Cases of children being switched at birth aren’t as uncommon as many people may think. A lady posted on social media about how her husband divorced her after he found out that their five-year-old daughter wasn’t biologically his. She had never cheated on him,, so she took a DNA test, and it turns out the daughter wasn’t biologically hers either.
Originally, she had thought she’d been sexually assaulted while asleep. However, she concluded that the hospital had made an error and given her someone else’s child. Her 10- and 14-year-old children were traumatised in the fallout. Her ex-husband’s family also insulted her.
Upon leaving her, the ex-husband started a new relationship. She filed a case against the hospital and went to notify her ex, but the new couple was already expecting another baby. She was left in a situation where she wanted to keep raising her 5-year-old daughter and locate her biological daughter.
A couple in Kenya found themselves in a similar situation. The father did a paternity test and found the child wasn’t biologically his. He accused his wife of infidelity, and she did her own DNA test to find that the child wasn’t biologically hers. The couple investigated further and found that the hospital had switched babies at birth. They then sought to find their biological child and search for their paternal one. They later found their biological child in a foster care home and adopted her.
In 2019, the internet broke when the curious case of the missing twin was eventually resolved. In August 1999, a pregnant lady called Rosemary Onyango went to the hospital expecting to deliver triplets, but she got twins instead. The twins were incubated in Kakamega County Teaching and Referral Hospital because they were born underweight. They weren’t identical. Ms. Onyango was sceptical but eventually moved on with her family’s life. The two girls were named Melon and Mevis. Later in 2018, Melon met a lookalike Sharon on Facebook, and they accused each other of impersonation.
They met at a bus stop after many remarked on their similarities. The doppelgangers contacted their respective parents after seeing pictures of each other from other students. By April 2019, the families sought DNA tests, and it was revealed that Sharon and Melon were twins separated at birth. Ms. Onyango was also revealed not to be the biological mother of Mevis. She was the biological daughter of the woman who had raised Sharon. The families decided not to sue the hospital, but the Office of The Director of Criminal Investigations pursued a case against the hospital.
In South Africa, couples who found that their children were switched at birth will keep their adopted children. In 2010, Mother X was briefly separated from her daughter to recover from a C-section birth. When the baby was returned to her, the nurses brought a baby boy. Eventually, she relented, thinking she was mistaken. But things fell apart when in 2013, her husband left her and demanded a paternity test on the boy. He would only offer child support if the child were biologically his. The DNA test revealed that the son wasn’t theirs. After two years, the high court ruled that the child should remain with his adoptive family.
The court further ruled that the parents wouldn’t have any legal rights to their biological child but could contact her. This was determined based on recommendations by the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Child Law. The courts appointed an official to create a plan to show how biological parents can access their children. The hospital won’t admit how the swap took place, but the families are learning to adjust to their situation.
A Zambian nurse sparked controversy in 2019 on her deathbed after she confessed that she had swapped 5000 babies. She worked as a maternity nurse at a University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka for 12 years and explained that she had swapped the babies for fun. She added that anyone born between 1983 and 1995 should get DNA tests. However, the General Nursing Council found no evidence of this malfeasance. Or of any nurse called Elizabeth Bwalya Mwewa. Fact-checkers proved this to be a hoax.
Most recently, in 2021, a family in the Philippines gave birth to a girl in January in Rizal. The boy brought back to the mother had a mismatched name and date of birth, and the tag was on a different foot. The hospital later said a tag must have fallen off when the parents said the child wasn’t theirs. A DNA test was conducted a few days later. The family offered to return the child to the biological parents, but the second family was unwilling to do anything until a DNA test confirmed things.
The hospital’s DNA test took too long, so a second company offered to do the tests, confirming the child wasn’t biologically theirs. The Department of Health got involved in the country’s first switch at the birth case. It was discovered that the hospital operated a neonatal intensive care unit without a valid license.
In February, both families met to figure out a plan to get the hospital to accept liability. Another DNA was done to confirm paternity, and each family was able to get custody of their biological children. The hospital refused to acknowledge the switch but offered a refund and apology for the negligence to the first family. It also stood to lose its license pending the Department of Health investigation.
How often does it happen?
Most families may remain unaware of their babies getting switched. However, cases are still rare. The oldest known story of children switched at birth is from 1913 in New York. This is when hospital births started rising. The next known record is from 1931 but the ladies who were switched at birth only realised after meeting at a wedding twenty years later and realising their similarities to the other families.
It’s estimated that 28,000 babies are switched each year at birth globally. In the US, 1:1000 births end up in near-switch. Japan has up to five out of every 10,000 switches each year. Estonia has never reported a case since introducing mandatory bands for every hospital birth in 2006. The US introduced bands in 1990 in almost 80% of hospitals. They also use barcode scanners to prevent switches.
There is an urban legend that there was a Zambian nurse who on her deathbed swapped 5000 babies. People are talking about it a lot on social media. This story has been debunked. There’s no evidence the story is real. An official investigation was unable to corroborate the story, and independent fact-checking organizations have debunked it.
What causes switched at birth cases?
In most instances, baby switching happens in maternity wards when they are taken for bathing, treatment, or medical attention. New-borns also look similar. When many babies are placed together, hospital staff can also mix up babies, especially those of the same gender.
Many hospitals prevent mixups by putting tags on babies with the mother’s name, the baby’s gender, the time of birth, and a unique record number. Other hospitals also add fingerprints, palm prints, and footprints to the baby’s records.
If a switch still happens, many mixups are noticed immediately. However, in most cases, it’s noticed when a parent realises their child bears no resemblance to them. It can happen from when the child is about five years old all the way to adulthood. Fathers who suspect the child isn’t biologically theirs demand paternity tests.
Children who were switched at birth also find out when they try to donate blood or an organ to their siblings and realise they don’t have any matches to their entire family. A man in Argentina found out after going to donate blood for his sister and realised the blood type on his birth certificate was different. Families can sue hospitals for switches, but financial compensation doesn’t repair the emotional trauma that could result from being switched at birth.
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