08.01.12

Convicted Baby-Snatcher Ann Pettway Was Blinded by Selfishness, Doctors Say

Women like Ann Pettway, who was sentenced this week to 12 years in prison for kidnapping infant Carlina White 25 years ago, are often blinded by narcissism and a total lack of empathy, experts tell Lizzie Crocker.

“This was not a crime of greed, this was not a crime of vengeance,” Judge P. Kevin Castel of Federal District Court in Manhattan said Monday when he imposed a 12-year prison sentence on Ann Pettway, who kidnapped baby Carlina White 25 years ago, raised her as her own, and then turned herself in when the young woman reconnected with her birth parents.

“It was an act of selfishness, a crime of selfishness,” one which “inflicted a parent’s worst nightmare on a couple,” Castel concluded. 

Joy White has described meeting Pettway, now 50, on the day her daughter disappeared. The Whites had brought their 19-day-old infant, who had a high fever, to Harlem Hospital in Manhattan on August 4, 1987. Dressed like a nurse, Pettway reportedly told Mrs. White, “Don’t cry. Your daughter is going to be OK.”

Pettway brought the infant to her home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and renamed her Nedjra Nance. In 1998, when Carlina White was 10, Pettway gave birth to a son and raised the two as brother and sister.

After that day in the hospital, Mrs. White didn’t see her daughter again for 23 years. Carlina, who still goes by the name Nance. was living in Atlanta with her own daughter in 2010 when she found a picture of a “missing child” on the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children” that resembled her own baby photographs. She contacted the police and subsequently tracked down her biological parents. [She declined to comment to The Daily Beast for this story.]

As much as the Whites suffered during those 23 years, Pettway’s eerie remark that Carlina would be “OK” was most likely sincere.

“The kidnapper desperately wants the baby, so she’s not looking to abuse the child but to love her,” Dr. Phillip Resnick, director of forensic psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, tells The Daily Beast. “Most snatched babies are well cared for.”

But the desire to nurture is born from blinding selfishness and little or no empathic capacity.

In some instances, Resnick says, women are motivated to kidnap babies out of fear that their boyfriends or husbands will leave them if they cannot conceive.

“The most extreme example of this is when a woman takes another woman’s baby by cesarean section,” says Resnick. “Her selfish desire is so strong that she’s not only willing to sacrifice the mother’s anguish to obtain a baby, but to also sacrifice the mother’s life.” In some instances, Resnick says, women are motivated to kidnap babies out of fear that their boyfriends or husbands will leave them if they cannot conceive.

While few details are known about the men in Pettway’s life, her lawyers argued that their client was severely depressed when she kidnapped White as a result of her inability to properly bear her own child, having allegedly endured several stillbirths and miscarriages since she was 15. They also said Pettway was physically and emotionally abused as a child.

Pettway’s history may partially explain her actions. Needless to say, it doesn’t excuse them.

“In a ‘normal’ person, these painful experiences over a period of years can be digested and resolved by legal means through foster care and adoption,” says Dr. Stephen Reich, Director of the Forensic Psychology Group in New York City. “When these normal coping mechanisms are absent, only the naked inner need for a child is left, which must be satisfied at all costs.”

Reich attributes this behavior to a low “frustration tolerance,” explaining that an upstanding citizen who is unable to conceive but desperately wants a child would be willing to work with agencies and obtain the child through legitimate means. Of course this process can take years, and in many kidnapping cases, the impulsive longing for a child overrides any willingness to deal with the emotional and financial strains of working with a legitimate adoption or foster care agency.

According to Reich, it’s highly probable that individuals who commit crimes like that for which Pettway was sentenced on Monday have borderline personalities. But very few of them are psychotic.

“The individual who does this simply does not care how much damage is inflicted upon others, including the child, as long as her longing and desperate need to have a child is fulfilled,” says Reich, echoing Judge Castel’s words in sentencing Pettway. “It’s narcissism taken to the utmost extreme.”