' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Whatever happened to Carlina White?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Whatever happened to Carlina White?

Father, daughter and mother reunited 
Remember Carlina White? The girl who was abducted in 1987 from a New York City hospital and raised by another woman as her own in Connecticut? After "Nejdra Nance"--the name she grew up with--was pregnant herself at sixteen, she needed her birth certificate to get aid for pre-natal care, but her mother was elusive about it. Netty--the name she went by--eventually found a paper she thought was her birth certificate, but it turned out to be false. She knew something was wrong but when Netty confronted Ann Pettway, the woman who raised her, Pettway told her that her mother was a crack addict who deserted her and never came back. It was a lie, a lie that would take years to unravel.

Seven years later, after looking through pictures at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Netty she found a picture of a baby that looked startlingly like her own daughter shortly after birth--and everybody said how her daughter looked just like her!

The rest of the story is that yes, Netty was that baby, she had been abducted from Harlem Hospital by Ann Pettway, and raised as her daughter. In 2011, DNA conclusively proved "Nejdra Nance" was the daughter of Joy White and Carl Tyson who had disappeared in the early hours of August 5, 1987.

At the time of reunion, media was all over the story, because as far as anyone could recall, no child in American history had ever been missing longer before being reunited with her parents. Lifetime eventually did a movie about the case and what happened after, Abducted: The Carlina White Story, which was re-run a few months ago when The Baby Thief first aired. I taped it at the time but didn't watch it until a few days before Christmas when everything else consists of reruns and sing-along specials.

What is striking throughout the aftermath of the reunion is how closely it hews to what happens in a reunion after adoption: joy and elation, the welcome of a "lost" child to an entire family; the strangeness of it all to the reunited child, now adult, who has conflicted feelings; the frequent opportunities for misinterpretation of gestures, or the least gift from a biological parent; the overwhelming emotions the reunited child feels towards her real family; the sense of belonging and guilt towards the family she was raised by and in; and, with good graces and willingness, finally, perhaps, a sense of finding your own place and identity, an identity forged by both biology and environment. In the movie, Carlina/Netty says: "I'm not Carlina, I'm not Nejdra. Netty feels more like me. The name that feels most like home."

Adoptees who know their mothers named them, but grew up with a different name, must have that same sense: the new name feels odd, the old doesn't feel right. I've seen so many cases of adoptees who change their names legally to either what it would have been, or to a combination of, as well as reunited adoptees who keep trying out different names to see what feels right.

Sarah is the name I would have given my daughter if I had raised her. Fellow blogger Jane chose another biblical name, Rebecca. In rather bizarre way, Sarah is connected to adoption, something I was unaware of at the time. Sarah is the name of the woman who, according to the Bible, was the barren wife of Abraham, who had a son bore by Hagar, Ishmael when Abraham was like 90. Relations between Sarah and Hagar did not work out so well, and after Sarah did have her own son, Isaac,  Hagar and Ishmael were cast out. Wouldn't you know it?  Ishmael didn't really see a resurgence until Herman Melville used the name for the main human character in Moby Dick. But I digress.

The story of Carlina White/Nejdra Nance is different from one of adoption because Carlina was never meant to be adopted. The anger that Carlina's biological mother has toward Ann Pettway, who was sentenced to 12 years in 2012, is unquestionable and unquestionably deserved. Likewise, first birth mothers who were promised open adoptions--and then find them closed--also have reason for the bottomless anger they feel after being tricked into giving up their babies with the expectation of openness is just as deserved. The rest of us, who were at least conscious when we signed away our children? That's a hard nut. Whatever the reason--parental insistence, societal condemnation, a sense of being totally overwhelmed by the prospect of raising a child--feel a whole gamut of emotions to the parents who raised our children, from gratitude to jealousy. Their feelings towards first mothers is typically some amount of fear, fear that they will "lose" their children. For a good reunion--with the least amount of grief for the "child"--both sets of parents need to rein in whatever antagonisms toward each other might bubble up.

Abducted, the movie--certainly made with the cooperation of the main parties involved--ends with the notation that today Netty, who lives in Atlanta, has a strong relationship with Joy and Carl. I found pages for both Carlina Nance and Carlina White on Facebook. Carlina White changed her cover photo to a happy picture of her with Joy and Carl in late November. She has more than 43,000 "likes." Because her page is not public to non-friends, we don't know if this is mostly a fan page or a page she actively uses for her personal life. In a 2011 piece about the case in New York magazine, Netty says she is happy she knows the whole truth: "There was a part of me that wasn't even there, and now I feel whole. Even in the beginning of the year, with all the drama and stuff, I was kind of cloudy. But now I know who I am. That's the main thing--just to find out where you come from and who you are." I couldn't help think of this line from the Rolling Stones: You might not always get what you want, but you get what you need. 

In several places in the piece, the many similarities between mother and daughter are noted: "...they made lists of mannerisms and habits they shared." Joy, the mother, says: "She's just like me. We like the same colors. We like our houses to be clean. We can't go to sleep without the dishes being washed." Daughter Netty says: "When I look at [Joy], I can see me. With that other lady, I would always be searching for stuff we had in common, but I had nothing in common with her."

As we end the year, Jane and I hope that many many more of those searching for their whole selves--whether that be one's parents or one's child--find whom they are looking for. Adopted individuals say they are often looking for that wholeness that Netty spoke of; we first mothers who lost our children to adoption and do not know them are also looking for completeness when we search. True, we know our identities, unless we too are adopted, we know our ancestors, but we do not know what is to become of our whole identity into the next generation. We search for answers to the same kinds of questions in reverse that the adopted search for: wholeness. They need to know where they came from, we need to know where we are going.--lorraine
PS: No further news about whether or not Melanie and Matt Copabianco have adopted a second child. The response from Target today was not informative. If anyone has confirmation, or absolute denial, please email us at forumfirstmother@gmail.com, and/or leave a comment.

Abducted: The Carlina White Story
Carlina White
Kidnapped at Birth
Carlina White Solves her Own Kidnapping, Amazing Reunion 1/20/20

Kidnapped Daughter reunites with her family
What's the difference between being adopted and being abducted

Second-Chance Mother: A Memoir of Adoption, Loss and Reunion 
Denise Roessle's story of a search and reunion is a compelling look at the devastating and long-lasting effects of adoption that reunion alone cannot "cure." Vividly illustrates how separation affects not only the mother and child, but all family members across generations. This reunion is complete with troubles, and the ups and downs that follow when you find less than untroubled individual. Recommended for anyone going into a reunion--mother or child. 



  1. I wonder if the fact that Carlina White was kidnapped rather than relinquished helped her develop a strong relationship with her parents because she didn't have to deal with the fact that she was given away. She also didn't have to feel grateful to Ann Pettway, the woman who stole her. In other words, White didn't have the push-pull between her two sets of parents that some adoptees express.

    1. She actually has had quite a hard time with both her parents and Ann Pettway. No matter what, a child will feel like he/she was abandoned, even in a case like this. Put yourself in her shoes... it had to be tougher than anyone could imagine.

  2. Names are important. They are an integral part of our identities.

    When asked, "Who are you?," our first response is normally to give our names.

    So, it astounds me when APS have no qualms about changing the names of their children. Especially for children who have gone through foster care, their names are among the few constants they have.

    When APs change names, what does that signal to the children? Do the children then believe that they are not good enough because their names weren't good enough? What else isn't good enough? What else are these children expected to change about themselves? The children may wonder what else isn't good enough.

    It all reminds me of a scene from Hitchcock's Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart wanted Kim Novak to change everything about herself, including her hairstyle and color. He said, "It can't matter to you." She wanted him to love her, so she allowed him to change her hair, even though it clearly hurt her.

    For many of us, names do matter.

    1. I think "APs" want to feel like the child is theirs, so they choose a name they would have given a biological child. I'm not saying it's right, it's just true. And in the case of Carlina White, obviously she wanted to make it harder for her to be found.

  3. What strikes me most about this story is how Netty's abductor was perfectly happy for Netty to believe she was abandonned by her real mother (who 'deserted her'); that her real mother was probably someone who people tend to avoid or dislike ('a drug addict') and who obviously didn't care about Netty (as she 'didn't come back').

    All so that the abductor could have what she wanted and felt entitled to - a baby, and a motherhood role.

    The thing is, I think this is a full-volume scenario of a dynamic that happens quietly and subtly and frequently in the homes of many adopted people.

    The messages of why they are where they are involves a trashing of the real mother's character, and a dismissal and negation of her deep emotional attachment to her child.

    On reunion, my son was astonished that I wasn't some slob living off welfare on some hopeless estate somewhere. Where had he got that idea? He was surprised (and relieved) that I liked poetry and art. Why was he surprised? I gave him up when I was 16 - I wasn't yet anybody, not yet fully formed as a person, yet he already had a picture of me that was feckless, hopeless and unembraceable. He got that idea from somewhere.

    1. Cherry, you may be a wonderful person as an adult however that sixteen year old was reckless, and that baby boy paid for your recklessness. You come across like his image of you was so unreasonable. I also was adopted and had similar images of my birth mother I think it may be due to not being able to fathom why anyone would be irresponsible enough to get pregnant with a baby they then give away so they can then go on to do whatever they want too without ever knowing what happened to their own flesh and blood.

    2. Yo! That is rather tough on women who feel they had no choice but to give their child up. Many of them search for years, and carry this sorrow around like a cross. I urge you to do some more reading about the times when birth control was not so accessible and the pressure to give up a child if you were not married was enormous. ENORMOUS.

  4. It's a sad story and even more sad because I have read that netty stopped speaking to her biological parents for some time because the settlement money they got from hospital when age was little was now gone.

    1. Sadly, Anonymous, this seems to be common - money being an issue.

  5. I've written it before, but here goes again: Because my daughter had epilepsy, and all they knew was that I was Polish (and they did not know she was also half Irish), my daughter's adoptive mother thought I might be institutionalized. Instead, I had been a big deal at my university and was a newspaper reporter who had an affair with the star political reporter on the paper. Quelle difference.

  6. Speaking of names, my son's adopters so conveniently named their biological son they had three years later the same name I gave my son.

    Don't tell me that was pure coincidence. That was just yet another way for them to control the narrative of our lives and be assured he would never connect to his first given name, because it was not his "brother's."

  7. Anonymous: Not sure about the money being the problem--Netty did ask about the trust fund her parents set up for her voluntarily from the settlement they received from Harlem Hospital--which was a half of the total amount--but they dissolved it when she turned 21, pretty much having given up she would ever turn up. They are not wealthy people, they had split up long ago, and they simply used the money.

    Both in the movie and in stories I've read, Netty says she asked about it, but it was not the only or main reason there was friction. Like anybody who suddenly finds herself with a "new" family, she needed time and had conflicted feelings about her new identity.

    Sounds familiar, right?

    1. They dissolved the $$$ 5 years before her 21 birthday. HHC/Harlem Hospital fought vigorously against that.

      Look many people might find Carlina/Netty wrong for being upset over the settlement money but I cannot blame her. They didn't abide by the settlement although both mother and father had received 1/3 of the settlement after the lawyers got their lion's share.

    2. Pia, seriously? First the money was for payment for the child - but for the parents pain. At what point was it Netty's? No offense, but it seems to me that if a parent is paid to take care of something, that is one thing. This was a settlement for pain and suffering of the PARENTS - my understanding is that the parents set up the trust with hope and gave up ... which is understandable.

    3. Pia I totally agree with Lori. she wasn't entitled to the money. They started the trust fund on their own. And, who would think after 21 years that their child would ever be found? What would you do??? The same thing.. probably even spend it 'way before that.

  8. Phoenix Rising: What you describe is terrible of the parents, because, knowing your story, they knew they name you wanted to give your son. Their naming the biological son that name was pure perversity. I am so sorry it added to his and your grief.

    1. Yes perversion, I to am sorry. Very sad indeed for all.

  9. Confused. Why would you being Polish indicate that you were in an institution?

  10. Ellen - reunited first motherDecember 31, 2013 at 9:51 PM

    I, too, cannot make the connection between being Polish and institutionalized.

  11. There is no link between being Polish and institutionalized--I was merely saying that all they knew about me was that I was Polish. But that was only half of my daughter's heritage--her father, Patrick, was 100 percent Irish. She would have liked to know this--as would have her parents, as her mother is Scottish and that closeness geographically at least was not so foreign as: Polish.

  12. There used to be a lot of prejudice in this country towards Polish people. As recently as the 1980s, when I was growing up, I remember hearing Polish jokes, about how dumb Polish people supposedly were. This was typified by Archie Bunker, who would constantly refer to his son-in-law as "a dumb Pollock."

    I think this stereotype had its origin in two places. The first is that Poland was invaded, partitioned and wiped off the map for years, from the late 1700 until the treaty of Versailles, at the end of World War I. Then they were quickly flattened by Germany and the Soviet Union at the onset of the Second World War. American love a winner, and militarily speaking, Poland was definitely not a winner.

    The second reason why some people might erroneously make a connection between Polish ancestry and mental illness is because of two high profile people. A woman named Anna Anderson, real name Franziska Schanzkowska, was the most high profile of all the Anastasia imposters--women claiming to be the child of Czar Nicholas II, who supposedly survived the Soviet execution squad. There were many people who believed her claim, and there was even a TV movie about her, that starred Amy Irving, Olivia de Havilland, Omar Sharif and Susan Lucci. In reality, this woman was quite mad and was repeatedly institutionalized as "a danger to herself and others."

    Also, it was widely, and credibly, speculated that Jack the Ripper was of Polish origin.

    So I am sure that a lot of people bought into the prejudice of the day and were easily persuaded that there might be a linkage between Polish genes and mental instability.

  13. Again: While I agree there was a lot of Polish prejudice in the 60s, 70s and even the 80s, the institutionalized bit came from my daughter having epilepsy. But I agree, her APs might not have been so quick to put me in a nut house if I had the same heritage as they did. Not Polish.

  14. Hi Lorraine,

    I thought about this post after watching the movie 'like father, like son'. I don't know if it has been released in the US but I found it excellent and very moving. Wether you would agree with it, I don't know, but I'd be interested to hear your opinion.
    It's not about adoption or child kidnapping, but about an exchange of babies at hospital shortly after birth, and what happens when the families are told about it 6 years later (sorry, difficult to explain without spoiling it!)


  15. i remember watching this movie thinking oh this is going to be about the skanky real parents not having a right to their child and the nurse being the good adoptress who raised the child right. i think about myself and other moms who did everything in their power to fight the adoption and being forever hailed as the evil real mom. that here is an adoption story similar to so many, and the nurse is charged and in our tortured lives we are claimed the villain in such very similar circumstances. it is ironic.

  16. My mother signed a note to her Welfare case worker. She was tricked into giving her the baby until she got her life in order when my mother was 15. When she went back the lady didn’t work there and the family disappeared. My mother was the child of migrant workers and didn’t have the support to look for her baby girl. My sister found us in 1988. There are Happy Endings to many stories out there including my family’s story.



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