Baby swap nightmare

28 May 2014 - 02:00
By Dominic Skelton

Two Gauteng mothers have discovered that their three-year-old children were switched at birth.

Even worse, one wants her biological child back, while the other wishes to keep the child she has loved as her own for almost four years.

The Pretoria High Court on Monday appointed the University of Pretoria's Centre for Child Law to investigate what would be in the best interests of the children and how to minimise the damage.

The centre must report back to the court within 90 days.

Possible solutions involve the children being swapped again or remaining with their current "mothers", with or without visitation rights.

None of the respondents, including the Gauteng MEC for health and the CEO of the Tambo Memorial Hospital in Boksburg, where the children were born, have opposed the court application.

For three years the families lived in blissful ignorance, until late last year when one of the mothers 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 father.

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

The hospital confirmed that her child had been swapped with a baby born on the same day in 2010.

The details of how this happened have not been disclosed and it is uncertain whether they are known.

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

The one mother "became unhappy" with the process and approached the children's court in a bid to exchange the child she has been caring for since birth. The other mother refused.

As a result, said the child law centre, "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 mothers and fathers - if they can be traced - as well as any other person with a "significant relationship" with either of the children.

The children and mothers will undergo "full and thorough" clinical assessments.

"The switching of the babies was discovered only recently and has undoubtedly caused significant trauma for the two families. The matter should be resolved as soon as possible to mitigate the damage that has already been done," the centre said.

Yesterday, the CEO of Tambo Memorial Hospital, Dr Avis Naidoo, said he had no objection to the centre's investigation, but would not comment further.

  • This is not the first child-swap case in South Africa. In 1995, two mothers were awarded damages after 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 R183,000 and R158,000 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, believes the mothers in the current one could sue the hospital for damages, should it be found responsible for the mix-up. "All of it lies on the hospital . The [children] have been deprived of forming a relationship with their mothers; it is a horrific scenario," he said.

Johannesburg clinical psychologist Bruce Laing said the long-term effects of a baby swap could be "profound", "terrifying and incredibly traumatising".

"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?'," Laing said.