THURSDAY, Sept. 4, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Apparently foiled by increased security at hospitals, strangers who abduct babies are finding opportunities for kidnapping at other public places or private homes, a new study suggests.
The kidnapping of babies by strangers -- usually women -- remains extremely rare. But the findings suggest that families and law enforcement need to be aware of the risk, said study co-author Ann Wolbert Burgess, a professor of psychiatric nursing at Boston College.
"These people are still after babies," Burgess said. "They're getting them in residences or someplace in the community."
The study authors analyzed 247 cases of baby abductions by strangers in the United States from 1983 to 2006. All cases involved babies 6 months old or younger. No one officially keeps track of all such cases nationally, so there may be some incidents that the researchers didn't discover.
Between two periods -- 1983-1992 and 1993-2006 -- the percentage of abductions in hospitals and other health-care facilities fell from 63 percent to 32 percent, while the percentage of abductions in private homes grew from 29 percent to 49 percent. The overwhelming majority of abductors -- 96 percent -- were women. And almost all of the abducted babies -- 95 percent -- were found.
Burgess attributed the changes to increased vigilance in the health-care world. "We certainly have gotten a handle on protecting babies in hospitals," she said.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which collaborated on the study, the typical stranger who abducts a baby is a woman between the ages of 12 and 50, often overweight, and says she has either lost a baby or can't have one.
"The motivation is usually to try to repair a failing partnership," Burgess said. "Some of these women have their own children. It's not a matter that they don't have a child. They're in a new relationship and they're trying to keep the relationship together."
Young women often have another motive, Burgess said -- they want to define themselves by having an infant and may even fake a pregnancy.
Male strangers very rarely abduct babies, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "The main motive is getting a child to raise as their own," he said. "Men in general don't want to be burdened by the care of a child of this age who has so many needs."
According to the new study, the percentage of abducted infants who were white fell from 40 percent to 21 percent, while the percentage of Hispanic infants grew from 17 percent to 32 percent. The percentage of black infants rose from 41 percent to 43 percent.
The researchers also found that violence during abductions is on the rise.
What can be done to prevent abductions?
Burgess said media coverage of the problem is crucial. It's important to "warn people about this and tell people to not just give up their infant to someone they don't feel has proper authority," she said. "The second piece is that we need to be able to do a better job of understanding women who are even thinking about this so we can better understand the motivation for stealing."
The findings are published in the September issue of the American Journal of Nursing.
To learn more about abducted children, visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.