A needy woman, usually overweight and psychologically unstable, slips into a hospital and abducts a newborn. Hoping to seal a childless relationship with a boyfriend or husband, she returns home to present the baby as her own.
That, experts say, is the profile that fits most people caught abducting infants from hospitals.
It doesn't happen often they say-- only 121 times in the last 24 years -- but when it does, it is a new mother's worst nightmare.
Just last week, a woman dressed in scrubs snatched a baby from its mother's room at a Lubbock, Texas, hospital. The 4-day-old baby was found healthy within 24 hours, and Rayshaun Parson, 21, of Clovis, N.M., was arrested and charged with kidnapping.
Police say Parson, posing as a hospital worker, entered the mother's room several times before the baby was taken. She allegedly told the mother the baby needed tests. Video cameras showed her carrying the baby out of the hospital in her purse.
The good news is abductors usually take care of the babies, and the vast majority are returned safely to their mothers, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Of all the hospital abductions nationwide, only six abducted babies have never been located.
"So many women go into the hospital and are terrified of this," said Ernie Allen, CEO and president of NCMEC. "The numbers are not in the thousands, but when it happens, it is just as traumatic as anything you can imagine. To have had a newborn in your arms, and then it is gone."
From Mother's Room
As in the Texas case, the abductor is usually a woman who has lost a child or is incapable of having a baby. Typically, she is married or living with someone and "using this to keep the relationship alive," said Allen.
"The abductor is not the usual child abductor," said Allen. "Suddenly, a woman shows up at home with a baby and invariably the husband or boyfriend didn't know she was pregnant."
Dr. Margaret Spinelli, director of maternal mental health programs at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University, said it's hard to create a profile that fits every baby abductor. But she sees some similarities to another disorder: Pseudocyesis -- often called hysterical pregnancy -- has occurred throughout history, according to Spinelli.
"It's like those who want to be pregnant so badly they develop the physical symptoms of pregnancy -- they even lactate," said Spinelli. "It's hard to know what is going on in these women's brains. How do they think they can get away with it? My gut feeling is it is like a psychosis and there must be some sort of depression."
Women who have this condition can stop menstruating, grow large in the belly and even show hormonal changes. In one case, before sonograms were routine in pregnancy, doctors only discovered the hoax pregnancy on the delivery table.
Hospital abductions are down slightly since a high of 17 were reported in 1991, according to NCMEC. Last year, 12 infants were reported missing and all but one -- a Fort Meyers, Fla., case -- were found.
Neighbors Notice Odd Behavior
Babies are located when someone reports the strange appearance of a child in the family. In the Texas abduction, a neighbor told police he had noticed Parson with a baby in a stroller, and thought that was unusual.
Based on analysis conducted by NCMEC, the typical infant abductor is compulsive and manipulative, using deception to gain access to a maternity hospital. She often does a trial run, asking detailed questions about procedures and the maternity floor layout. Often she used the fire exit stairwell for her escape.
While she usually plans the abduction ahead of time, she does not necessarily target a specific infant and frequently seizes any opportunity present. The abductor typically impersonates a nurse and is familiar with health care staff and routines.
Maternity hospitals around the country now use high-tech tools to beef up their security, including sensors placed in diapers or wrist bands. Operating like anti-shoplifting devices, they activate an alarm when the baby is carried past a certain point.
At the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, all entrants to the maternity and postpartum units must be "buzzed in" with security cards, and mothers are educated to give their babies only to employees with special color-coded cards. All exits are secured with alarms, and the hospital has a "pink code" infant abduction plan.
"We use an electronic tracking system on infants," said hospital spokesman Olivia Fermano, who would not elaborate on specifics. "Once people know the technology, they can find a way around it."
ID Bracelet Found in Trash
At Covenant Lakeside Hospital in Texas, where the recent abduction took place, electronic identification bands are placed on infants immediately at birth. Hospital authorities found the stolen baby's bracelet in a trash bin.
"As soon as the baby and this security piece were separated, we were alarmed and knew," Gwen Stafford, senior vice president of Covenant Health System, told The Associated Press.
"That's what enabled us to get the visual of the pickup," she said. "Clearly we need to take security to a higher standard. We're not going to rest until we take it up a notch, another level. I don't know that we can ever have anything perfect."
Experts say the first few hours are most important in locating a missing baby. In recent years, Amber Alerts and the news media have helped police locate many stolen infants safely.
"Overwhelmingly, that success has been because of the power of the media to mobilize the eyes and ears of the public," said Allen. "They are absolutely central in these cases."
Since 1987, NCMEC has provided on-site security assessments to nearly 1,000 hospitals and birthing centers throughout the United States and conducts accredited training on infant security for health care professionals.
Common hospital mistakes are no alarmed doors or security cameras, and scrubs and other uniforms hanging in accessible places.
"The American health care community has really taken this issue seriously," said Allen. "It's a delicate balance because hospitals -- and particularly birthing centers -- don't want to create a jail-like atmosphere. They want their security as subtle as possible."
But equally important, said Allen, is being informed and aware. Parents should investigate security guidelines before choosing a hospital and immediately report staff who exhibit suspicious behaviors.
"In the old days, there was more trust," said Allen. "But when people pose as health care professionals, it's easy to dupe a mother. A woman walks in and finds a smock hanging in a closet. In America, if you have a uniform and a name tag, you belong and can walk in the room."
For more information about the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children visit www.missingkids.com or call its toll-free, 24-hour hotline at 1-800-THE LOST.