Where do Kids fit in Kidnapping?

What with Seb Coe’s Sports Day dominating the news at the moment, it was only by chance that I noticed this story: Ann Pettway, convicted of kidnapping a 19-day-old child from a hospital 23 years ago, has been sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Pettway’s defence team had suggested that the child, Carlina White, had been brought up in a stable, loving and happy home; this was disputed by the prosecution.  But we can imagine all kinds of questions based on this sort of scenario: if A kidnaps a child from B, and provides that child with a better life than it would have had had it stayed with B, would that be a defence?  A mitigation at least?  In effect, this is what happens (or, at least, is the intention) when a child is taken into care.  Clearly, there’s a difference in that such removals are endorsed by the law and the state; but if that’s the only difference, then the kidnapping itself seems to have dropped out of moral contention – who did it becomes much more important.

Anyway: there’s something else – related to these questions, I suppose – that struck me about the way that this case has been reported.  It has to do with how we think about family dynamics, the role of the family, and the status of children.  It’s the matter of who the victim is.

Much attention has been paid to Joy White, Carlina’s biological mother.  So, for example, the New York Daily News has an article that emphasises Joy’s distress:

“I had only spent 19 days with my daughter,” Joy White told Ann Pettway as family members on both sides stifled sobs or formed their hands in prayer.

“I bathed her. I changed her. I put lotion on her. I put bows in her hair. She got a 104-degree fever, and we brought her to the hospital, and the doctors said she would have to be treated for a week. How could anybody rip intravenous tubes out of a sick baby and take her?


“Every day I wondered, would the person treat her like a mother? Every day I wondered, was my baby fed? Doctors gave me sleeping pills, but sleep never came.”

White didn’t get to see her daughter’s first steps, or help her blow out birthday candles. She didn’t get the hugs, the kisses, the valentines drawn with crayon. She couldn’t help her shop for her prom dress. But maybe there was a reason she was named Joy: at least, Carlina didn’t die when she was stolen, feverish, from the nursery. She’s alive.

Now, admittedly, it’s possible that attention is being paid to Joy because Carlina seems to have distanced herself from the whole case.  This seems understandable to me; Carlina could quite coherently treat Pettway as her “true” mother in at least some sense – it was Pettway who, after all, brought her up and socialised her – in which case, it wouldn’t be surprising that she’d want to avoid close involvement with the trial, for pretty much the same reason that anyone would want not to get too close to a high-visibility trial in which their mother-in-some-sense would probably end up going to jail.  So already there’s a range of interesting questions suggested here about “true” motherhood (or parenthood) and what that implies.

But even so… Suppose you or I were kidnapped.  There wouldn’t be much question but that you or I were the victim of the crime.  Our families might attract sympathy, but they wouldn’t be the centre of moral attention.  Now go back to the A and B example from a moment ago, in which B’s child actually ends up benefitting from the kidnap.  We’ll assume that the child was too young to have formed any deep attachment to B, and so would not be traumatised by the move.

In a sense, it would be strange to describe the child as the victim of a kidnapping, just as it would be strange to describe a child taken into care as a victim of that process (again, assuming that it goes well).  Note that this would be the case even if B was, overall, a good enough parent, despite being not quite as good a parent as A: the child would still be better off after the kidnapping, albeit not by as much; so its status as a victim would still be open to question.

So we seem to be left with two options: either there’s no victim to this crime, or the victim is B.  The first option is counterintuitive.  The second is also a bit strange – but we do seem to focus on the distress of parents of the very young if and when they’re kidnapped in a way that we don’t in respect of those who’re older.

All of which raises a question: what’s the gradient of the shift in attention?  What is it that leads us to worry more about the child than the parent?  When does that happen, and is that point morally important?  Does the child only really matter when it can be distressed by the kidnap?  And if it is better off as a result, what happens then?

What’s the place of the kid in the kidnap?

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