Newborn Safety Rules And Why They Apply To Everyone

03.02.12 Was Kennedy above the law or defending his parenting rights?


Every now and then we hear a news story about a baby that’s kidnapped from a maternity ward. It’s rare, it’s terrifying and it freaks parents and hospital staff out. What happens more frequently is when non-custodial parents or parents who aren’t allowed to take their baby home from the hospital (because of criminal activities or because they’ve lost parenting rights) try to sneak their baby out of the hospital. It’s because of these rare events that hospitals have tight newborn security policies. That’s why a news story about Douglas Kennedy, youngest son of Robert F Kennedy, is making headlines.

Apparently, when Mr. Kennedy’s wife and newborn baby were patients at a suburban New York hospital in January, Mr. Kennedy wanted to take his son out for a walk in the fresh air. He says he had permission from hospital personnel and was being accompanied by an emergency room physician who was a family friend. Nurses say he was told he couldn’t take the baby off the unit and he decided to do it anyway. A power struggle ensued and things got crazy.

The nurses tried to block him from leaving the unit and Mr. Kennedy became belligerent. When a nurse tried to touch his baby Mr. Kennedy pushed her with his knee. Now charges have been pressed against Mr. Kennedy for child endangerment and harassment. Because he’s a Kennedy, it’s become a lightening rod story with some television personalities even insinuating that Mr. Kennedy was kidnapping his child and putting him at risk for shaken baby syndrome.

All this just makes me want to scream: Seriously? Is anyone in this ridiculous tussle using common sense? Let’s look at each perspective involved:

Hospital perspective: When patients check in to have their baby, they’re told that in order to ensure their newborn’s safety, they have to keep their baby in the maternity unit. They’re told not to take their child outside or to other areas of the hospital. Some hospitals even have alarm sensors on the babies. That’s so nurses know where all the babies are and that they’re not being exposed to germs, dangers and strangers. Whenever a baby goes missing (and usually, it’s not missing at all, but down in the cafeteria with a clueless family member), the hospital goes into lock down and security protocols are activated. It’s a big deal, because it’s a much bigger deal when a baby really has been kidnapped.

Nurse’s perspective: It’s our job to make sure babies are with the right parents, and aren’t exposed to dangerous situations. It’s also our job to educate and inform parents about security protocols and, to the best of our ability, to enforce them. We can’t be all loosey-goosey with the rules. There are just too many people coming and going from the hospital: patients, families, visitors, hospital staff and, once in a while, people who have no business being anywhere near our babies. Our rules keep bad guys from walking out the door with our highly portable, extremely vulnerable newborns.

I’d say 99.9% of “our parents” are more than happy to comply with the rules. They get it. They don’t have any problem keeping their baby on the unit, if it helps keeps all the babies safe. Occasionally, we get a family member who decides the rules don’t apply to them. They figure since it’s their baby, not ours, they can do whatever they want. Technically, they're right; it is their baby, not ours. They can’t, however, do whatever they want without consequences.

Parent’s perspective: Most parents know that when they come to the hospital, there are rules to follow. For most, it’s no big deal and they’re happy for the help, structure and security measures. They might not like being bossed around, but for safety’s sake, they’ll do as they’re told. Once in a while, however, some nurse will rub a parent the wrong way or some rule will contradict something that’s important to them. It’s when you get that rare combination of an overly bossy nurse and a noncompliant parent that things get sticky. Maybe that’s what happened with the Kennedy family.

Did Kennedy’s baby need fresh air? Uh, no. He would have been just fine staying on the unit. But if Mr. Kennedy and a doctor-friend wanted to take the baby outside, does that constitute child endangerment? No. It might be breaking the rules, but it’s not inherently dangerous. Kennedy’s a father of five. He knows what to do with a newborn. Most dads will go to the ends of the earth to protect their children.

Should those nurses have blocked him? It’s their job to keep babies on the unit. Maybe there was a less confrontational way to handle it. For example, if Mr. Kennedy was adamant about taking his baby outside and refused to comply with the rules, maybe a security guard or nurse could have accompanied them. Once the conflict escalated, maybe they could have gone up the chain of command and asked their charge nurse, nurse manager, or a doctor on the unit to talk to Mr. Kennedy.

Of course, Mr. Kennedy should have complied with the rules and stayed on the unit. It sounds like he acted like a grade-A jerk who was above the law, but that doesn’t make him a kidnapper and maybe the nurses didn’t really have to treat him like he was endangering his child. Maybe that’s why, when nurses got pushy, he got pushy right back. In defense of the nurses, Kennedy started this crazy conflict and they had to do something. But when you get right down to it, this wasn’t a custody dispute and all he wanted to do was take his baby outside. Sure, the rules apply to everyone (even a Kennedy) for darn good reasons. But that doesn’t mean every parent who disregards the rules is a criminal.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to and it may be answered in a future blog post."¨"¨

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