E.J. Harris/AP
Kay Rene Qualls, left, of Heppner, Ore., and DeeAnn Shafer, of Richland, Wash.

Oregon Women Switched at Birth Defy the Tragic History of the Phenomenon

May 14, 2009 07:30 AM
by Liz Colville
Two women from Oregon turned a potentially devastating situation into a new friendship after learning last month that they had been switched at birth.

"Swisters" Have Refused Free Counseling

After she was born and bathed, DeeAnn Angell Shafer was mistakenly handed to Marjorie Angell at Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Heppner, Ore. Angell told nurses she thought she had been given the wrong baby but “her concerns were brushed off,” the Associated Press reports.

Shafer and Kay Rene Qualls, Angell’s real daughter, went about their lives separately. They are now grandparents. But an 86-year-old woman who knew both their mothers remembered Angell’s suspicion and told Bobby Reed, DeeAnn’s real brother, she had “something she had to get off her chest,” he was quoted as saying by the AP.

In April, the two women went for DNA testing at a Washington hospital along with Bobby Reed and another sibling. One week later, the results came in: DeeAnn was really a Reed and Kay Rene was really an Angell.
Pioneer Memorial Hospital offered to pay for counseling but the women, who are now friends and call each other “swister,” refused.

In this case, a tragic mix-up was taken on the chin but in some of the more prominent switched-at-birth cases in the United States, tragedy, frustration and guilt more commonly figure in the lives of the victims and their families.

Background: Famous switched-at-birth cases in the US

Denouncing biological parents

For Kimberly Mays, who found out she had been switched at birth around the age of 10, the bond she had established with her alleged father, Robert W. Mays, was much stronger than any she could forge with her biological parents, Regina and Ernest Twigg. As The New York Times reported in 1993, Mays, at the age of 14, testified that she never wanted to see her biological parents again. She won the case and Robert Mays became her legal guardian.

For the Twiggs, the ruling was devastating. The daughter they had been sent home with more than a decade before, Arlena, had developed heart problems. Blood tests showed she was not in fact related to the Twiggs. She died in 1988, and the event spurred the Twiggs to track down their real daughter. Robert Mays had been widowed by Arlena’s real mother in 1981 and was raising Kimberly on his own. Visits from Kimberly’s biological parents had proven much more traumatic for the girl than finding out Mays was not her real father.
Tragic accident brings truth to light

On July 4, 1998, three-year-old Rebecca Rogers lost her alleged parents, Whitney Rogers and Kevin Chittum, in a car crash, Time magazine reported. She then went to live with both sets of grandparents while the woman believed to be her biological mother, Paula Johnson, lived elsewhere with Rogers’ real daughter, whom she named Callie. The New York Times reported the following year that Johnson sought custody of Rebecca, but the judge granted Johnson only visitation rights in a case that appeared to uphold Kimberly Mays’ victory a few years before.

Keeping a mix-up a secret

Profiled on “This American Life,” two women named Sue and Marti, now middle aged, were switched at birth in Wisconsin in 1951. But Sue’s real mother, Mary Miller, knew about the switch and kept it a secret until 1994, when she wrote both women letters revealing the mix-up. “This American Life” looks at the story from the perspectives of both the daughters and the mothers.

Twins awarded after years of separation

In April, families in Poland were awarded $500,000 after it was discovered that two women—one of them an identical twin—had been switched a few weeks after their birth, the BBC reported. Miraculously, the twins, Kasia and Nina, met in Warsaw and realized the mistake after a friend told Kasia “that she was the double of another girl who lived across town.” Until then, Nina had been living with the family of a girl named Adita, and Adita had been living with Kasia under the assumption that she was Kasia’s fraternal twin.

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Reference: Statistics on birth switches

Time’s article on the Rebecca Rogers case makes reference to a 1996 study by Inter/Action Associates that suggested that “1 out of every 1,000 infant transfers in hospitals—the baby to the mother, the baby to its bassinet, the baby to the nursery—is a mistake,” adding that “[a]lmost none of those mistakes are permanent, but every year two or three babies in the U.S. probably go home with the wrong mothers.”

A 2005 study on the use of automated neonatal record systems at WonJu Christian Hospital in Korea reported that “[t]here are approximately 23,000 erroneous infant-mother transfers” in the United States each year and that “the vast majority are discovered before discharge, usually through pure luck.”

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