SWITCHED AT BIRTH: The mistake that changed maternity wards

Posted at 9:02 AM, Nov 11, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-14 07:07:10-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – This story begins with the birth of two baby girls.

On June 29, 1995, single mother Paula Johnson gave birth to baby girl she named Callie at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.

The next day, in the same maternity ward, 18-year-old Kevin Chittum and his 16-year-old girlfriend Whitney celebrated the birth of their daughter Rebecca.

The families would remain blissfully unaware of each other for years. When Callie was three years old, Paula’s boyfriend asked for a paternity test. The result of that test led to a scandalous discovery.

It found he was not Callie’s father and the child was not Paula’s either.

Callie, it turned out, was actually Kevin and Whitney’s biological daughter.

The delicate situation turned devastating just hours before doctors planned to break the life-changing news to Kevin and Whitney. The couple, along with four relatives and friends, died when their car crashed on rain-slicked Interstate 81 in Botetourt County.

Kevin and Whitney died never knowing the child they took home and raised for three years, Rebecca, was not their biological baby. Callie was.

“The big question everyone always asks me is ‘Would you prefer your parents still be alive or passed?” Callie Johnson, now 18, recalled to Rob Cardwell. "I don't know what I'm missing so in a sense, I do feel more sorry for Rebecca, because she doesn't know her biological mom."

"I've always taught her from day one they are her parents, you know.  She was born in Whitney's belly and she was born in my heart,"  Paula Johnson added.

After Kevin and Whitney died, Paula attempted to claim her biological child, suing for custody of Rebecca in 1999. Kevin and Whitney's parents fought back.

After three years of  family feuding, a judge ruled the girls would stay with the families who'd raised them. The families tried to make a visitation schedule work, but old fights continued to flare up. The girls grew tired of long trips to see family members they did not really know.

Paula sued the University of Virginia Medical Center for $31 million.  She settled for $1.25 million.

While the University of Virginia Medical Center denied our request to comment, people who work in other maternity wards said the mix-up served as a wake-up call.

"It was very upsetting.  It put everyone on guard ever since," Director of Women's and Children's Service at Henrico Doctors' Hospital Judy Matthews said.

Matthews said maternity wards across the country were forced to review their procedures and modernize their safeguards.

"Technology plays a role, but you also want to be very sure that all of your other procedures are in place.  You can't rely on one system to protect our babies,"  Matthews said.

Paula Johnson said she was angry when she found out about the baby switch. That anger persists to this day.

"I'm angry because I don't have a relationship with my biological child. I'm angry at the hospital because the only thing I ever asked was them to apologize," she said. "I'm angry that Kevin and Whitney aren't here to see what a beautiful child she is and how much she's grown."

If Callie is angry, it is not obvious. She said Paula Johnson is the only mother she knows.

"She's my best friend.  She always has been.  And I can honestly say that,"  Callie said.

Callie said she would like to go to culinary school and then open her own bakery. She’d also like to write a tell-all book about her story.

Editor’s Note: Rebecca, who did not respond to requests for this story, did leave comments on the WTVR CBS 6 Facebook page.