she sold were meant to keep elderly nursing home patients from wandering off the premises. But she soon changed her focus toward maternity ward security.

“I saw a problem and I saw a very sad need,” West said. She said her system successfully stopped three abduction attempts in the last two years.

Hospitals usually place the tags on a wrist band, a leg band or a diaper. Some even put them on the umbilical cord clamp, which remains on the baby for three to four days after birth. West recommends this method.

“That works really well,” she said. “Most people, even some nurses, are afraid to touch the umbilical cord clamp.”

Susan Poprock, director of maternal health care at Los Robles, said the hospital has not decided where to position the tags on newborns yet.

“We might even move them around,” she said. Either way, she said, it’s important to maintain secrecy about the system for it to be effective.

Community Memorial’s Dimse agreed.

“We do tell parents about the system, but we don’t like to advertise it,” Dimse said. “The people who might try to steal a baby--well, the more they know about how the system works, the more at risk the babies are.”

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In the nine months since the nearly invisible security blanket was installed at Community it has been activated a few times, but only accidentally, by parents or staff.

When it goes off, a panel of lights behind the nurse’s station begins to flash, showing where the baby is. At the sound of the alarm, a code is called out over the hospital intercom, alerting staff to block off the exits on the street level.

West said she has given price quotes to about 80% of the hospitals in Southern California for the SecureCare system. But even though interest is high in her product, some hospitals worry it might not be worth the cost, about $2,000 for each sensor.

“It’s kind of on our wish list,” said JoLynn de la Torre, spokeswoman for Simi Valley Adventist Hospital. “But it’s extremely expensive and we’re not sure as to whether or not we can afford it or how well it actually works.”

Cathy Nahirny, a case analyst with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said the sensor systems do seem to be an effective deterrent.

However, she said, one result of better hospital security may be that people desperate enough to steal a baby will target private homes instead.

The center also encourages hospitals not to depend completely on the systems, she said.

“Having wonderful high-tech systems is great,” Nahirny said. “But it’s just as important to have well-trained staff. No system is foolproof.”


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