Mom, Girl Thought Dead Reunite

Luzaida Cuevas and her 6-year-old daughter Delimar Vera wave from the window of their northeast Philadelphia home Monday, March 8, 2004.
AP
Luzaida Cuevas knew immediately when she saw a 6-year-old girl at a birthday party that she had found the daughter she thought had died in a fire after being kidnapped as a newborn.

Cuevas, 31, and the child she named Delimar Vera were officially reunited Monday afternoon at state family services offices in Burlington County, N.J., the mother's attorney, Alexander Murphy Jr., said in a statement. The family planned a "small, private gathering of friends and family" to celebrate, he said.

"Luz is taking a very private approach to this," Murphy said Monday, before the reunion took place. "It's been exhausting for her and for everyone, and she just wants to be able to focus completely on her daughter."

Cuevas quickly ushered her daughter through a back door into her Northeast Philadelphia home as night fell. The girl, dressed in a blue hooded jacket and pink pants, giggled and said, "I'm not afraid of this," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Police allege that a relative, Carolyn Correa, snatched the 10-day-old girl from her crib in December 1997, torched the house to cover her crime and raised the infant as her own.

Correa, a cousin by marriage of the girl's father, is charged with arson, kidnapping and 13 other counts. Correa, 42, of Willingboro, N.J., has been held on $1 million bail since her arrest March 2.

Cuevas said she instantly recognized the girl as her daughter at a Jan. 24 birthday party. DNA tests established that Cuevas and Pedro Vera were the girl's biological parents, police said.

Cuevas and Vera, who are no longer a couple, were awarded legal custody of their daughter Friday. The three have met several times to get acquainted and to prepare for the child's transition to her mother's home. But the Inquirer reports Vera was barred from the reunion Monday.

The newspaper reports the girl met her three brothers for the first time. Two are older than her but she would have been too young to remember them before her abduction.

Child psychologists believe the change will be traumatic for the girl, who has left the only home and family she ever knew. Her parents will try to alleviate any distress and confusion by calling her by the name she was given by her alleged kidnapper — Aaliyah Hernandez.

The girl does not speak Spanish and her mother speaks very little English.

The Inquirer reports state child welfare officials say they can help for about two months with counseling to ease the transition.

A cousin of the allegedly kidnapped child says that for years, he and other relatives implored the girl's parents to check into the familiar-looking child's identity.

"We told them many times over the years that Aaliyah looked like their child and they should do something," Jose Vera told the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill. He is a cousin of the father and the accused kidnapper, Correa.

Jose Vera says for years, relatives suspected the girl Correa called her daughter was not her own.

"But we were all caught in the middle because we were cousins to both families," said Jose Vera. "It was up to the parents. They should have done something more before, but they were just leaving it in the hands of the police."

He said relatives would see the pair at parties attended by Pedro Vera, but not by Cuevas. She only saw the child in photographs, but not in person until a party in January.

"They agreed the child looked like them and Pedro always thought it was his daughter, but nothing ever happened until now," said Jose Vera.

Jose's 18-year-old daughter, Alison, said relatives believed Aaliyah belonged to Pedro and Luz for a long time.

"It's a crazy story - just like a movie," she said. "We told my cousin Pedro about it, but nothing ever happened. Nothing was done. I don't know why."

Rep. Angel Cruz, who represents the neighborhood where Cuevas lives and accompanied her to the reunion, told ABC that a language barrier between authorities and Cuevas might have led to confusion about whether a body was found in the fire in which the girl was believed to have died.

Attorney Anthony Cianfrani, who represents Cuevas, said Friday that Cuevas told authorities she believed the girl was kidnapped, but nothing was done.

In Philadelphia, the case has prompted calls for an investigation into how authorities could incorrectly conclude Delimar Vera died in a fire. The Inquirer reports the fire marshal is probing the matter.

Cianfrani has said he intends to sue the city of Philadelphia over the botched fire investigation.