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Hospital policy could be reactionary or cautionary

Friday, January 18, 2008 | 5:00 p.m. CST; updated 8:14 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Tom Warhover is the Columbia Missourian's executive editor for innovation.

Once upon a time, you could be sure your name would be in the newspaper twice: once when you’re born, once when you die. No more. As Sarah Jackson reported in the Missourian on Tuesday, MU Health Care’s Columbia Regional Hospital won’t be sending birth announcements to newspapers.

The reason cited by the hospital: safety. It fears bad people could find infants through the listings and then snatch them out of the hospital or from homes.

Is the fear justified?

Sarah’s story quoted figures from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: since 1983, four infant abductions by strangers have been linked to published birth announcements.

I asked another reporter to slog through some more data. From 1983 through 2006, there have been 95,157,951 births in the country, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That doesn’t include births to non-residents. The 1983 and 1984 numbers include some estimates.

I have no way to tell how many of those 95 million births made their way into newspaper announcements, but you get the drift. With just four related kidnappings, it doesn’t add up.

Jo Ann Wait, who runs the public relations department at the hospital, told me that policy makers there wanted to err on the side of caution. She also recalled for me a kidnapping in 2006 in Franklin County. A woman slashed a new mom at her home and took her 7-day-old girl. There was some discussion over whether a “Welcome Home Abby” sign in the yard contributed. (Abby was found a few days later, according to articles in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

As I write, dear reader, I think about my kids. Would I be willing to take a 1-in-millions risk for the simple joy of celebrating their births with strangers in the community? And, what if my child was one of the four?

The simple fact is that I send them out in the world with much higher risks every day. My son goes off to college in the fall. My daughter will start driving this year. I worry about them every minute.

I can fault Columbia Regional for overreacting even while I understand the “one is too many” logic. Another argument — many hospitals are going this route — is less compelling. I don’t let my kids use the everyone-is-doing-it excuse.

I even can put some of the blame back on the news media, which too often reports the bizarre without context. It leaves citizens without the information they need to determine risks. We need facts to fight the fear, as a former editor of mine liked to say.

The Missourian will continue to report birth announcements from Boone Hospital Center. Its policy makers are also discussing whether to change its policy. I hope the trustees see beyond the fear while finding other ways to keep children safe. After all, the birth of a child is cause for all Columbians to celebrate.


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