Baby girls switched at birth

IN an unthinkable nightmare, two Gauteng mothers have learnt that their three-year-old daughters were switched at birth. Even worse, one wants her biological daughter back, while the other wants to keep the child she has loved as her own for almost four years.

The high court in Pretoria on Monday appointed the director of the University of Pretoria's Centre for Child Law to help fix the disaster and minimise the damage already caused.

The court order, made on an urgent basis, provides for the centre's Ann Skelton (no relation to the reporter) to investigate the children's best interests and report back to court within 90 days.

Possible solutions may involve the children being swapped again or remaining with their present "mothers", with or without visitation rights. None of the respondents, including the Gauteng MEC for Health and the chief executive of the Tambo Memorial Hospital in Boksburg, where the children were born, opposed the court application.

For three years the families lived in blissful ignorance until late last year when one of the mothers, 32, sued her ex, the father of her eldest child, for maintenance for her younger child. He denied paternity and DNA tests confirmed that he was not the dad.

But they also revealed that she was not the child's mother. "She got the shock of her life when she found out," the woman's lawyer, Henk Strydom, said yesterday.

The hospital confirmed that her child had been swapped with another girl born on the same day in 2010. The details of how this happened have not yet been revealed.

The two mothers met last year and have been attending joint therapy sessions arranged by the hospital since December, and they have met their biological daughters.

The one became unhappy with the process and headed to the children's court in a bid to exchange the child she had been caring for since birth for her biological daughter. The other mother refused.

As a result, the centre said: "Litigation may be necessary and inevitable to remedy the tragic situation in which these children and mothers find themselves."

The centre will now focus on interviewing the girls' mothers, fathers and any other person with a significant relationship with either of the children. The children and mothers will also undergo a full and thorough clinical assessment.

The centre said it was urgent that the highly sensitive case was resolved as soon as possible "to mitigate the damage that has already been done". In the meantime, the maintenance case by the one mother, who is unemployed, is on hold.

This is not the first case of its kind in South Africa. In 1995, two mothers were awarded damages after they learnt their sons, born in 1989, had been swapped at the Johannesburg hospital where they were born.

The mothers, who agreed to keep their non-biological sons, were awarded more than R183000 and R158000 respectively, which included costs for them to visit their biological children and damages for emotional shock and psychiatric injury.

Pietermaritzburg attorney Richard Stretch, who acted for the mothers in that case, believed the mothers in the present one could sue the hospital for damages, should it be found responsible for the mix- up of the babies. - Dominic Skelton