It was a real-life thriller that started in 1987. Carolina White, a 19-day-old baby, was suffering from high fever, and was taken to the Harlem Hospital Center in New York by her parents. There a woman in the guise of a nurse abducted Carolina from the hospital. She was then raised as ‘Nejdra Nance’ in Bridgeport city, Connecticut, just 45 miles away from her original house, where she knew the kidnapper as her mother. In 2005, when she was pregnant with her daughter, Nejdra came to know that her birth certificate had been forged, and accordingly it became useless for health insurance purposes. In a confrontation with her kidnapper cum palanquin mom, Nejdra came to know that she was abducted as an infant. She started the quest to find her identity at the age of 23. On the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), she found huge resemblance between the photo of kidnapped Carolina in 1987 to the childhood photo of her daughter ‘Samani’. The missing link was re-established in January 2011, when a DNA test confirmed that Nejdra was indeed the abducted Carolina White. Child abduction is certainly a new thing. It happens around the globe. A Hollywood comedy movie of the mid-nineties, ‘Baby’s Day Out’, was quite popular in South Asia. It’s a funny story about three villains trying to kidnap a child of a wealthy family. The real-life abductions are certainly not so funny; they are quite scary, on the contrary. And a story like that of Carolina White is extremely rare. Quite often the style of infant abduction from hospitals is quite similar; the security at hospitals is too fragile in most cases. In July 2009, a woman in the guise of a nurse abducted a one-day-old newborn from a hospital in Chandrapur area of Maharashtra. A similar case occurred in a Gujarat hospital in June 2016. These incidents resemble the story of Carolina White. In such cases, the event of abduction was known, and could be recorded. However, there are many incidences which are unknown even to the parents, such as the child trafficking cases that unfolded in end-2016 in Kolkata and nearby places. Understandably, it is impossible to guess the number of such cases. A child is lost every eight minutes in our country, from the poor families in most cases. Ninety per cent of them are trafficked within the country, and the remaining 10 per cent abroad. Clearly there is a lot of money involved.
In future, these children will be begging on the streets, they’ll be working as child labour, many will be victims of sexual abuse, and some will be raised as terrorists as well. However, such a picture is not exclusive to a developing country like India. Six-year-old Itan Patz disappeared on his way to a school bus stop in Lower Manhattan on 25 May 1979. Four years later, President Ronald Reagan designated May 25 as National Missing Children’s Day in the United States. In the US, as per NCMEC, an estimated 308 newborns were abducted from 1983 to November 2016. Carolina White was one of them. Forty three percent of the abductions were from hospitals, just like Carolina; a nurse or a health worker was behind the abductions in 73 per cent cases. The NCMEC database with pictures helps to rescue many children. However, such a useful database is lacking in our country. There is no complete information of such child abduction cases in India. On 5 February 2013, a Supreme Court bench had remarked: “Nobody seems to care about missing children. This is the irony.” The total number of reported missing and abduction of children from the reports of National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) is nearly half a million to almost a million annually across the country in the last few years. About 55 per cent of the lost children, and more than 90 per cent of the trafficked children are girls. This gender discrimination clearly indicates the underlying intention. About 40 per cent of the lost children never return, a part of them are certainly kidnapped. Some believe that almost half the cases are not reported to NCRB. If so, the true position may be even worse. The style of child abduction cases reported in the newspapers in late 2016 from Baduria and Thakurpukur in West Bengal were terrifying. Some nursing homes were also reportedly involved in the conspiracy. With families failing to understand the abduction, it is impossible to guess the exact statistics of such incidences. The investigation and trial on this sort of crime is time-consuming, and the law takes its own course. Many people get caught – doctors and ayahs among them – but it is often too late. With some children having been murdered, and some rescued children having been found to be with thalassemia and cerebral palsy, the situation is scary, indeed. The writer is Professor of Statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.