Two mothers in South Africa have discovered they are raising each other’s daughters after they were mistakenly switched at birth in a hospital four years ago.
But while one of the women wants to correct the error and reclaim her biological child, the other is refusing to give back the girl she has raised as her own, posing a huge legal dilemma.
Henk Strydom, a lawyer for one of the mothers, who cannot be identified because of a court order, described the inadvertent swap as a travesty and tragedy that is unlikely to have a happy ending.
Both mothers gave birth at the Tambo Memorial Hospital in Boksburg, east of Johannesburg, on the same day in 2010 and were discharged. “Nobody suspected anything,” Strydom said.
But last year one of the mothers, who is 33 and unemployed, sued her ex‑partner for maintenance for her daughter. Strydom continued: “The man denied he was the father. A DNA test was done it was found it was not his baby and not her baby. She was devastated. She didn’t know what to do.”
Eventually she met the other mother and since last December they have been attending joint counselling sessions, arranged by the hospital. This has included meeting their biological daughters.
Strydom said of his client: “She said there are resemblances to herself. She conveyed to me that it was traumatic. You can see it’s not easy for her. She has to care for a child that is not hers on her own while her child is with someone else.”
The woman reportedly became unhappy with the process and approached the children’s court in a bid to gain custody of her biological child, but the other mother refused. Strydom agreed to represent the woman, who has one elder child, pro bono.
“It’s a tragedy. She wants the baby back, but it seems the other mother is reluctant. It’s four years later: you can understand she doesn’t want to give up her baby.”
Earlier this week the high court in Pretoria appointed the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Child Law to investigate what will now be in the best interests of the children, which is the guiding principle under South African law. It must report back within 90 days.
Strydom added: “Your guess is as good as mine what the court may decide. It’s a travesty. How do you rectify it after four years? The longer you wait, the more traumatic it will be. But whatever happens, someone won’t be happy.”
He said at this point, he and his client do not want to sue the hospital or government health department, which is currently helping with the case and providing counselling.
The Centre for Child Law will now interview the mothers and fathers as well as any other person with a “significant relationship” with either of the girls. The children and mothers will undergo “full and thorough” clinical assessments and may be seen by a psychologist.
Karabo Ngidi, an attorney with the centre, said: “What’s going to happen must be in the best interests of the children. Biology is an important aspect, but not the only one.”
The families are of Zulu ethnicity and so Zulu tradition, culture and customary law will be a factor, she added. It is also still possible the ex-partner of the mother taking legal action could be the biological father of the girl who was switched.
It is not the first child-swap case to come to light in South Africa. In 1995, two mothers were awarded damages after their sons, born in 1989, were accidentally switched at the Johannesburg hospital where they were born.
In 2009 in Oregon in the United States, Dee Ann Angell and Kay Rene Reed discovered that they had been mistakenly mixed up at birth in 1953 when a nurse brought them back from bathing. Last year in Japan a 60-year-old man swapped at birth from his rich parents to a poor family was given compensation. He grew up on welfare and became a truck driver, whereas his biological siblings – and the boy brought up in his place – attended private secondary schools and universities.
Bruce Laing, a clinical psychologist in Johannesburg, said the long-term effects of a baby swap could be “profound”, “terrifying” and “incredibly traumatising”. He told the Times of South Africa: “An increasingly complicated situation is that some resentment towards a child that is not yours might occur. The parents might always be thinking ‘What if?'”