Switched at Birth: When 'Mine' and 'Yours' Become 'Ours'

Five years ago last week, Americans watched a heart-rending scene. A 2-1/2-year-old girl named Jessica DeBoer was taken screaming from the arms of her adoptive parents in Michigan - the only family she had ever known - to begin a new life in Iowa as Anna Schmidt, living with the biological parents who had changed their minds about adoption.

Two years later, in April 1995, a similar scenario involved a four-year-old boy in Illinois named Richard. He too sobbed uncontrollably as he was forced to leave the adoptive parents who had reared him since birth. "I'll be good. Don't make me leave. I'll be good," the little boy pleaded desperately as he was handed over to the birth father he had met only days before.

These anguished cases, etched in the memory of those who followed the "Baby Jessica" and "Baby Richard" custody disputes, are relevant again in the wake of news that two blond three-year-old girls in Virginia were switched at birth. As the shocked families of Callie Marie Johnson and Rebecca Chittum grapple with the implications and consider their options - decisions further complicated by the deaths last month of Rebecca's parents in a car crash - many onlookers hope they can avoid a repeat of the wrenching transfers involving Jessica and Richard.

Early reports from Virginia are auspicious. In their first meeting last weekend, relatives of the girls vowed not to seek custody of the other child. "We'll all raise them," Paula Johnson told reporters. "We'll be an extended family, the connection will be so good."

Even so, they will need all the good connections they can find. Ever since the highly publicized "Baby M" case in 1987, in which a surrogate mother fought for custody of the daughter she had borne for another couple, courts, ethicists, and all the rest of us have been forced to consider difficult questions: Whose child is this? Which is the "right" parent? What happens when too many loving hearts compete for the privilege of rearing a child? And who should decide what is in a child's best interest?

In the Baby M case, a New Jersey court granted custody to the biological father and his wife, while also giving broad visiting rights to the surrogate. By contrast, little Jessica and Richard were cut off completely from any contact with their adoptive parents.

Every set of circumstances is different for children whose legal family status is in question because of surrogacy, illegitimacy, or, in the Virginia case, a terrible hospital mix-up. What is deemed best for one family might not be appropriate for another.

But situations like these serve as reminders that, in the long journey from cradle to college and beyond, good parenting is about loving and caring and nurturing - qualities not dependent on genetic links. Even genetic bonds cannot guarantee family stability. Richard's biological parents, for example, have separated.

As Baby M nears adolescence, only she and her two families know how their intricate visitation schedules have played out. But if they have ideas about what works and what doesn't in such cases of shared custody, the families of the little girls in Virginia, or their lawyers, might welcome suggestions.

If the two families can successfully work out their own shared arrangements, avoiding the bitter, protracted, and all-too-public court battles that have characterized earlier cases, they will chart brave new territory. By going beyond the possessive "mine" and "yours" to a generous, all-inclusive "ours," they can give Callie and Rebecca a chance to become what one commentator poetically calls "sisters in spirit."

Chalk up another new meaning for the term "blended family."

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