A Time of Trial

updated 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT IS AN ANXIETY THAT CROSSES NEARLY every new mother's mind: What if I came home from the hospital with the wrong baby? Tragically, that is precisely what happened nearly eight years ago when two unsuspecting mothers left Griffin-Spalding County Hospital in Griffin, Ga., with each other's newborn sons! The error went unnoticed for nearly five years despite obvious differences in the boys' racial backgrounds. Now the parents of these switched children are locked in a desperate tug of war over custody. In October, Georgia Superior Court Judge Frank Eldridge will begin hearings on the case, which will eventually decide the fate of the boys and their families.

The unhappy story began on Oct. 7, 1983, when Jodie Pope and Tina Williams both gave birth to boys. Jodie, 19 and two years married, named her child Cameron. Tina, 20, a white single mother, named her son Melvin after his father, a black construction worker.

On Oct. 9 both women were released from the hospital. Pope and her husband, Walter, left with Williams's mixed-race baby; Williams left with Pope's white child, which she gave up for adoption three days later.

Edith and Eugene Moore, a mixed-race couple (he's black, she's white), had arranged to adopt the mixed-race baby. The baby they got and raised in a loving home as Melvin was—unknown to them—the Popes' son, Cameron, who soon could conceivably be taken from them. "I feel so helpless," says Edith.

Nor is Edith, now living in Fort Knox, Ky., alone in her unhappiness. "I haven't had a good night's sleep since this started," Jodie Pope, now 27, has told reporters. The trouble began in July 1988, when blood tests on Cameron showed he wasn't related to either parent. Subsequently, Pope moved to adopt the child. Now she is suing to get her natural son back from Edith and Eugene Moore. "There's no easy answer for any of this," says Pope. But Edith Moore, 42, is adamant about her right to keep Melvin, whom she and Eugene have raised for eight years. "I'm more of a mother to Melvin than she is," she insists.

When Moore, a hotel housekeeper, first laid eyes on the fair-skinned baby with the blond hair and green eyes, she recalls asking the adoption agency social worker, "You sure that's a mixed child? That looks like a little white boy." A native of Germany, where she had married Eugene, 36, now an Army staff sergeant, Edith says the social worker assured the couple the baby's skin would grow darker. Edith, who had been married once before and knew she could not bear children, fought down her doubts. More than a year later, when the little boy's features remained the same, the Moores accepted a social worker's hypothetical explanation: His natural mother had been seeing two men and might have been mistaken about Melvin's father being black. But race hardly mattered to the Moores. "From the first minute on, he knows my husband and they feel very close," says Edith in heavily accented English, adding that Melvin once told her, "One of these days, I get brown just like Daddy. One day I have sun-tan like Daddy."

Meanwhile, in Griffin, Jodie Pope, a dark-haired waitress, was convinced from the beginning that Cameron was her natural son. Although the boy's olive skin and dark, curly hair made a doubter of her husband, Walter, 28, an auto mechanic, Jodie insisted her Native American ancestry was showing up in the child. Walter was told at the hospital the baby would "lighten up," but, he says, "as he got older, I had doubts he was mine. At least I figured he was hers. But I loved the kid like he was mine."

Yet Walter's doubts about the boy's paternity contributed to the couple's decision to divorce. "He sees the kid's features," explains Walter's lawyer, Bill Fears, "so he just thinks there's some infidelity on her part." Walter demanded that blood tests be performed on the boy—the tests that revealed that Cameron was not related to either parent. By then it was too late to save I he marriage. Cameron was put in Jodie's custody, and Walter hasn't seen him since the divorce.

In February 1989, Jodie, alter obtaining a court order to open Melvin's adoption papers, located the Moores, who were stunned by the news that Melvin was never meant to be adopted. At first both sides agreed to let the boys stay in their respective homes. Then last year Jodie, who has been told that she cannot have any more children due to various medical problems, changed her mind. She is now asking a Georgia Superior Court to have Melvin returned to her. (She was recently allowed to adopt Cameron by the Georgia Supreme Court.) "I don't try to take him from her," says Edith, who has filed her own custody suit for the boy. "He tells me all the time, 'Mommy, I love you. I want to stay with you.' " Adds Eugene: "If she gets both kids, I'll never trust the judicial system again."

As for how the baby swap occurred in the first place, David Gray, the Moores' Kentucky lawyer, believes the mistake was caused by an inadvertent mix up of the ID bracelets placed on the babies at birth. (The hospital is investigating.)

Georgia's state-run adoption agency, like the hospital, faces several lawsuits against it for negligence by the various parents. Whatever the courts decide, Edith says she tells the boy she raised for eight years, "If you have to go to your other mommy, I always will love you." Then, her voice trembling, she concludes, "He will be in my heart. No matter if she gets him, he's still my child."

RON ARIAS
LUCHINA FISHER in Griffin, Ga., and Fort Knox, Ky.

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