For many new mothers, it's among the worst nightmares imaginable: a stranger abducting a newborn from a hospital maternity ward, as happened Thursday afternoon in Pittsburgh.
And while local medical centers tout high-tech security systems and stage preventative drills, the number of hospital abductions this year has raised new questions about how infants can be protected.
"It's a lot better here than at bigger institutions," Altoona Regional Hospital Police Chief John Hawksworth said Friday. "At smaller institutions, you know everybody on the floor."
The woman who allegedly kidnapped a 3-day-old boy Thursday from Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh reportedly pretended to be a nurse, wearing hospital scrubs with a UPMC logo and told the mother the baby needed one more test before carrying the infant out the front door.
Pittsburgh police recovered the child, unharmed, later that day.
While a motive for the alleged Pittsburgh kidnapping is still unclear, the perpetrators almost always follow the same profile, said John Rabun, Infant Abduction Response director at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
They're young women, desperate for a child and often in a long-term relationship, Rabun said. Many visit hospitals in advance and, as in the Pittsburgh case, impersonate nurses the day of the crime.
"There's even a lot weirder and simpler ways of [avoiding] the alarm than what she did," Hawksworth said.
But while larger hospitals are often packed with medical students, nurses and guests, local hospital staff can more easily raise the alarm when they see an unfamiliar face, he said.
Altoona Regional staff and police also conduct baby-snatching response drills, Hawksworth said, and the hospital employs a series of electronic defense systems for when simple vigilance fails.
Babies there wear monitoring bracelets that can set off alarms, while other hospitals employ high-tech diapers, he said.
"Those are kind of our secrets up there," he said, noting that he can't describe the hospital's security systems in detail.
In a statement issued Friday, officials at UPMC Bedford Memorial in Everett said they've recently conducted drills with state police to simulate an infant abduction.
"The drill gave us valuable insight into the expectations of the state police in similar situations, as well as provided our staff with the opportunity to apply their training and knowledge of crisis protocols," the statement read.
Officials at Nason Hospital in Roaring Spring and J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital in Huntingdon did not return calls Friday.
Better protective systems and a focus on security have been behind a stunning 20-year decline in hospital kidnappings, according to Rabun and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children statistics.
Not a single baby was stolen from a health care facility in 2011. Just one was taken in 2010; it was recovered safely soon after.
Compare that to 1991, when 11 babies were reportedly taken from hospitals throughout the country.
However, this year, hospitals across the country already have reported four abductions - the most since 2006.
Rabun said he can't explain what's behind the sudden increase.
"It's just like the tide going in and coming out," he said. "There's just no rhyme or reason to it."
Hawksworth said Altoona Regional police are prepared to contact outside law-enforcement agencies if a baby is taken off the premises, including the FBI in kidnapping cases.
Rabun said while many hospital abductions take place in heavily populated areas, close-knit facilities aren't free from risk.
"It's anywhere there are live births," Rabun said.
Still, Hawksworth said area hospitals have been free from the relatively rare crime, without any major cases in decades.
"Knock on wood, in my 35 years here in Altoona, I have heard nothing in our region," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.