Netty Nance is 24 but can seem much younger. Her hair dangles in long, wild braids over enormous gold medallion earrings. On her hand, tattooed in thick script, is her daughter’s name, Samani. “She’s my miracle baby,” Netty tells me. “If it wasn’t for me getting pregnant, this never would have come out.” She is referring to the discovery she made, one so dramatic it upended her life and the lives of the people closest to her. She’s spent much of the past year both embracing what she learned and trying to wish it away.
Seven years ago, Netty was a senior in high school living in a poor section of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and got pregnant. By the fall, she couldn’t hide it anymore, and didn’t want to. She was excited. Her cousin Brittany was pregnant, too, and now they could be mothers together. But she needed prenatal care, and to get free services from the state, she had to have a birth certificate. Her father, Robert Nance, was a sometime drug dealer who only saw Netty now and then. It was her mother, Ann Pettway, who raised and supported her. But when Netty asked her mother how to get the documents, Ann brushed her off. “She said she was going to handle it,” Netty says.
Netty got tired of waiting. She searched through Ann’s things, found a document with her name and birth date on it, and brought it to the Bureau of Vital Statistics in New Haven. The clerk couldn’t find her records. Netty was furious. But when she pressed, a supervisor all but accused her of trying to assume a false identity. She told Netty that if she kept trying to pass off what she had as I.D., she might be arrested. Netty exploded. “Keep it,” she said, and left the office.
When Netty got home, she told her mother what had happened. Ann shook her head. “I told you I was going to handle everything,” she said.
Before long, the Department of Children and Families called the house for Netty’s mother. Netty wasn’t privy to what they talked about. They might have just asked about the paperwork, or they might have mentioned that without proper I.D., Netty would need to enter their system, becoming a ward of the state. Whatever they spoke about, Ann called Netty several days later, before leaving work, and told her she wanted to talk to her when she came home.
When Ann came through the door that night, she went straight upstairs to Netty’s room, sat down on the bed, and started weeping. In her whole life, Netty had never seen her mother shed a tear. “What are you crying for?” Netty asked.
“Your mom left you,” Ann Pettway told her, “and she never came back.”
It was a full seven years before Netty learned the rest of her story. Her real name was Carlina White. She had been abducted as a newborn baby, nineteen days after her birth, from Harlem Hospital and never seen again. And Ann Pettway was not only not Netty’s real mother—according to the police, she was her kidnapper.
Carl Tyson has large, bright eyes and caramel-colored skin. The resemblance to Netty is unmistakable. We’re having lunch at a diner near his home in Queens. The whole time Netty was missing, he tells me, he never lost faith. “I always felt that my daughter was going to come back. I didn’t know when, but I knew. Joy was the same way. She always had that feeling.”
Joy White and Carl Tyson had been the first couple among their friends to have a baby. It was 1987. Carl was 22, driving a truck and working nights in a parking garage. Joy was 16 and still in high school. They had grown up in Harlem housing projects across town from one another, and were together a year when Joy called Carl at work one day, saying she felt sick. The pregnancy wasn’t planned, but the couple stayed together. Carlina Renae White was born at Harlem Hospital on the afternoon of July 15, a healthy eight pounds.
Joy and her mother took care of the baby at her place; Carl stopped by at night after work. But on August 4, when Carlina was 19 days old, she developed a high fever. Joy called Carl, and they took the baby back to Harlem Hospital. On their way in, Carl remembers being directed by a heavyset black woman in her twenties wearing a nurse’s uniform. Carl didn’t think much about it at the time, but he’d glanced around for her name tag and couldn’t find one.
The doctor wanted Carlina to spend the night, and Carl searched for a phone to call their mothers. When he looked back down the hall, he saw the woman in the nurse’s uniform again, talking with Joy. “The baby don’t cry for you—you cry for the baby,” the nurse told Joy. She seemed to be saying that the baby was fine; it was Joy who needed help. It struck Carl as a strange way to console a young mother.
The couple decided that Joy would spend the night at the hospital, but first Joy wanted to get some things. They left together at about 12:30 a.m., about the same time as the nurses’ shift change. Carl dropped off Joy at her mother’s apartment, went home, and fell asleep.