Right to privacy begins at hospital Births: Once an occasion for joyful public announcement, the arrival of a baby is fast becoming a secretive event.

November 08, 1997|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

If a child is born in Annapolis today, there'll be no way to prove it for a century.

Last week, Anne Arundel Medical Center became the latest local hospital to put an end to the long-standing tradition of announcing births. Nurses took the action in accord with a campaign by the controversial National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has linked birth announcements and lax hospital security to infant abductions.

A check of U.S. Census and law enforcement records shows that of the more than 50 million babies born over the past 11 years, four were abducted in crimes connected to newspaper notices -- all more than four years ago.

"There is definitely privacy hysteria at this point," Rebecca Daugherty, director of the Freedom of Information Service Center in Arlington, Va., said about the Anne Arundel policy. "Who exists in a society is one of the building blocks of a society."

In 1987, however, Maryland law closed all birth records until 100 years after a child's birth. While the State Archives maintains some indexes for people born before 1950, most are incomplete, lacking either names or places of birth.

For decades, hospitals around Baltimore sought parental consent and then publicized births, supplying a supplemental source of information about people.

Now, many are sending out no announcements at all and are "strongly urging" parents not to draw attention to their new children in any way. Don't tape balloons to mailboxes, stand cardboard storks in the yard, or let anyone but close friends in to coo over the newborn.

These extreme measures are the recommendations of the national center, a 13-year-old nonprofit organization also based in Arlington, Va., which came under attack in the 1980s for exaggerating by tens of thousands the number of children being abducted annually and causing widespread fear about kidnapping. Center officials say now that care must be exercised in the face of a "growing number of infant abductions."

"If we had our way, we would say don't ever, ever, ever put a birth announcement in the paper," said Cathy Nahirny, supervisor of the center's Case Analysis and Support Division spearheading the campaign. "I'd love for us to be able to use detailed birth announcements, but our society has changed. All it takes is one."

Local police and sheriff's deputies involved in three of the four baby-snatchings verified -- in South Carolina, South Dakota, Florida and Oregon -- said they only suspected the kidnapper hunted down victims in a newspaper. One officer questioned whether the newspaper notice was used at all. All four babies were recovered from women desperate for their own child.

Bruce Hulme, former president of the National Council of Investigations and Security Services, an association of private investigation firms that frequently worked with the center in tracking abducted children, can't understand the center's new strategy.

Nearly a quarter of the requests private investigators receive, Hulme estimates, are to find missing children, many of them caught in custody battles. With birth records closing nationwide, newspaper notices offer leads to investigators. The notices also help locate missing heirs and distant relatives of children who need transplants.

"If it's logical to close knowledge of a person's birth, it's just as logical to close everything else," Hulme said. "It's self-defeating. We won't be able to find these children."

Karen Peddicord, clinical administrator of Women's Health Services at Anne Arundel Medical Center, said several nurses approached her a year ago with concerns about encouraging the publication of birth announcements, but it was not until a spokesman from the national center came to speak last month that the hospital decided to change its policy.

"[A spokesman] from the center came out to do a four-hour session with our personnel," Peddicord said. "I put together a meeting with the department afterward to look at everything we do."

The hospital said that in the future they will give new parents a flier listing newspaper addresses -- along with two warnings from the center not to use the addresses.

Carroll County General Hospital is the only hospital left in the Baltimore region still sending out birth announcements. Spokesman Gill Chamblin said the hospital wants to keep publishing birth announcements with parental permission as they always have but feels it has to consider the center's recommendations.

"This is a very small community and people really want their friends and neighbors to know they had a baby," Chamblin said. "But I guess it's something we should do."

Pub Date: 11/08/97

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