What is it that makes a woman want to steal a baby? The abductor's profile

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The typical baby thief will go `window shopping' in local hospitals to look for the weakest security. Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, looks at why women become so desperate that they snatch babies from hospitals.

Hospitals can deter abductors but they cannot keep them out altogether. John Rabun, of the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, who has visited Britain to advise hospital managers on security, said that although a determined abductor would evade any security cordon, the task was to make it as difficult as possible.

The typical abductor was a woman who might have miscarried and appeared pregnant. She was often not living with her partner and had planned the baby "to get him back''. When she miscarried she went in search of another baby.

British experts stressed that the cases were extremely rare. Anthony Black, former head of the psychology unit at Broadmoor hospital, said the abductors, who were always women, tended to be people who had been let down, usually by a man, or suffered a set-back such as a miscarriage or a failure to conceive.

"The cases tend to figure around the break-up of a relationship or a loss of some kind. The woman may even be deluded that she has a baby. She may go through a phantom pregnancy. Some women pad themselves out to please a partner."

He said the abductors tended to be sensitive, vulnerable people who had had unhappy experiences which involved being let down or deserted.

"Ordinary people will cope with a lot of distress. They grin and bear it or try for adoption or for infertility treatment, depending on their circumstances. These women invariably turn out to have had a chequered life history and the break-up or the miscarriage is the latest in a succession of onslaughts, insults and mishaps."

The upside was that because the babies were wanted they tended to be well looked after. "They treat them as their own. If a couple had snatched the baby one would worry that the motive was a bit more malign."

Alice Lovell, psychologist at South Bank University, London, and an expert on the effects of miscarriage, said that the idea that women who lost a baby might think of taking someone else's was a myth. "These women want their own baby. There is no evidence that miscarriage leads to abduction. To compound the loss these women suffer by assuming they might resort to abduction is very hurtful."

In the US, 170 infants have been abducted since 1983, nine so far this year. Ten are still missing. Cathy Nahirny, of the US Center for Missing and Exploited Children said yesterday: "The recovery rate is very good. The babies are very rarely harmed. The women who take them raise them as their own."

She said when a new born baby was taken it was possible the woman would have faked a pregnancy keeping her partner, family and friends in the dark.

She said although there was no criminal intent they lived their lives by lying and deceit. "They are incredibly convincing con-artists."

In one case in the US, a woman whose marriage to a soldier was going through a rocky patch told him she was pregnant. She then convinced him that there was a tradition in her family going back generations that the pregnant couple did not have sex or sleep together during the pregnancy. Her husband, anxious not to upset her, accepted the story.

During her "pregnancy" she stuffed padding in her clothes and when she was "due" and her husband was away for a few days, she applied for a babysitting position - and stole the baby.