Officials from Regions Hospital in St. Paul said the remains had been wrapped in linens in the hospital morgue and somehow were mistaken for laundry that was supposed to be sent out for cleaning. The body was found Tuesday by a laundry service employee.
"This was a terrible mistake, and we are deeply sorry," Chris Boese, the hospital's chief nursing officer, said in a statement. "We have processes in place that should have prevented this but did not. We are working to identify the gap in our system, and to make sure this does not happen again."
The hospital said the baby boy was stillborn on April 4, at 22 weeks of development.
During a news conference, Boese said hospital officials were still trying to reach the child's family - and trying to determine what went wrong.
Regions Hospital, one of the largest hospitals in the Twin Cities, handles about 2,500 births every year, and about 20 to 25 of the infants are stillborn, Boese said. Families of those infants are given the choice of making their own arrangements or allowing the hospital to work with community groups that take care of the burial or cremation.
Boese said patient privacy laws prevented her from saying if this baby's family had expressed a preference.
"We are really sorry and saddened that this event happened," she said, adding that hospital and laundry facility works were being offered counseling. "This has never happened before that I am aware of, this unfortunate event."
Such incidents are rare, though an Associated Press review of news coverage in recent years found accounts of a dozen incidents between 1996 and 2009 at hospitals in the U.S. and Canada. In some cases, the body of a stillborn baby went through the wash before it was found; other cases led to legal action.
The AP search also found several other cases where the remains of stillborn babies were allegedly lost, discarded in the trash or disposed of without the family's knowledge. And in dozens of other cases, the remains were kept in storage for long periods before someone objected or found them.
In the recent Minnesota case, the baby's body was found when it tumbled out of a bed sheet at Crothall Laundry in Red Wing, about 45 miles southeast of St. Paul, according to Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman. Laundry employees called Regions Hospital, which immediately sent workers who collected the remains before police arrived.
Pohlman said there was no indication of foul play. The Ramsey County medical examiner's office was expected to examine the remains.
Bose said it was too early to know if any employees would be disciplined, and that the hospital needed "to do our due diligence."
Boese said the hospital has offered support and counseling to employees of the laundry service, as well as to the hospital workers involved. She said it had been an emotional event for everybody involved.
"That's our No. 1 concern, our patients, our family," Boese said. "We're deeply saddened and troubled that this happened and want to make sure that it never happens again."