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OPINION: Jail is too harsh for woman who kidnapped baby 18 years ago

The girl at the centre of the drama needs the woman she knows only as “Mom” now more than ever.

Baby kidnapping cases almost never end well. An exception of sorts is this week’s stunning arrest of Florida woman Gloria Williams, who abducted a baby, Kamiyah Mobley, when the newborn was only eight days old and raised her as her own for 18 years.

But this horrifying case has a chance of ending well if, and only if, the welfare of Kamiyah – who grew up with the name Alexis – is prioritised above all else. And that means neither separating her from the woman who raised her, or burdening her with the guilt of seeing that woman incarcerated.

In 1998 then 33-year-old Gloria Williams suffered a miscarriage. A week later she set out to deliberately kidnap a baby to replace the one she’d lost. She travelled three hours from her home in South Carolina to Florida, walked brazenly into a maternity hospital and walked out with Kamiyah in her arms. The baby wasn’t seen again until this week, when law enforcement raided Gloria Williams’ home in circumstances that are yet to be revealed.

Kamiyah, who was raised as Alexis Manigo by the woman she thought to be her mother, was found alive and by all accounts given a happy, healthy childhood, even if it was with the wrong family. She even defended her ‘kidnapper’, Williams, on Facebook, saying “My mother raised me with everything I needed and most of all everything I wanted.”

“My mother is no felon.”

The law thinks differently. Kamiyah was forced to part with the only woman she knew as her mother through prison bars, where Williams is being held pending charges for kidnapping. “I love you Mom,” the distraught Kamiyah cried, as she was led away.

If convicted, Williams could face life in jail.

There’s no question that Williams deserves punishment. The justice system must send a message to would-be kidnappers that stealing another family’s child is unacceptable. But a jail sentence, where Kamiyah is deprived of the woman she calls “Mom” will only punish Kamiyah/Alexis further. She will already face an almost intolerable confusion and loss of identity as the details of her mixed-up life become clearer. This is the worst possible moment for her to lose the only anchor she knows.

A similar story took place in South African in 1997, when newborn Zephany Nurse was kidnapped from her biological mother and raised by a second family for 17 years. After she was recovered her kidnapper-mother – who cannot be named – was jailed for 10 years.

But reports say that Zephany – who now goes by another name – chose to stay in the home where she was raised after her kidnapper-mother was jailed.

She has also formed no bond with her biological family.

It’s not known how her kidnapper-mother’s jail time has affected her but her determination to stay with her ‘kidnapper’ family and reject her biological family makes it clear where her loyalties lie, rightly or wrongly. Her mother’s jailing must only add another layer of trauma.

Kamiyah, who by all accounts is a stable and well-mannered young lady has already met with her biological parents, Shanara Mobley and Craig Aiken, who never gave up hope that she would be found. Like Zephany’s parents, they would almost certainly welcome a jail sentence for the woman who robbed them of so much.

But as agonising as their lives would have been since their daughter’s kidnapping, any delivery of justice that might help to atone for their anguish must be tempered, and even perhaps overridden, by considerations for Kamiyah’s welfare. She is the real victim. It’s very difficult to look at cases as complex as this, where such injustice has been done, and think dispassionately about the child caught in the centre. Harming her by taking her ‘mother’ away wiil not bring those lost years back.

Kamiyah meeting her biological parents Shanara and Craig for the first time since she was abducted as a newborn

It’s difficult to determine an alternative punishment for kidnapper Gloria Williams: fines and community service feel flimsy and insufficient. But jail is simply too cruel. Not too cruel for Gloria Williams but for Kamiyah.

Perhaps Kamiyah’s inevitable disappointment that her mother could commit so egregious a crime will be punishment enough.

Whatever happens, let’s hope these broken people, who have separately lost so much, can eventually move forward in peace.

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