Switched Signals

updated 12/07/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

In this age of hair-trigger litigation, it seemed a shining example of restraint. Just days after a car accident last July 4 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia killed Kevin Chittum, 25, and his fiancée, Whitney Rogers, 19, it emerged that their 3-year-old daughter, Rebecca, was not biologically theirs; she had been switched at birth with another woman's child. Rebecca's birth mother was a woman named Paula Johnson, 31; and the little girl Johnson had been raising, Callie, 3, was the biological daughter of Chittum and Rogers. Rather than uproot the girls from the only relatives they had ever known, the families involved decided to leave things the way they were: Callie with Johnson, and Rebecca with the couples she had known as her grandparents—the parents of Chittum and Rogers. Given the circumstances, it seemed a hopeful solution.

Too hopeful, it now appears. On Nov. 9, Whitney's parents, Tom and Linda Rogers, who are divorced but have formed a united front on this issue, petitioned the court for sole custody of Rebecca, arguing it was the best way to provide her a stable home. Under the current agreement all the grandparents—who live in the Buena Vista, Va., area—have pledged to rotate Rebecca, and Kevin and Whitney's younger daughter, 21-month-old Lindsey, among them. The two girls would spend four months a year with Rosa Lee Chittum, 50, and her husband, Larry, 53, four months with Linda, 48, and four months with Tom, 47, and his second wife, Brenda, 35.

For the Chittums, who say they now intend to file their own counter-suit for sole custody, and Paula Johnson, Rebecca's biological mother, the Rogerses' move represented nothing less than the callous breaking of a fragile peace. "I thought everything we were supposed to be doing was in the best interests of the kids," says Johnson, a construction worker. "And this is not in the best interests of the kids."

The Rogerses see things differently. Tom and Linda disagreed with the Chittums' approach of encouraging Johnson to quickly develop a relationship with Rebecca. The Chittums had Johnson and Callie as overnight guests in their home, and when it came time for parents' night at Rebecca's preschool, the Chittums had Paula come along too. Johnson says she was "surprised and hurt" by the custody petition, which she fears could keep her at arm's length from her biological child. But Linda insists nothing like that was intended. "Why they feel I'm trying to keep Rebecca away from Paula I have no idea, because I'm not," says Linda. "I want Rebecca as the years go by to know Paula better, but this is going to be a slow, gradual process." For her part, Johnson has no desire to disrupt Rebecca's life. "I only want to take her to McDonald's, the playground, shopping," she says, "whatever moms and daughters do."

Despite all that has happened so far, the girls are reportedly doing reasonably well. Callie and Rebecca have been encouraged to call each other sister and have become good playmates, given their different temperaments. Where Rebecca is somewhat reserved, Callie is outgoing. Callie, in fact, has a sense that she is something special. When she sees references to the case on television, says Johnson, she blurts out, "That's me! I'm the switched baby." Though Rebecca, like Callie, has been spared the complicated details, she remains traumatized by her parents' death. "She asks about them every day," says Linda Rogers. "And you tell her, 'Mommy and Daddy are in heaven.' And she says, 'Who put them there?' And you say, 'God.' "

Some people close to the Chittums and Rogerses fear the legal wrangling may yet spur Johnson to try and seek custody of Rebecca. According to family-law specialists, such a move remains a distinct possibility. "The question is whether Johnson is willing to allow her daughter to become the center of a court battle," says John Taggart, a Charlottesville attorney who handles many custody cases. "She might come in and say, 'It's better for my daughter to be with me than in the middle of this fight.' "

But Johnson insists she would never take Rebecca away from the people she has known as her grandparents. To do so, she realizes, would mean separating Rebecca from the little girl she knows as her sister, which Johnson says would be unconscionable. "We're not just talking about Rebecca," says Johnson's attorney Cynthia Johnson (no relation). "We're also talking about Lindsey—and you can't dismiss her from the picture. Paula will never do anything to disrupt that relationship." By the same token, though, Paula has vowed to battle anyone who tries to cut off her contact with Rebecca. "Nobody is going to stop me from seeing her," she says. "I'll fight whoever I have to fight—to the Supreme Court."

Meanwhile, Johnson is about to move to Northern Virginia, to a house she is renting in a gated community with financial help from her family, and is preparing to sue the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, where the baby switch occurred. Recently the state of Virginia released the results of an investigation into how the switch took place. Although the report concluded that the cause of the mishap remains a mystery, no evidence was uncovered to suggest foul play. (Over the past year the medical center has ratcheted up its security measures in order to avoid a repetition of the switch.)

The latest turn in the case especially saddens Kevin Chittum's sister Roxane Cullen, 29, because, she says, it is so at odds with her late brother's personality. She remembers Kevin and Whitney Rogers as big-hearted people who would have found a way to avoid causing any hard feelings. "Kevin and Whitney would not want anyone excluded from their life," says Cullen. Faced with the circumstances that have arisen, she says, "They would all be friends and there wouldn't be this bickering."

Bill Hewitt
Linda Kramer in Charlottesville and Rose Ellen O'Connor in Buena Vista

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