What is it that makes a woman want to steal a baby? Hospitals' security dilemma

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The Independent Online
Hospital authorities had hoped they were winning the battle against baby snatching. But Ian Burrell says that vital lessons in security have not been learned.

One might have thought that the hysteria which followed the snatching of Abbie Humphries from a Nottingham hospital three years ago would have led to a radical overhaul of security at maternity wards.

Yet the ease with which a three-hour-old baby was taken from Basildon General Hospital yesterday demonstrated how powerless hospital authorities still are when faced with a determined snatcher. After the Humphries case, the Government issued guidance to NHS hospitals. It proposed tags to identify babies, identity badging for legitimate staff, closed-circuit cameras and controls on access to hospital premises.

But it stopped short of being prescriptive: hospitals were allowed to decide which security measures fitted their circumstances.

The Basildon hospital has closed-circuit television, staff are issued with badges and internal doors have security locks. But tags can fall off babies' arms, security cameras cannot cover every corner of hospital corridors and identity badges can be forged. Other hospitals have gone further. St Thomas's, in London, has guards outside maternity wards checking ID cards and signing visitors in and out.

It was the case of Alexandra Griffiths seven years ago which stunned the nation into the realisation that babies were not even safe in a maternity ward. She was two days old when her father unwittingly handed her to a baby-snatcher posing as a health visitor at St Thomas's. When her mother, Dawn, 20, appeared on television weeping and shaking, thousands of viewers wrote or phoned in offering support.

It was a fortnight before the kidnapper, Janet Griffiths, a nurse, was spotted in the Cotswold village of Burford. She had taken Alexandra in an attempt to prevent her married lover dumping her.

Ms Griffiths was sent for treatment in a mental hospital and was released five months later. Shocking though it was, the incident was allowed to fade into history as a one-off action by a disturbed woman.

It was not until four years later, when five-hour-old Abbie Humphries was snatched from the Queen Elizabeth Medical Centre, Nottingham, that memories of Alexandra came flooding back. The baby was taken by Julie Kelley, 24, who lived near the Humphries. She spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital after admitting the offence.

Over 15 days, while Abbie's parents, Karen and Roger, appealed for their baby's return, calls were made for security measures in maternity wards.

Since then some hospitals have introduced baby-tagging systems and closed- circuit television. But despite the notoriety of these two cases, baby- snatching is a long-standing problem in this country.

The Portia Trust, which tries to help counsel women driven to snatch babies, was set up in 1970. Ken Norman, the trust's chairman, said that at one time it was dealing with up to 40 cases a year, although the rate has fallen.

Mr Norman said improving security would not stop baby- snatches by desperate, psychologically disturbed women. "If you made hospitals into fortresses, babies would be taken from prams in the street."

Within nine months of Abbie being taken, three-day-old Lydia Owens was snatched by a bogus visitor from Glan Clwyd Hospital in Bodelwyddan, Wales. The baby was missing for 20 hours. By the time the culprit, Susan Brooke, 39, a grandmother, appeared in court in June 1995, public sympathy for baby-snatching women had evaporated. Whereas previous offenders escaped with relatively light sentences Brooke was branded cruel and wicked by the judge who sentenced her to three years in prison.

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