Baby-swop families tell of heartbreakComment on this story
This week it emerged that two Gauteng mothers have discovered their 3-year-old daughters were switched at birth. In a case that is being decided in the North Gauteng High Court, one wants her biological child back while the other mother wants to keep the child that is not hers. Here, the Saturday Star relives the stories of two families torn apart by their own baby swopping ordeals.
By Sheree Bega
Watching his wife lovingly cradle his newborn daughter, Patrick Lawrence felt like he was keeping a terrible secret. It was the small things that nagged at him. The child’s hair was different to theirs. Her facial features did not resemble her parents’ nor anyone else in their families.
“I remember the day my wife, Ellen, gave birth – it was November 25, 1971. I looked at the baby and knew this wasn’t our child. But no one else suspected anything sinister.”
When he shared his disquiet with friends and relatives, they brushed him off. “Our doctor said the way the child looks can go back generations. But I wasn’t convinced. People would tell me it was my firstborn, there was no comparison I could make. But you just feel it.”
Against all odds, Lawrence, who is now 66, eventually tracked down his biological child to a rundown farmhouse in Stellenbosch – and in doing so, returned their baby to her real mother. But this bittersweet reunion almost cost him his family, and it would take years before his wife would form a bond with the couple’s rightful child.
Lawrence remembers how his early suspicion caused lingering tension. “My wife insisted the baby was ours and questioned my accusations. I started to drink.”
In Kylemore, the tightly knit Stellenbosch community in which they lived, people gossiped about his controversial claims. Desperate, Lawrence remembers approaching his priest one Sunday. “He told me: ‘Anyone can see this is not your child. The Lord will show you where to look for your real daughter.’”
The next day, Lawrence, then an architectural draftsman, went to the Stellenbosch hospital where his wife had given birth and pretended to be a medical student doing research on birth rates.
“They fell for it, introduced me to the matron of the maternity section and pulled out the register of births. I gave them fictitious dates until we got to November 25, 1971.
“I found out that 12 children were born that day – 11 girls and one boy. Two of the girls were born five minutes apart, but they didn’t want to give me their names. Eventually, I told them I was the father of one of those children and I believed the child we’d got wasn’t ours. They told me it’s impossible, but I said I would search even if it took me a lifetime.
“I said to my wife: ‘Listen, were you perhaps one of two moms whose children were born five minutes apart, and do you remember the other woman’s name?’ She told me her name was Fanny, and she lived on a farm.”
That Friday, after work, Lawrence searched the farms covering the winelands of Stellenbosch. “Just imagine how many farms there are. Hundreds. After a while, I wanted to abandon my search until the next day, but when I was about to turn back, there was a farm in front of me.
“I found out two Fannies lived on this farm. One had recently left and the other had moved nearby. We had to go through strawberry fields to get to a semi-detached house. A slightly intoxicated man answered the door. I told him: ‘Mister, die kind wat ek het lyk net soos jy (The child I have looks just like you).’ His wife was in the house next door in bed with the baby, who resembled my wife, and I knew this was my blood. The baby didn’t even have decent clothes and the baby we had at home had everything.”
Curiously, both babies, aged 10 months, shared the name Jocelyn.
At first, the couples swopped their babies for a weekend. But after blood tests proved Lawrence’s instincts were correct, each couple took their rightful children home in September 1972.
“The farm people wanted to take both but couldn’t even afford one. I was prepared to take both but they said no. They never bonded with their own daughter and sent her to live with her granny.
“We found out that after the birth, when the nurses took my child to weigh her and bath her, they put her in the wrong cot. That’s where it all started.”
Back then, the baby swop sensation made front page news, although the hospital has never apologised. But in the Lawrences’ home, things were falling apart.
“My wife told me I was taking her life away. She loved this child, they had an incredible bond. She had breastfed her from birth. She wanted to divorce me and we separated for some time.
“For years, I had to work on the relationship between my wife and daughter. It was so stressful. I had to be a mother and a father to my firstborn.
“Now their relationship is very strong, as strong as it can be. They phone each other every day.”
A connection remains with Jocelyn Arnold, who still calls the couple her real “mother and father”, but they rarely see each other.
Lawrence empathises with the families involved in the baby swopping case now playing out in the North Gauteng High Court.
“It’s a pity that a judge must decide what happens to these families. I feel blessed I left that farmhouse that night with my rightful child in my arms.”
By Kashiefa Ajam
Sandy Dawkins and Megs Clinton-Parker are well aware of the devastating consequences. Their sons were switched at birth at the Nigel Hospital on the East Rand in 1989.
It was only after a dispute over Clinton-Parker’s son’s paternity arose 20 months later that it was discovered their babies had been switched by mistake.
Robyn was raised by Sandy, who was a poor single mom struggling to make ends meet just outside Joburg.
Gavin was raised by wealthy Megs in Pietermaritzburg.
Both women decided to keep the babies they had raised for 20 months.
In an interview with Australia’s 60 Minutes programme last year, the women talked for the first time of their regret at not switching the babies back, there and then.
“I personally feel we’ve done a lot more damage,” said Sandy.
“The heartbreak would have been unbelievable, but I think there would have been a lot less damage done.”
But at the time both mothers were more concerned with the babies they had raised up to that point, although they had started to wonder about their biological sons.
“Initially I think you protect the one you’ve got. Then the curiosity comes,” said Megs.
Journalist Peter Overton explained that 60 Minutes had met the families 16 years ago when they spoke to journalist Richard Carleton.
When Robyn was 15, the grim realities of his meagre life with Sandy were hitting home, Overton said.
“It is difficult. If I’ve ever wanted anything, I’ve had to work towards it. I’ve never just had it come to me. I’m not saying I’ve never had anything. What I’m saying is… Gavin gets things easy.”
In 2004 Gavin, living Robyn’s life, was very comfortable with his lot. Overton asked Gavin whether he ever wanted to live with Sandy.
“Not really. I’m happy down here,” he replied.
Did he feel sorry for Robyn, Megs’s biological son?
“Not really,” he said.
But Megs wanted her boy back; he was becoming something of a lost boy. And so, with her encouragement, Robyn left Sandy’s home and went to live with her and Gavin. For a while, Megs had everything she wanted, while Sandy had nothing. But the confusing situation started to take a toll on her as well as both the boys.
When he was 18, Robyn dropped out of school and left Megs’s house to live in Louis Trichardt, leaving in his wake two devastated families.
* The Saturday Star was unable to reach Sandy Dawkins and Megs Clinton-Parker for interviews. Mike Greenaway, producer of 60 Minutes, told us that unfortunately a condition of the programme’s stories with the two families was that they not be sold to South Africa for screening.
Since the original court case and subsequent developments they have decided not to talk to local journalists.