HARTFORD, Conn. – Years before a widely publicized reunion between a girl who was snatched from a New York hospital and her birth mother, Connecticut's child protection agency had doubts about the true identity of the girl, who was raised under a false name in Bridgeport, a department spokesman said Saturday.
Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for the Department of Children and Families, said the agency missed an opportunity in 2005 to help solve the disappearance of now 23-year-old Carlina White, who was raised in Connecticut under the name Nejdra Nance by a woman who now faces a federal kidnapping charge.
DCF Commissioner Joette Katz "is convinced that the Department had a greater obligation in supporting Nejdra Nance," Kleeblatt said in a statement.
The DCF inquiry was first reported by The Hartford Courant.
The agency said it opened a file in 2005 involving the girl and Ann Pettway, the woman who was raising her, and provided housing, educational and training assistance.
Kleeblatt said the agency reached out to law enforcement and "communicated directly regarding the question of the identity of the girls' biological parents at the time." He did not say which law enforcement agency was involved or why officials had questions about the girl's identity.
The child protection agency has been under a federal oversight consent decree since 1991, as a result of a 1989 class-action lawsuit that alleged DCF was not adequately investigating reported abuse, was leaving children in dangerous situations and was failing to move children quickly into adoptive homes, among other claims.
Katz, who was a state Supreme Court justice before taking the commissioner's job earlier this month, is using the White case as an example of the need for reform.
"Pointing fingers and placing blame about something that happened 5 years earlier won't change anything," Kleeblatt said. "But going forward, Commissioner Katz is focused on making DCF an agency that approaches the care of our state's children in a holistic manner — communicating not in silos, but across departments and agencies; and making sure that the health and wellbeing of their target population isn't simply about providing services, checking a box, and moving on."
White was 19 days old when her parents took her to Harlem Hospital late on Aug. 4, 1987, with a high fever. Joy White and Carl Tyson said a woman who looked like a nurse had comforted them. The couple left the hospital to rest, but their baby was missing when they went back on Aug. 5, 1987. A police investigation failed to locate the baby.
Carlina White said she had long suspected Pettway wasn't her biological mother because she could never provide her with a birth certificate and because she didn't look like anyone else in Pettway's family.
She periodically checked the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and while looking through New York photos early this month found one that looked nearly identical to her own baby picture. She contacted Joy White through the center.
White and Nance met in New York before DNA tests were complete, confident they were mother and daughter. After the test results confirmed it earlier this month, Nance returned from Atlanta to be with White again.
Pettway, of Raleigh, N.C., confessed to taking the baby during an interview after she surrendered to the FBI and Bridgeport police, FBI agent Maria Johnson said in a criminal complaint. She was arrested on kidnapping charges.
A federal judge in Manhattan ordered Pettway detained Monday after her lawyer, Robert Baum, said no bail application would immediately be made. Because there is no indictment, no plea was necessary. She could face a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison or as much as life if she is convicted.