Electronic sensors help hospitals thwart abductions

A device that got its start in stores as a weapon against shoplifters is finding its way into hospitals around the country -- to thwart abductions of newborns and guard the safety of Alzheimer's patients.

The device is an electronic sensor that sets off an alarm when it is passed through specially wired exits. It can be carried in a bracelet or in tape woven into diapers.


St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Conn., quietly introduced electronic surveillance to its maternity and neonatal units after a woman sneaked in and took a 16-hour-old infant two years ago.

Hartford Hospital is in the middle of installing a system, a spokesman said, and Danbury Hospital, also in Connecticut, put in a similar system two years ago.


By the end of this month, all newborn babies at Malden Hospital, in Malden, Mass., will wear plastic bracelets equipped with the sensors from birth until they go home.

And at the Glen Ridge Nursing Care Center, a new long-term care center on the Malden Hospital grounds, 41 Alzheimer's patients now wear the bands.

Those patients, who suffer from memory loss and disorientation, often start to wander out of the hospital, said Gerald Sohn, the center's administrator.

In hospitals around the country, other bracelet systems are being used to monitor patients in pediatrics, trauma, psychiatric, Alzheimer's and rehabilitation wards.

"It used to be that when the patient went wandering off, they could be missing for 15 minutes to an hour before anyone found them," Mr. Sohn said. Now alarms sound as soon as they step off the ward, he said.

[At Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, where a baby boy was kidnapped in October 1989, new security measures have been installed, but the hospital does not want to discuss what they are, spokesman Paul Umansky said. Prince George's Hospital Center, also the site of an infant kidnapping, also declined to discuss its security strategy, but it expressed confidence that the system installed for the entire hospital would prevent another kidnapping. The Johns Hopkins Hospital also stepped up security in its nursery following a 1988 kidnapping.]

Manufacturers refuse to say how many hospitals around the country have installed such systems. Robert DiLonardo of Security Tag Systems Inc., one of a handful of concerns making the devices, said his company had sold more than 300 infant abduction protection systems since it began marketing its sensor bracelets in 1988.

Electronic tags in the bracelets are tuned during manufacture to a specific frequency. When the tag passes through a gate, a transmitter beaming that frequency causes the tag to send back a signal that triggers an alarm.


From 1983 to 1990, 61 newborns were stolen by non-family members from hospitals in the United States, with more than half taken from their mothers' rooms, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Arlington, Va.

Most were found within hours of abduction. Four are still missing.

Frederick Q. Roll, president of the International Association for Hospital Healthcare, Security and Safety, based outside Chicago, said his group set the number of attempted and successful hospital abductions at 92 from 1983 to 1990.

Most of the kidnappers are women who have either lost a baby or cannot get pregnant, he said.