The Carlina White Abduction: Could It Happen Today?
Just over 23 years ago, the kidnapping of a baby from Harlem Hospital exposed the need for greater security and training at public hospitals. Now that the Carlina White case has been solved, it's worth asking if the conditions that led to her abduction have changed.
The bad news is that from Harlem Hospital to San Francisco General, Cook County in Chicago to Grady in Atlanta, infants still go missing from hospitals. That is in addition to those abducted from homes and other places. The good news is that fewer of these occurrences succeed each year because most of the infants are found -- as were all four of those reported abducted from health facilities and elsewhere in 2010. Still, 11 "infants" -- all but one of whom is black or Hispanic -- are still missing (pdf); until White resurfaced, that number was 12.
"From 1980 to 1990, there were 12 to 18 [abductions] a year," says John Rabun, executive vice president of the Arlington, Va.-based National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "There are not that many anymore -- usually one or two a year."
He and others attribute that change to a number of factors, starting with enhanced security. "Security at all hospitals has improved dramatically over the years as hospitals and the medical community have learned more about how to keep patients safe," says Evelyn Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., which sees 1.3 million patients each year. "All the hospitals in our system, including Harlem Hospital, have adopted many security practices to keep patients safe, especially babies and children, that include high-level security systems as well as checks and balances."
Says Rabun of what's happening nationwide: "They have hardened the target at maternity [wards], but unfortunately that has driven the crime into homes and other places." In medical facilities, newborns are fitted with identification tags, many of them electronic, and shortly after preliminary examinations, the babies are returned to the mothers rather than left in nurseries, as in the old days.
There has also been better staff training throughout the industry, according to Rabun, who says that he has conducted more than 1,000 audits of birthing centers over the last 20 years. In discussions with some hospital administrators, he has pointed out that there used to be more security for a pack of AA batteries in a hospital gift shop than there was for newborns in the maternity ward. These days in New York hospitals, according to Hernandez, periodic drills are conducted "to test the systems and staff responses."
Not insignificantly, in the competitive 24-hour news cycle, media have paid more attention to these abductions in recent years than would have been typical in 1987 after a black baby was stolen from a hospital that was itself on financial life support amid a crime wave.
Recalling those days, Elaine Rivera, a journalism professor at Lehman College in New York City and a former police reporter for New York Newsday and the New York Daily News, says, "It was insane. There was no control." This was a time when there were at least a half dozen homicides a day, and with all that Wild West violence, emergency rooms were overflowing. "You had a very stressed hospital system, and there are going to be a lot of distractions."
Keith Wright, a New York state legislator who represents part of Harlem and whose daughter was born in Harlem Hospital a month after Carlina's disappearance, says, "The crack epidemic was at an all-time high. Crack was ravaging -- ravaging -- the community."
That was then. The system is not foolproof at medical facilities, and severe budget cuts at all levels of government could affect what strides have been made. Still, says Rivera, reflecting on the Carlina White case, "The likelihood of that happening today is far less," in part because "we live in a more security-prone society since 9/11."
Says Wright, "I would bet you dollars to doughnuts it would not happen at Harlem Hospital today. Those folks they have, the security folks, they take their jobs very, very seriously. Even when I'm in a suit and tie -- and they know me! -- they want to see my pass and my identification."
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a frequent contributor to The Root. In the 1990s she reported on Harlem Hospital's problems.