The wrong baby

Wherever she was, I'd do anything to have my child back in my arms

Published by: Rebecca Johnston and Charlotte Percival
Published on: 28th April 2010

The heavily-pregnant woman smiled as she paced the maternity ward. Her pretty face, framed by blonde curls, shone with the excitement.
‘Have you got long?’ I asked.
‘Just a few hours,’ she grinned.
‘You’ll be fine,’ I said. ‘I had my fourth last night – a little girl, Callie Marie Jewel Conley.’
‘Congratulations!’ she beamed.
Those few words to a stranger would be replayed in my head again and again.
But I didn’t take much notice at the time.
Instead, I was still woozy. My little girl had been whisked away while I had my fallopian tubes tied.
I hadn’t spent much time with her, but this afternoon I was introducing her to her brothers Wesley, nine, Frankie, seven, Cody, four, and my boyfriend Carlton Conley, 31.
Hours after we were discharged, though, my pudgy girl, who’d started feeding almost straight after birth, was off her food.
‘We should take her back to hospital,’ I fretted.
‘She’s lost 2lb,’ the doctor told us when we returned.
‘Is she okay?’ I pressed.
‘Sometimes this happens,’ he shrugged, handing her over.
Callie quickly regained weight and, a few days later, was back to the happy, chubby baby I’d already fallen in love with.
She grew into an opinionated little lady with a mischievous grin.
But, while she was happy, me and Carlton grew apart and went our separate ways. By the time our daughter turned three, he was refusing to pay child support.
He even denied he was her dad! The family court judge ordered DNA tests. Well, fine – I’d nothing to hide! A few weeks later, I got a message from the court asking me to call. What was Carlton trying now? With a sigh, I dialled…
‘Carlton isn’t Callie’s biological father,’ the judge said.
‘What?!’ I gasped, ‘That’s impossible!’
‘Wait… you’re not Callie’s mother either,’ he continued.
‘You’re crazy!’ I snorted. ‘It’s a mistake.’
‘A second sample confirmed it,’ he insisted. ‘Technically, this child isn’t yours.’
What?! My stomach lurched. My mind working overtime, I tried to think straight.
There was only one explanation – somehow, I’d brought the wrong baby home from hospital and… another woman had mine!
But Callie was my child. I kissed away her tears, watched her blossom. ‘No one’s taking her from me,’ I vowed.
By law, DNA results were confidential. I could say nothing…The thing was, though, someone had my baby – the one I’d carried for nine months.
I found a lawyer, and she got in touch with the University of Virginia Medical Centre. ‘They’ve narrowed it down to a list of girls born on the same day,’ she told me.
‘Great, we can start contacting them…’ I cried.
‘We can’t,’ she interrupted.
I looked at her blankly.
‘Data laws mean they can’t tell you who the babies are,’ she said.
‘They can’t do that,’ I cried. ‘I have a right to know where my daughter is, to know she’s safe.’
In desperation, my lawyer spoke to a local paper.
Within hours, the story made headlines around the globe.
Reporter Dennis Cauchon called me. ‘I’ve managed to track down your daughter through birth announcements,’ he said.
I was gobsmacked. ‘What’s she like?’ I begged. ‘Is she happy?’
‘I don’t know. I wanted to tell you as soon as I made the connection,’ he said.
The next morning, I opened the paper… and gasped. A little girl with eyes the precise shade of green as mine looked back at me from a photo. That was my girl!
Mum agreed. ‘It’s like looking at you as a toddler.’
Rebecca Grace Chittum had been raised 100 miles away, in Buena Vista, Virginia, by childhood sweethearts Whitney Rogers, 19, and Kevin Chittum, 25. They’d had no idea they weren’t raising their own child.
‘God!’ I muttered. That was the pretty blonde woman I’d spoken to on the ward. I read more of the article… ‘No!’ I gasped.
‘What is it, love?’ Mum asked.
‘Th-the day after I got the DNA results, Whitney and Kevin were killed in a car crash,’ I said. ‘Callie’s never going to meet her birth parents.’ At least they’d been spared the heartbreak of knowing.
As the world’s media gathered, everyone asked how it’d happened.
It emerged Whitney had given birth to her baby – my Callie – a few hours after me. At 7lb 10oz, she’d weighed nearly 2lb less than my baby, Rebecca. That’s why she’d seemed to have lost weight.
Both babies had the same dark hair and a scratch on their temple – Rebecca’s from the forceps used
to deliver her, and Callie from scratching herself.
At some point, the girls had been returned to the wrong cribs.
Now, the only parent Rebecca had left was me. I had to see her.
The lawyers arranged a meeting with both sets of her grandparents.
I was on tenterhooks, keen to meet them… but what if they tried to take Callie? I had nothing to worry about. We ended up talking about the girls’ personalities and exchanging anecdotes.
‘Callie’s like a little beauty queen,’ I giggled. ‘The way she tosses her hair.’
‘Just like Whitney,’ they smiled, welling up at the memory.
A fortnight later, Mum threw a party so everyone could meet.
Catching sight of my biological daughter for the first time, a little girl with curly brown hair, it took my breath away.
‘Hi, Rebecca, my name’s Paula,’ I said gently, remembering how recently she’d lost the only mum and dad she’d known.
Her big eyes studied me carefully, then she ran to play with Callie. She loved swimming, something we had in common. Watching her, I knew one thing for sure – I wanted Rebecca to have a stable home. With her grandparents squabbling over custody, I decided to apply myself.
When the judge turned down my request, I was heartbroken. But I was given visitation rights.
But I couldn’t have Callie wondering who Rebecca was, or why she was paying visits to strangers who called themselves gran and granddad. ‘There was a mix-up, and Mummy took you home by accident,’ I said at first. ‘But I’m glad it happened because I love you so much.’
Over the years, I slowly told her the whole, complicated truth.
When she was 11, she started secondary school and heard the other kids whispering: ‘That’s the baby switch girl.’ So she stood up in Show and Tell, with an issue of People magazine with her on the cover, and told the truth.
‘Cool! You’ve four sets of grandparents – so twice as many presents at Christmas and birthdays!’ friends said.
She’s 14 now, and visits to her biological family have fizzled out. That’s her decision, and I respect it, just as I have to respect the fact that Rebecca has done the same thing – but I can’t pretend it doesn’t hurt.
Not a day goes by when I don’t think of my real daughter.
Maybe one day we can rekindle our relationship again.
Blood doesn’t mean anything to this family. Our bond is stronger. Parents are more than the people who give birth to you – they’re the ones who shape you, love you, and are there for you no matter what.
Paula Johnson, 42, Virginia, USA