Fearing abductions, Mat-Su hospital halts birth notices

Policy is based in part on guidelines provided by advocacy group

Posted: Monday, January 12, 2009

ANCHORAGE - In a blow to newspaper tradition, and perhaps a signal of the death of small-town innocence, an Alaska hospital has stopped the longtime practice of announcing births out of fear it could lead to the abduction of an infant.

Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, the hospital outside Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla, listed newborns with the local newspaper if parents signed a consent form. The practice stopped Jan. 1.

Parents can contact the newspaper if they want to announce the birth of their children, said hospital spokeswoman Kerry Aguirre.

"We want to make sure the parents are aware of all the things they can do to make sure the baby is safe," Aguirre said. "This is just one more thing we are doing to keep the baby safe."

Mat-Su Regional is part of Tennessee-based Community Health Systems, which owns, operates or leases more than 110 hospitals in 28 states, according to its Web site. Spokeswoman Tomi Galin said by e-mail that the birth announcement decision was made locally but many hospitals have discontinued the practice as a child safety measure.

The policy is based in part on guidelines provided by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children based in Alexandria, Va.

The center acknowledges that newborn and infant snatching is rare. Cathy Nahirny, administrative manager for training and outreach, said the center has recorded 256 cases between 1983 through 2008 of infants being abducted by non-family members. That's fewer than 12 per year out of the 4.2 million U.S. babies born annually at more than 3,500 birthing facilities.

In just four cases over 25 years, the center concluded, the abductor used information found in a birth announcement. One kidnapper responded to a lawn decoration noting the birth.

"The likelihood it will happen? Not very likely," Nahirny said. "Has it happened? Yes. Could it still happen? Yes."

"We don't want it to ever happen," Aguirre said. "If you prevent something from happening, then we hope it will be a never event. We don't want to react to something."

T.C. Mitchell, managing editor of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, called the policy an overreaction.

"I can understand their thinking behind it, but even nationally, I don't think it's a huge problem," Mitchell said.

Births and obituaries are a staple of community newspapers - the start and finish of readers' lives, Mitchell said, and the newspaper has an obligation to report them.

"We're all about getting names in," he said.

Officials with the Alaska State Troopers and the Anchorage Police Department said they have never heard of an infant abduction in Alaska.

There are 80,000 people in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Mitchell said, but they're scattered over an area the size of West Virginia. The newspaper does not print addresses with birth announcements and the area's winding, rural roads would make tracking down a newborn a challenge, he said.

"You'd have to be a pretty diligent child snatcher to find anyone here," he said.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children analyzed 230 cases of infant abduction from 1983 to 2004. A typical kidnapper was a woman of childbearing age, often overweight, who might fake a pregnancy to hang onto a male partner.

"The relationship is going south," Nahirny said.

The ruse continues for nine months, she said, and then the woman has to find a baby.

With awareness improved at hospitals, abduction attempts have shifted to homes and other places, she said. When abductors take babies from homes, mothers are at risk.

"The potential for violence increases dramatically," she said.

Hospitals in Maine and Idaho last year instituted the same policy, she said.

"Hospitals have a liability attached to it," she said. "Many hospitals are moving in this direction."

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