Common sense wanes in Va. baby-switching case

November 18, 1999|By Kathleen Parker

HUMANKIND rarely disappoints the pessimist. It is, therefore, not surprising that the families in an infamous switched-baby case, whom I once praised for intelligent selflessness, ultimately abandoned the high road and hired lawyers.

What is surprising is that the court did the right thing. The judge sent the feuding adults home and, at least for now, has left the babies' psyches intact. A horror story comes to a noble, if not strictly happy, end.

The switched babies case came to light in August 1998 when an unmarried mother sought genetic testing for a paternity suit. Paula Johnson discovered in the process not only that her then-boyfriend wasn't "Daddy," but also she wasn't even "Mommy."

Her baby, the one she birthed in 1995 at the University of Virginia Medical Center, had gone home with another couple, who subsequently were killed in an automobile accident.

Callie, whom Ms. Johnson was raising, actually was the child of the dead couple. Ms. Johnson's bio-baby, named Rebecca, was being raised by the parents of the dead couple.

One can only imagine the agony of discovering that the child you've raised and loved is not your own, and that your flesh and blood is being raised by strangers.

Yet the two families initially handled their confusion and grief with exceptional dignity. They met, exchanged stories, photos and hugs and made the right decision: Both children would stay with the families they knew and loved.

The fact that these former strangers reached such a sensible agreement without lawyers or litigation prompted me to write a celebratory column, soon to be tinder for my first fall fire.

During the past several months, I've followed the progress of the two families as disputes evolved. The grandparents who had custody of Rebecca denied Ms. Johnson visits with the child, saying they feared the mother would kidnap the child.

Ms. Johnson hired a lawyer and sued for custody. It is impossible to doubt Ms. Johnson's love for both of her children -- the one she raised and the one she bore. No one can fault the woman for wanting to have a larger role in her biological daughter's life. It is also easy to understand the grandparents' fears.

Even so: No matter how the hearts and minds of adults may suffer, only the children matter. You don't take a child from the only home she knows. Biology is not more important than family, stability and love.

So, apparently, thought Virginia juvenile court Judge John B. Curry II, who ruled Friday that Rebecca will stay with her grandparents and continue to slowly develop a relationship with Ms. Johnson. Hopefully, neither party will appeal the verdict.

The fighting is far from over, unfortunately. The fate of Callie -- the child Ms. Johnson has raised as her own -- is now up for grabs. Both Ms. Johnson and one set of grandparents have filed for custody of the child. Let's hope Judge Curry gets the case.

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist.

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