Threat identified before incident occurred
There are plenty of locations hospital security personnel have to worry about in their hospital and around campus, least of all the ED. But one area that has lots of visitors—and lots of risk—is the maternity unit.
Although most hospitals have protocols and drills in place to prevent infant abduction, it remains a constant threat—a point made clear by recent events in two North Carolina hospitals.
When Tanisha Weaver, 28, allegedly tried to take an infant from Duke University Hospital in Durham, NC, (which could not be reached for comment) April 19, she was caught by security and later charged with attempted kidnapping.
A week earlier, the woman had shown up at Maria Parham Medical Center (MPMC) in Henderson, NC, acting suspicious and was eventually escorted out of the hospital. In both cases, because of security measures, no infants were harmed or abducted.
Confronting suspicious visitors
Many types of unusual people visit hospitals every day, says David Ruggles, director of marketing and PR at MPMC, so it’s important that all hospital staff understand the importance of staying aware of their surroundings and the people who walk by.
Ruggles asks his staff members to be friendly and say hello to anyone who passes by, asking whether they need help finding anything. The reason for doing that, of course, is twofold. Although it certainly improves customer service, it also helps identify possible criminals or suspicious people sooner. Many visitors looking to commit a crime are trying to blend in and will be visibly nervous or rattled when confronted, Ruggles says. Sometimes simply asking a visitor a question can lead to an answer that prompts the staff member to call security, as was the case at the small, 102-bed MPMC, when a woman, later identified as Weaver, showed up in scrubs pretending to be a curious nursing student one weekend in April.
When staff members asked her what she was looking for, Weaver was near the nurses’ station at the Women and Infant’s Unit and responded by asking some security-related questions, such as where exits were placed.
At that point, one frontline nurse, who declined to be interviewed because she “was just doing her job,” became suspicious and encouraged Weaver to come back during the week to speak to the manager, who could address her questions. Weaver left, only to arrive a bit later in street clothes.
“At that time, one of our nurses saw her and stopped her and began questioning her again,” says Ruggles.
Security was called and escorted her out of the building. However, Weaver returned again, claiming she had left her cell phone in the building. A nurse told Weaver to remain where she was and a staff member would look for her cell phone.
When the phone wasn’t found, security again escorted her out of the building. She never left the premises, and at that point, police were called and arrived on the scene to talk to her. They could not arrest her as she had not broken any laws, but security at MPMC wanted to ensure that Weaver understood they were serious about her not coming back inside the hospital.
At MPMC, a staff member whose job is monitoring all the security cameras on premises was keeping an eye on Weaver as well.
Educating and training staff members
Thanks to staff members, Ruggles says, Weaver, who was later caught attempting to take an infant out of the maternity ward at Duke University Hospital, never wandered the halls in MPMC’s maternity centers.
“She never got close to a baby or a mother in the nursery. Basically the first step was just staff being alert,” says Ruggles.
Infant abduction drills are performed regularly to keep staff on alert for this threat. Along with the drills, infant abduction policies are discussed and staff are reminded of the consequences of even an attempted abduction, the least of which is ending up on national news.
Although the hospital does not share the specific infant abduction security measures it takes with outside sources, Ruggles says MPMC performs hospitalwide “code pink” drills—a common code for infant abductions. “We hear a code pink and we all know our responsibilities,” says Ruggles.
MPMC’s security team emphasizes having the right security system in place and knowing how to use it, says Ruggles. It also emphasizes confronting people in a polite manner and watching how they react. Staff are trained on what to do with suspicious people in the short time before security arrives, which focuses on remaining helpful and polite to try to avoid escalating a situation, as well as ensuring that staff members work as a team. This means communicating with each other when someone acts suspicious and asking for help, such as asking a coworker to call security or asking security to walk by to assess the situation so the suspicious individual can see that security is nearby.
“We try to make an effort to know everybody who walks onto the floors—the Women and Infants Unit in particular because of the risk,” says Ruggles. “People that are nervous become more nervous” when approached, and that’s what happened with Weaver.
Still, Ruggles emphasizes that hospital staff must stay vigilant because “there’s a lot of suspicious people walking through hospitals on a daily basis.”
Because of all the issues security deals with, and the fact that technically, Weaver had not done anything wrong, MPMC did not call area hospitals to alert them, Ruggles says.
However, when it learned that a woman tried to abduct an infant from Duke University Hospital, MPMC security checked their security cameras, confirmed the suspected woman was Weaver, and called Duke’s security office immediately.
Abduction prevention resources
Between 1983 and 2009, there were 124 abduction events in healthcare facilities, with six cases remaining unresolved, as reported in the Guidelines on Prevention of and Response to Infant Abductions for Healthcare Professionals, published by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Although this number is relatively small and attributable to the ongoing vigilance of hospitals and healthcare workers across the country, it is safe to say that most members of hospital staff think that even one abduction is too many.
The guidelines are an excellent starting point for ensuring that your organization is positioned to adequately prevent abduction events. Although it should be noted that the guidelines focus more on the younger population, there are certain security measures you can apply to any at-risk adult patient in your hospital. To provide further assistance, NCMEC also publishes a self-assessment tool. This tool, along with information regarding abductions, can be found at the NCMEC website (www.missingkids.com).
Source: The Hospital Safety Director’s Handbook, Fourth Edition, written by Steven A. MacArthur, safety consultant for The Greeley Company, a division of HCPro, Inc., in Marblehead, MA. MacArthur also serves as an advisory board member for Healthcare Security Alert.