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Kidnapped at Birth


Ann Pettway, center, with Netty, left (c. 1992).  

Just after Christmas, the center reached out to Joy and Carl. Joy was at work when the center e-mailed her photos of Netty. She screamed and cried. “Both of them were adamant, saying this was their daughter,” Allen says. The center contacted the NYPD’s missing-­persons unit. The police took DNA swabs from Carl and Joy on January 6 and went to Georgia for samples from Netty shortly after that. Even before the results were in, Netty decided to call Joy.

Joy was on her way home from work when the phone rang. When she called Netty back, “she had me on speakerphone, with all the aunts. One of the aunts was like, ‘Come home!’ I was happy as hell,” Netty says. “But in the back of my mind, I’m like, What if this is not it?

Then Joy mentioned the birthmark. Netty was overwhelmed. “I said, Wow. This is real now.

Netty asked Joy about her father, and Joy told her about Carl. “I called him, and I talked to him for a while,” Netty says. “But me talking to him was more awkward. The mom had that mother instinct. The dad is like I was talking to a stranger.” She was still elated by the contact.

For two weeks, Joy and Carl were on the phone almost constantly with Netty. “We’re talking, and all of a sudden she’s calling me ‘Dad,’ ” Carl says. “And I’m sitting here saying to myself, I can’t believe it. This is my daughter. That’s my firstborn. And Joy would be trying to call, too, and so she would say, ‘Dad, Mom’s on the phone.’ And I was like, This girl is calling us Mom and Dad!

On Saturday, January 15, Joy paid to fly Netty and Samani to New York to visit. Netty had wanted them to come to her, and Carl had the time—he was home on disability after a truck accident in ­October—but Joy was having trouble taking time off work. As soon as Netty landed, there was a glitch. Carl had agreed to pay for a rental car but couldn’t be there to meet the flight. He says he had a doctor’s appointment for his work injury; Netty says he was traveling to a casino with some friends. When Netty tried to rent the car, the company forbade it. “You have to be 25,” she says. She was starting to get uneasy about the meeting.

When Joy and her sister Lisa White-Heatley came to pick her up, she began to feel better. “They were just staring at me, going, ‘Oh my God! You look like your dad. You look like your mom, but you got your dad’s eyes!’ ” Joy started to cry.

They took a taxi to Joy’s apartment, where Joy made curried chicken, macaroni and cheese, lasagne, and oxtail. All of Joy’s extended family were there. Netty met her sister and brother (Sheena, 18, and Sydney, 21), aunts, cousins, and a grandmother: Joy’s mother, Elizabeth.“She just fits right in,” Elizabeth said later. “She brought her beautiful daughter. It was magic.” For the time being, Netty and Joy steered clear of talking about Ann Pettway and Netty’s childhood. Instead, they searched for traits they had in common and made little lists of mannerisms and habits they shared. They cooked together, watched Samani play with a new set of cousins and aunts and uncles. “It felt like this is where I belonged,” Netty says.

The next morning, Carl went to Joy’s house to meet Netty. “I’m waiting for her to come downstairs, I’m sitting there like a little kid waiting to get his new toy. I’m shaking. Suddenly this girl comes out of the building. I get up out the car, I go up to her. Tears started coming out my eyes. She said, ‘Dad, don’t start crying, don’t start.’ ” When Netty got in Carl’s car, he just kept staring at her. “She said, ‘Do I have something on my face or something?’ I said, ‘No, girl, you don’t understand what me and your mother went through. Just to see you standing here is a blessing.’ ”

But Netty’s unease returned. She still wanted to rent a car, but the outlet she and Carl went to wouldn’t give her one, and Carl wouldn’t rent one on her behalf. It wasn’t legal, and he was afraid of the repercussions if something happened. “She got upset about that,” Carl says. Netty asked Carl to drive her back to Joy’s. He went to an ATM and took out some cash for her to get her hair done. That also rubbed her the wrong way. “Money doesn’t buy me,” Netty says.

Carl told Netty he just wanted to spend some time with her. “She said, ‘I’m 23. What you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Whatever you want.’ She said, ‘Well, I want to get my hair done. What are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘I’ll sit next to you. Twenty-three years I haven’t seen you. I don’t care if you want to sit in the park!’ So we’re sitting there, and she was like, ‘You know, it feels strange having a man here.’ And I said, ‘I ain’t a man, I’m your dad.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, well, the papers haven’t come back yet.’ ”


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