It was a “miracle,” Joy White said. Twenty-three years after her infant daughter, Carlina, was abducted from a New York City hospital by a stranger who raised her as her own, the grieving mother who never gave up hope was at last reunited with her long-lost child, now a grown woman with a daughter of her own.
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But as the international media frenzy has faded in the weeks since Carlina White and her biological family found each other, a cold and painful distance has opened up between them, Joy White told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira in an exclusive interview Tuesday.
“I was on such a high when I first reunited with my daughter,” White said. “I was floating in air. I was so happy and that moment was so great.”
Now, she says, “it’s like we’re two strangers … we don’t know each other.”
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Lost and found
The two decades the young girl spent living as part of another family, the stress of having to come to terms with a new identity and, to some degree, the issue of money have all played a role in keeping White and her daughter strangers, White said.
Carlina was just 19 days old in 1987 when she developed a fever, and White and the infant’s father, Carl Tyson, took her to Harlem Hospital. There, authorities say, they were comforted by a woman posing as a nurse. They left the hospital, but when they returned, their baby was gone.
In the years that followed, White and Tyson never gave up hope that someday they would be reunited with their daughter. In 1992, the City of New York settled a lawsuit the family had filed against it in connection with kidnapping. The family received $750,000. Half of it went to the parents; the other half went into a trust to be paid to Carlina if she were found before she turned 21.
She was not. But in January, at the age of 23, Carlina White found herself.
Now a mother herself, the young woman who had been raised in Connecticut and Atlanta under the name Nejdra Nance had long suspected that Ann Pettway, the woman who purported to be her biological mother, was not. She regularly checked the website of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and, while looking through New York photos, found one that looked nearly identical to her own baby picture. She contacted Joy White through the center.
Joy and Carlina met in New York on Jan. 15 before DNA tests were complete, confident they were mother and daughter. After the test results confirmed it, Nance returned from Atlanta to be with her long-lost family. But, in that short space of time, something had changed, White told TODAY.
Strains behind the scenes
“I think it had a lot to do with the Pettway family,” White said. “She’d been with them for 23 years. That’s her family. I think it’s maybe a lot of pressure on her now, being that she found her mom. It really hurts, you know? It’s an emotional, overwhelming situation.”
While the media touted the reunion as a joyous occasion, behind the scenes, there were strains. Carl Tyson hinted at them in an interview on Jan. 24 with TODAY’s Matt Lauer.Video: Father to alleged kidnapper: Why, for 23 years? (on this page)
“I have joy, yes,” Tyson told Lauer. “I’m happy that now my daughter came back to me. The only problem I’m having is that it’s hard for her to cope with us right now, because she hasn’t been with us for 23 years.”
There were reports that White’s childhood in the Pettway family was not an entirely happy one. Both the New York Post and the Daily News reported at the time that there were allegations of drug abuse in the Pettway household, and allegations that Carlina White may have been beaten, including one incident where she was hit in the face with a shoe.
But White said she did not discuss those allegations with Carlina, and despite those reports, the young woman remains attached to the family that raised her. “She’s with that family and that’s all she knows,” an emotional White told Vieira. “I’m her mother, and it hurts not to have a relationship with her, it really hurts.
“I want my daughter back. I want her here. I want her to spend time with me, and the family, and I want her to get to know me,” White added.Video: Kidnapped woman fighting identity crisis, mom says (on this page)
Money also factors into the gulf between Carlina White and her biological family. The young woman has told her mother that she will not do interviews with the media unless she is paid for it. What’s more, the trust fund that White and Tyson established with proceeds from the settlement they had received in 1992 until Carlina White’s 21st birthday has disappeared. By the time the young woman resurfaced, that money had already been spent.
“It’s gone,” White told Vieira. “We don’t have the money ... we both had to live … Things were like really rocky for me as far as the living situation was concerned … and I have two other kids, a son and a daughter, you know, and I had to take care of myself.”
Joy White said she was “disappointed” that her daughter seems to be placing so much emphasis on money. “I’m disappointed because this was a miracle that happened, it’s breathtaking, it’s mind-blowing, and I just wanted to get that out there, that we found our daughter and we have reunited and I wanted to share that with the world. It really hurts me that it’s about money.”
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In a cruel twist of fate, things might not have had to turn out that way. Six years ago, when Carlina White was 17, Pettway told the Connecticut Department of Children and Families that she was not the girl’s biological mother — an admission that, if it had been followed up, might have led to an earlier reunion between Joy White and her daughter. But Connecticut authorities failed to pursue the matter.
“It hurts me very bad,” White told Vieira.
Pettway remains in custody in Connecticut. Prosecutors were supposed to announce Monday whether a grand jury had returned a federal kidnapping indictment against her, but now prosecutors and the defense have both asked for more time — two weeks to find out what the grand jury decides and how to move forward.
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