Real Life

‘My baby snatcher nightmare’

As a single mum, Antoinette Flattery-Donohoe knew it would be a challenge to bring up her baby girl Aaliyah on her own. But she was confident she could do it and as she waited to leave the maternity unit at St George’s Hospital in Christchurch, she gazed lovingly at the newborn asleep in her arms. “I’ll keep you safe, Aaliyah,” she promised silently. So when a young woman came into the hospital room not long after and told Antoinette she was a student midwife who was taking the baby for a blood test, the 27-year-old was immediately on her guard. “She was dressed in a white top and black pants, similar to the other staff, but it wasn’t actually a uniform,” remembers Antoinette, thinking back to that terrible day eight months ago.

“Normally, the students come in with a midwife and I thought it was a bit weird that she was alone. Also, another midwife and student had been looking after me so I felt something was wrong. Plus, she didn’t introduce herself.” Thankfully, Antoinette listened to her instincts and refused to hand Aaliyah over to the stranger. “I said, ‘No, it’s all right. I’ll get my own midwife to do it,'” she recalls, still shaken by the memory. “She looked a bit annoyed that I hadn’t given my daughter over to her and just stared at me for a few seconds, then asked, ‘Do you need anything else?’ and walked out.” Antoinette now looks back on those moments with a sense of both horror and utter relief.

Aaliyah was one of three babies targeted by baby snatcher Rachel oarie French (21) when she entered the hospital maternity department in December last year with a nappy, blanket, dummy and baby clothing. Determined to live out her fantasy of being a mum, French was willing to go to any lengths to get a baby. Another new mum also refused to let French take her baby away, but the abductor managed to talk a third woman into handing over her two-day-old son. She had walked only a few metres up the corridor when a nurse stopped her, as it was against hospital policy to carry a baby around the ward. Luckily, the boy was returned to his mother, who had no idea how close she had come to losing her baby to a stranger.

At the same time, a vigilant dad had reported French’s suspicious behaviour and hospital staff soon realised there had been an abduction attempt. “Everybody was panicking because people realised she had been in there trying to get a baby, and was on her way out of the hospital,” Antoinette recalls. “Police were swarming all over the place and she was caught as she tried to leave by the back door of the hospital.” Rachel French admitted to unlawfully taking a baby with intent to deprive a mother of possession of her child and was sentenced to 250 hours community work and 18 months supervision.

Judge Raoul Neave described French as a very disturbed young woman and lifted name suppression to bring home to her the impact her actions had on others. “There does seem to be a distinct element of living in a fantasy world,” he told French. “Part of that involved a desire to have children and it seems you chose this particular way to satisfy that need.” In sentencing, it was taken into account that she had been in custody for 43 days after the abduction while extensive psychiatric reports were prepared, and that this was the equivalent of a jail term. Antoinette says she understands French had been trying to have a baby herself, without success. But despite knowing the would-be kidnapper was driven to desperate measures by her inability to conceive, Antoinette cannot forgive her for her actions at the hospital that day.

“She couldn’t have her own baby so she decided to take someone else’s instead. She was trying to kidnap three little newborns and that continues to bother me,” says Antoinette, who also has an elder daughter, Claudia (9). The trauma of the day her baby was almost taken continues to haunt Antoinette, who lives with her supportive parents. “I’m really wary about leaving my daughter,” she says hesitantly. “It takes a person five seconds to snatch a baby and then they’re gone. I only leave Aaliyah with my family members. I have a new partner who is really supportive and helps me a lot, but I still take her everywhere with me. “I was really paranoid when I first came home. I just wanted to stay locked up in the house. I don’t trust anyone now – no matter who they are or what they say.”

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