Baby switch girls together apart
When it emerged in 1998 that Callie Conley and Rebecca Chittum had been switched in hospital soon after being born, the girls were already three years old and one child's parents had died in a car crash. After years of legal battles, it was agreed that the girls would stay with the families who had raised them. Louise Carpenter travelled to Virginia to find that, 11 years on, the girls' story has taken yet further extraordinary turns.
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Callie Conley and Paula Johnson, the woman who has raised her Photo: CHARLOTTE OESTERVANG
11:55AM BST 17 Sep 2009
Every year on July 4, American Independence Day, Callie Conley, 14 years old and with aspirations to be America's next top model, goes to her bedroom to be alone, away from her family shouting and teasing one another in the yard below, her mother cooking, her elder brothers mending cars or aiming a rifle at the beer cans on the washing line.
There, surrounded by the talismans of teenage life – the straightening irons, the make-up, the Kanye West and Hannah Montana CDs, and the piles of clothes scattered like molehills over the floor – she looks at a collection of photographs. The photographs show a heavily pregnant blond teenager in a smock: Whitney Rogers is not much older than Callie and beside her is her boyfriend, Kevin Chittum, young, adoring and beaming with pride.
The photograph is creased from being folded into quarters to fit in Callie's pocket. 'Mom and Dad' is written on the back in felt-tip pen. 'RIP. Love ya!' Her school exercise book is also out on the bed, more photographs stapled to its back page: the same couple, this time with two little girls; Kevin Chittum in builder's garb, beaming out of the picture as he fixes up the house that was to be the beginning of their American dream; another woman, Paula Johnson, leaning against some railings, large and heavy-boned with a cheerful smile; and a crumpled and charred heap of metal, once the Chittums' Honda car, overturned on the side of the motorway.
July 4 is the anniversary of the death of her parents, Kevin Chittum and Whitney Rogers, who died in 1998, when Callie was three. But Callie never knew them because she has been raised from birth by Paula Johnson.
At 11.12pm on June 29 1995, in the Women's Place at the University of Virginia Medical Centre in Charlottesville, Paula Johnson, 29, gave birth to a little girl weighing 9lb 6oz. She and her boyfriend, Carlton, named their daughter Callie Marie Jewel Conley. The next day, June 30, in the same hospital, at 2.43pm, 16-year-old Whitney Rogers gave birth to another little girl, weighing 7lb 10oz. She named her Rebecca, and the girl took the surname of her father, Kevin Chittum, who was Whitney's high-school sweetheart and fiancé.
Both babies were placed in the hospital nursery. At some point between 6.30 and 8am on July 1, as part of routine checks, the two little girls were lifted out of their cribs and, somehow, returned to the wrong ones. The baby delivered by Paula now lay in the crib of the baby delivered by Whitney. Whitney's baby, Rebecca, now lay in Callie's crib. That same day, around lunchtime, Paula Johnson left hospital with the newborn daughter she thought was hers. Except it was Whitney's. And when Whitney and Kevin left the following day at 7.30am, they took with them Paula's infant.
This might have been the end of it. Nobody might ever have known had Carlton Conley and Paula Johnson not split up acrimoniously three years later, and Johnson filed a petition for child support payments from Conley. Conley questioned whether he was Callie's father, saying Callie looked nothing like him. The Greene County family court ordered DNA testing in 1998.
Johnson received the results on July 3. Fairfax Laboratories, which had conducted the DNA test, had discovered that not only was Carlton not the father but that Paula was not Callie's mother, either.
It took a while for hospital officials to work out the identity of the second switched baby. Terrified by the threat of law suits (and there would be many), through a process of elimination and cross-referencing of medical records the hospital narrowed it down to six babies.
The pointer to Rebecca Chittum lay in the discrepancies in her feeding records. Each of the two couples took home a baby vastly different in size to the baby they had borne. Paula took home a baby who had suddenly turned from a ravenous bruiser to a picky eater, while Whitney's baby suddenly demanded more and more food. The hospital tracked down the baby being raised as Rebecca Chittum – only to find the story had taken another cruel twist.
On July 4, the day after Paula Johnson got the results of the DNA test, in the Shenandoah Valley hamlet of Buena Vista, Kevin Chittum and Whitney Rogers got into their Honda with four children: Kevin's youngest sister, his 11-year-old niece, and two of their playmates, to go to a fair. At the last minute, they left their daughters, three-year-old Rebecca and six-month Lindsey, with Whitney's mother because there was no space for the car seats.
Caught in a violent storm, the car hydroplaned and hit an oil tanker head on. Everybody was killed. Rebecca Chittum was now orphaned. Staying with her grieving grandparents, she was oblivious to the double tragedy unfolding around her. In the midst of the family bereavement, she was DNA tested.
Having established the identities of the children, both the State of Virginia and the hospital went to extraordinary lengths to cover their tracks. Had the switch been malice or was it an accident? Johnson, as the only surviving mother, was interviewed by the police for four hours. (Rebecca's two sets of grandparents, shell-shocked at the news and grieving for their dead children, were spared this, at least.) The world's media descended. As one of the editors of this magazine, this is the story I commissioned the writer Allison Pearson to investigate 11 years ago. At that time, Paula Johnson was shocked and devastated, but hopeful of some kind of amicable resolution. Callie and Rebecca were three years old, and oblivious to the switch.
There followed three years of bitter acrimony and fighting between Johnson and both sets of Rebecca's grandparents. After a four-month investigation by state and hospital campus police, a Charlottesville prosecutor issued a statement making it clear that there was no evidence to suggest the babies had been switched on purpose. The State Health Department issued a damning report on the lax procedures and inattentiveness in the maternity ward.
All the families launched at least half a dozen lawsuits against the hospital for millions of dollars. On April 5 1999 the Chittum and Rogers families reached a $2 million out-of-court settlement with the state. Six weeks later, Johnson sued the hospital for $31 million. (She also launched another $12 million suit against the manufacturer of the baby-identification bracelets the girls had been wearing, only to withdraw it later.) The following year, on April 19, the Virginia Attorney General's Office announced a settlement had finally been reached with Johnson for £2.3 million. Most of the money was to be held in trust for the girls until they came of age.
Meanwhile, nobody could agree on what was best for the girls. Kevin Chittum's parents fought with Whitney Rogers's parents over what to do with Rebecca and both the Chittums and the Rogerses became locked in acrimonious battles with Paula Johnson. Everybody involved was terrified that the other side would take their child away. There were endless custody hearings, during which time Paula was made Callie's legal guardian. The two sets of grandparents were made Rebecca's.
Then, in autumn 1999, to the devastation of the grandparents, Paula Johnson went to court in Buena Vista formally to adopt Rebecca, the baby she had given birth to. The Chittums lined up a series of Johnson's former partners, all set to testify against her. But family court judge John B Curry said the only opinion he was interested in was that of the child psychologist who had evaluated Rebecca. The psychologist gave evidence stating that moving Rebecca away from the only home she knew would cause incalculable harm to a child who had already suffered the deaths of the only parents she had ever known. Rebecca was to stay where she was but was to visit Paula for one weekend each month, plus public holidays and three weeks in the summer. The same applied to Callie visiting her grandparents, allowing the girls to see one another every other fortnight.
The American press had stayed on the story until this point but in time its interest died away, although the court battles between the families – mainly over visitation rights – continued. I had often wondered about Callie and Rebecca, who with every year that passed were getting closer to understanding what had happened. This year, I counted back to their birthdays. They were turning 14, a year younger than when Whitney became pregnant, and only four years from coming of age. There was a different story to tell now.
I finally tracked down Paula Johnson through an internet chat room dating back years. After consulting Callie, Paula agreed to see me. She also gave me the number of Rosa Chittum, one of Rebecca's guardians.
Weeks went by before I reached Rosa Chittum. She was friendly and requested that I contact their lawyer. We talked about a possible meeting with Rebecca in his office. He called back to postpone. Rebecca and the Chittums could not be rushed into this, he said. Rebecca had been protected from anything remotely upsetting – and any meeting would have to be entirely on their own terms. 'Tell me,' he asked, 'are you paying Paula Johnson?' I told him absolutely not.
'You see,' he said, 'the Chittums have handled this whole thing in a completely different way. Paula Johnson has been in the spotlight whereas the Chittums have got on with the business they consider most important, bringing Rebecca up in the most normal way possible.' (He was referring to the extensive press coverage Johnson had agreed to over the years, from prime-time interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Katie Couric to cover stories for People magazine.) I asked him when I might meet Rebecca. 'Give me 30 days,' he said.
When I draw up to Paula Johnson's colonial-style, clapboard house in Stafford, a Virginia suburb an hour from Washington, DC, I am surprised at how middle-class it seems, how smart the car is parked at the front. Nearby there is a picturesque marina and a wood that backs on to Johnson's garden. It looks, at least to a European eye, like the kind of neighbourhood where men might wash their cars every Sunday while their wives bake cookies out back. Access to the quiet and leafy streets is via a barrier, operated by an armed officer sitting in a hut.
I hadn't expected this because 11 years ago the media made much of Paula Johnson's lifestyle: the four children – Wesley, Frankie, Cody and Callie –by different men; the possession of guns, the allegations of domestic violence she made against Carlton Conley; the mental and emotional problems experienced by her older children. It was all thrown into stark contrast by the wholesome, teenage love (pregnancy aside) of cheerleader Whitney Rogers and the hardworking, nappy-changing Kevin Chittum. ('I just had ****ty taste in men,' Paula will tell me later.)
Paula answers the door. I recognise her immediately from the pictures: extremely pretty green eyes in a heavy-set face, with a mountain of crispy curls cascading down her back. She is now very large, perhaps two stone heavier than 10 years ago, but she seems entirely comfortable with herself (she confirms this later: 'I've stopped worrying, Greg [her new husband] likes me as I am and that's enough'), and is dressed for summer in shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. Callie bounds down the stairs to join her.
Like the photographs of Whitney – her real mother – Callie resembles a petite doll, with slender, long limbs stretching below her denim micro mini and a small, delicate face full of sharp angles. Her hair is long and highlighted and straight. She looks nothing like Paula Johnson. But keen to establish a physical resemblance despite the lack of DNA, Paula mentions that Callie looks just like her youngest son, Cody, now 18, and says that passers-by often think Callie is the twin of her cousin Jared, who is the same age but, of course, no relation. (When I eventually meet Cody and Jared I'm not so sure.)
Faced with mother and daughter, the physical difference between them is astonishing. It always has been. When Paula found out about the switch, she said to her disbelieving mother, Jewel, 'Haven't you always said you couldn't understand why she didn't look like the rest of us!'
We go into the kitchen, past the sitting-room, which has walls lined with photographs of the many, many permutations of children that make up Paula's family – stepchildren, step-grandchildren, even the children of her foster daughter's first husband, whom she regards as her own flesh and blood. 'Blood means nothing to us in this family,' she says. 'Nothing.' There are also some pictures of the older Rebecca in there. Her resemblance to Paula is as marked as Callie's dissimilarity. The green eyes are the same, the smile, the heavier-set face and build. 'She looks just like you,' I say. Paula smiles wistfully.