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People Top 5
LAST UPDATE: Tuesday February 10, 2015 01:10PM EST
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- August 24, 1998
- Vol. 50
- No. 6
All in the Family
Two Little Girls Who Were Switched at Birth Teach Those Who Love Them About the True Ties That Bind
The nightmare of the apparent switch at birth that took place in the summer of 1995 at the University of Virginia Medical Center has riveted the country. But nobody is more pained than Johnson, a single mother of four, and Callie's newly discovered grandparents, who are still reeling from the car crash that killed Rogers and Chittum.
On Aug. 7, when Paula Johnson drove to a rendezvous with the late Kevin Chittum's parents in Ivy, Va., she saw them sitting on the porch and nervously drove on by. But then she stopped, freshened her lipstick, fixed her hair and met with them—for the first time—for more than five hours. The next day in nearby Staunton, Va., Johnson got together with the late Whitney Rogers's family. "There was a lot of crying and laughter and swapping of stories," Johnson told PEOPLE of both meetings. "We could have talked all night." They also swapped gifts: a Cabbage Patch doll for Rebecca, a Tickle Me Elmo for Callie.
The adults compared notes and learned that each of the two girls, in some ways at least, takes after her biological mother. "Crab legs are my favorite food, and I found out they're Rebecca's, too," says Johnson of the daughter she has yet to meet. For her part, she recounted that Callie loves pizza and chicken and ice cream—some of Whitney's favorite foods.
The girls themselves were not present at the meetings, but their families examined their pictures. "She looked just like me when I was a little girl," says Johnson of Rebecca, whose hair is the same light brown that Johnson's was before she lightened it. And the Chittums see Kevin's winning smile in Callie, who placed second in the Tiny Miss Greene County beauty pageant last month.
The question of what to do next was left for another day. But Johnson and the parents of Chittum and Rogers all agreed that when Callie and Rebecca are old enough to be told how their lives' paths crossed and became entangled, one thing will remain preeminently clear: "These are not orphans," says Rebecca's stepgrandmother, Brenda Rogers, 35. "They are adored and loved children."
That is a great deal, surely. But will it be enough during the uncertain passage ahead? For all the love and attention they are now receiving, little Callie Conley and Rebecca Chittum may, in the end, be children whose futures are inevitably shaped by their parents' disparate pasts.
As a star running back at Natural Bridge High School, Kevin Chittum "had the prettiest smile, and his eyes were so friendly," recalls close friend Christina Dameron, 23. "All the girls loved him because he was so cute."
But the girl he wanted more than any other in 1994 was 15-year-old Whitney Rogers, a petite blonde cheerleader at nearby Parry McCluer High School. At first, "they had to sneak to be with each other," says Whitney's older brother Travis, 24, "but they had to be with each other." When Whitney's mother, Linda, warned the two that they would have to break up if her daughter's grades dropped, Kevin, a skilled carpenter who had gone to work for his father Larry's Chittum Construction Company after graduation in 1992, volunteered to spend evenings helping her with homework.
A year later, when Whitney learned that she was pregnant, it at first seemed like the end of the world to her family, but Kevin was thrilled. His mother, Rosa Lee Chittum, 50, remembers the way that he ran out to the local JCPenney for baby clothes and supplies "like an excited mother," she says.
Whitney delivered a 7-lb. 10-oz., blue-eyed baby girl at 2:43 p.m. on June 30, 1995. After leaving the medical center in Charlottesville on the morning of July 2, the new parents and baby Rebecca moved into a small bungalow in Buena Vista owned by her mother, Linda (who is divorced from Whitney's father, Tom Rogers), and Linda moved in with a sister. Whitney left high school after the 11th grade to care full-time for the baby and hoped to work toward her GED this fall.
Like Whitney, Kevin was an enthusiastic parent. "He got up and did the nighttime feedings and changed diapers," says his sister Roxanne Cullen, 29. "Rebecca was his universe." Friends often saw Rebecca and the family's Saint Bernard, Buster, with Kevin in his pickup truck on their way to the Country Cookin restaurant. Unlike her mother, a dainty eater, Rebecca quickly grew into an athletic little girl who now loves to swim and scoot around on Barbie roller skates—and whose favorite foods are crab legs, Polish sausage, ice cream and french fries.
After Whitney gave birth to a second daughter, Lindsey, in 1997, Kevin began working in earnest on a three-bedroom 1930s stucco house that the two had found nearby, building kitchen cabinets, installing a skylight in the dining room and drawing plans for a third story. "The girls would play in the yard while he worked on it," says next-door neighbor Sonya Coffey, 43. "He even apologized to us, saying he hoped he wasn't keeping us up at night."
Then, on June 30, the family celebrated Rebecca's third birthday. "I asked her what her daddy got her," says Kevin's mother, Rosa Lee, "and she said a VCR and a TV. She didn't want for anything." Four days later came the horrible news: While Kevin, 25, and Whitney, 19, were heading for a country fair with Kevin's niece, his younger sister and two of her friends, their Honda skidded on rain-slicked Interstate 81, crossed the median and hit a tanker truck. Police say the accident, which took the lives of seven people, including the truck driver, was over in no more than four seconds.
It was a week later that Whitney's mother received a call from the U. Va. Medical Center. "I put her to rest on Thursday and was at work at 3 p.m. the next Monday [July 13]," Linda Rogers says of her deceased daughter, "when I got a phone call from this doctor telling me he had to talk to me." Kevin's sister Roxanne remembers that when doctors told them that Rebecca might not be genetically related to them, her immediate reaction was one of total disbelief. "I laughed at them. I held her and I watched the cord being cut."
While Whitney Rogers was raising her children in a warm extended family, Paula Johnson was living a less settled life. Her father, William Johnson, 48, a masonry worker, and mother Jewel Lee Condrey, also 48, separated when Paula was 15. After dropping out in her senior year at Osbourne High School in Manassas, Va., Johnson married Frank Moore, a roofer, in 1987, split from him a year later and, in 1994, finally divorced. By then she was the mother of three children (Wesley Johnson, now 12; Frankie Moore, 10, who lives with Johnson's ex-husband in northern Virginia; and Cody Leaveil, 7). It was also in 1994 that she became enraged when a car-pooling mother refused to wait and drove off without picking up her children for school one morning. According to court papers, Johnson called the woman "a fat bitch" and "started running at the car." Johnson was ordered to pay a $100 fine.
By that time she was sharing a small house and a tumultuous relationship with Carlton Conley, now 34, a high school dropout and construction worker who was raised in Stanardsville, Va., by his grandmother Callie. That was the name the couple chose when, at 11:12 p.m. on June 29, 1995, Johnson gave birth to a 9-lb. 6-oz., blue-eyed daughter. The next day, Johnson underwent a tubal ligation, and when her baby was brought to her that evening, Carlton, who had been present at the delivery, "said her face wasn't as fat" as it had been the day before, Johnson remembers. Alarmed at the baby's drop in weight to 7 lbs., 12 ozs. two days after the birth, Johnson returned to the hospital. "I repeatedly asked the nurses why she wasn't eating or sucking. They said, 'Sometimes they forget how.' " Hospital authorities now say that, although staffers were concerned about the baby's sharp weight drop, they never considered the possibility that Johnson might have the wrong baby.
A year and a half after Callie's birth, Conley moved out, and his relationship with Johnson continued to deteriorate. Then Johnson won an order of protection after she claimed in court documents that Conley "ran into the back of my car with his truck...grabbed me by my arms, pushed and shoved me into my car....He then got a gun and shoved me and said he would shoot me." Conley later served four days in jail for assault.
Johnson, who earns $1,500 a month as a construction worker, petitioned the court for a substantial increase in Conley's $75 per week child support for Callie. A judge ordered DNA tests to legally establish Callie's paternity. Then, this July, came the bombshell that would change their lives. "[The judge] said that Carlton was excluded from being the father of Callie," remembers Johnson. "I said, 'That's crazy. No way. I wasn't with anybody else.' He said, 'Yes, ma'am, but that's not everything. You're also excluded from being Callie's mother.' "
As Johnson and Conley try to come to grips with that stunning revelation, friends emphasize that, despite the troubles between them, both parents were devoted to the child they believed was their own. "Callie is her world," says Shirley Shifflett, a cook at Dean's 29 Family Restaurant in Johnson's hometown of Ruckersville. "Paula raised her right."
Johnson herself recalls how the infant Callie refused to fall asleep anywhere but on Conley's shoulder. An avid deer and squirrel hunter, Conley dressed the child in miniature camouflage pajamas as a baby and has bought a 22 rifle that he says he will give to her when she's older. When he takes her to the local stock car races, "She'll sit down and watch like a grown-up," says Conley. "When there's a wreck she says, 'Look, Daddy, he wrecked.' "
Today, Conley and Johnson say that the shock of the news they heard on July 2 has united them. "Every fight we ever had was over Callie," insists Johnson. "We get along just fine."
The unanswered question of how, why and by whom the two infants were switched is still under investigation by university and state police and the Virginia Department of Health. Whitney's father, Tom Rogers, has given authorities a videotape that he took of his granddaughter shortly after her birth, and Johnson has turned over photos of her newborn wearing wrist and ankle ID bracelets that, she now says, were easily loose enough to slip off without cutting.
Of course, exactly what happened may never be known. "So far we've not been able to find anything," says Thomas Massaro, a pediatrician and chief of staff at the U.Va. Medical Center, who reports that the hospital is tightening its safeguards against the possibility of any such mix-up occurring in the future.
Meanwhile, Callie's and Rebecca's families now talk almost daily by phone, trying to lay the groundwork for introducing the girls to their biological families and, ultimately, to each other. "When the time comes, I'm sure it will be done right," says grandmother Linda Rogers, who, with her ex-husband Tom and Rebecca's other grandparents, Larry and Rosa Lee Chittum, is now sharing the responsibility of caring for the child. "What's important is for these children to continue to be loved."
It is a message that seems already to have been conveyed. Not long ago, while trying to help Rebecca understand where they have gone, Brenda Rogers ventured a gentle explanation: Her parents are now the two brightest stars in the sky. Recently, as Rogers drove the little girl home on a clear, still evening, Rebecca looked out of the car window and soon recognized a now familiar sight. "Look," she said, pointing to the heavens. "Mommy and Daddy are chasing us."
Linda Kramer in Virginia
- Linda Kramer.
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