Determined security failed to stop kidnappers

Kidnappers foiled sophisticated surveillance measures in carefully guarded maternity unit
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The Independent Online

The kidnapping of a two-day-old baby from a hospital yesterday once again demonstrates that any amount of staff vigilance and modern technology can be overcome by determined intruders.

The child, one of identical twin girls, was taken from a cot at the foot of her mother's bed at a maternity ward in the Wordsley Hospital in Stourbridge, West Midlands. Two women were seen acting suspiciously in the area at around the time she was abducted.

The hospital's head of midwifery, Yvonne O'Connor, said an electronic security tagging system for new-born babies was due to be installed at the unit within a matter of days and added that staffing levels were normal on the ward.

But lapses in security remain an unfortunate fact of life in a public building where staff, visitors and vehicles require quick access at all times of day and night. In the past decade, health trusts and police have been embarrassed by the cunning of child snatchers – often disguised as nurses, doctors or social workers.

Determined efforts were made to improve security when, more than a decade ago, Alex Griffiths, who was 36 hours old, was taken by a bogus health worker from the maternity unit of St Thomas' Hospital in south London.

She was reunited with her parents 17 days later, but the family's anguish prompted authorities to embrace technology that had already been a feature of security in the private sector.

Mother and baby units are now the most carefully guarded places in any hospital – a fact that makes yesterday's apparently amateurish abduction even more remarkable. Almost every inch of a maternity ward is monitored by CCTV, backed up by teams of security guards operating 24 hours a day. Entrance to the wards is controlled by coded door locks, which can only be operated by staff on the inside.

Electronic tagging was at one stage considered a panacea to a hospital's security concerns but it has been abandoned by many health authorities after it was found that tags could be removed without triggering an alarm.

Mothers and their new babies at Wordsley Hospital's maternity unit are protected by security doors which lock automatically. Visitors to the unit must speak into a voice intercom and can be observed at all times by a camera sited directly above the door.

Ward F4, on the top floor of the modern four-storey red-brick maternity hospital, is where mothers and their new arrivals are taken. As in most modern maternity hospitals, fathers and older siblings are allowed open visiting from 10am to 8pm, while for everyone else visiting is strictly limited to three hours a day between 2pm and 4pm and from 7pm to 8pm. Visiting outside these times is not permitted, and there is often a queue of eager relatives waiting outside the main doors in the minutes up to 2pm. Anyone leaving the unit has to negotiate several flights of stairs or wait for one of the hospital's lifts to get to the ground floor.

In most hospitals, expectant mothers and their partners are reassured during hospital tours by midwives that abductions, which are most commonly the result of a domestic dispute, are extremely rare. All staff are taught to spot anything suspicious.

Official NHS guidelines say: "It is vital that parents, visitors and staff are aware of the importance of security measures, to report any suspicious behaviour, to challenge unidentified people and never to leave infants unattended."

Despite the increased security, kidnappings continued in isolated but high-profile cases. Abbie Humphries was snatched from Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham in 1994, while last year six-month-old Joshua Cahill was abducted from Cheltenham General Hospital and 23-month-old Latoya Dennis was the victim of an attempted abduction at St Thomas' Hospital in London.

Experts had some words of comfort last night for the unnamed parents of the abducted twin girl – in almost every case in the past decade the baby has been well cared for and returned to their parents safe and well.

A spokeswoman for Great Ormond Street Hospital in London said: "Parents do need to be vigilant but they should be reassured that these sort of events are very rare. It's a difficult balancing act but security is a top priority for hospitals and it is something they do take incredibly seriously."