Africa

South African mother's baby swap anguish

MotherX
Image caption MotherX is raising a five-year-old who she learnt two years ago was not her biological child

A South African court has ruled that two children swapped at birth will remain with the families who raised them. The parents involved cannot be named to protect their children's identities. The BBC's Pumza Fihlani spoke to one of the mothers about the anguish of the last few years.

In a small house east of Johannesburg, MotherX - as she is called in the South African media - says she has always suspected that the child she is raising is not the one she gave birth to.

"A mother always knows. I always knew at the back of my mind but hoped over the years that I was wrong.

"My worst fears have come true."

On 4 August 2010 she was separated from her baby girl for a few days to recover after giving birth by Caesarean section. She believes this is when the mix-up occurred at the Tambo Memorial Hospital, in Boksburg, east of Johannesburg.

"When I went to check on my baby I was shown a baby boy. I told the nurses there was a mistake because I had given birth to a girl. I had held her in my arms. They simply laughed at me," she tells me.

In the end she relented, thinking she had made a mistake and took him home, and has been loving and caring for him since.

'Devastated'

But in 2013, her world fell apart when her partner left her and ordered DNA tests to check on the paternity of their youngest son.

He had said that as the boy did not have any resemblance to him, he would only pay child maintenance for their first child.

"On my way back from getting the results, I remember I almost got knocked by two cars. I was so devastated," she said.

"They didn't just say that he wasn't the father but I wasn't the mother too. It was like a bad dream."

After almost two years of uncertainty, the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria ruled this week that the children should remain with the people who had raised them.

Image caption The five-year-old boy and girl were mixed up as babies in hospital

It also ruled that the parents would have no legal rights to their biological children but were allowed to have contact with them.

This is in line with recommendations by the University of Pretoria's Centre for Child Law, which had been asked to help determine what would be in the best interests of the children.

A report by their expert, Anne Skelton, said the children had formed strong bonds with their adoptive families.

MotherX had previously indicated that she would like the children "to be swapped back".

But her lawyer says she is "comfortable" with the outcome.

"During the course of interacting with the other family, my client realised how bonded her daughter was with the caregiver and accepted that it would be best if they continued to raise the children they've always known as theirs," Henk Strydom told the BBC.

'She looks so much like me'

Mr Strydom said the parents are to continue undergoing therapy and a court-appointed official will draft a parenting plan that will outline how the families access their biological children.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Incidents of babies being mistakenly swapped at birth are rare in South Africa

Both mothers started compulsory play sessions with the two children last year.

"She looks so much like me. I see myself when I look at her. She has my eyes; she looks like my other child. It makes me so happy to see her. The boy I'm caring for also looks like the other family," said MotherX.

She said it is hard to come to terms with seeing her daughter with another family.

"I have to keep reminding myself that the children are innocent here, that the boy I'm caring for deserves all my love," she says.

"I want to protect him from everything that is happening. We are so close and I love him so much. It is all so painful."

Part of the battle has been getting the hospital to admit to the mistake - although it is still not clear how the swap took place.

Financial assistance

The hospital has so far refused to comment on the matter. Some suspect the babies were confused during the tagging stage.

Incidents of babies being mistakenly swapped at birth are rare in South Africa - the last reported case was nine years ago involving the bodies of dead babies.

"You can't just carry on like nothing has happened. These are people's lives," MotherX tells me.

As her former partner is now not paying maintenance, MotherX , who is unemployed, is struggling to bring up her family.

Her lawyer, who is working pro bono, said the court ruling would make it possible for them sue the health authorities.

Financial assistance would help give the five-year-old boy a better quality of life, Mr Strydom said.

MotherX is thankful that her daughter is being brought up in a family that is much more financially stable - she says she sleeps better knowing that.

"They are taking good care of her - I can see that. She is very close to the other mother - I can see that too."

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