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Birth mother doesn't know best

IMAGINE a four-year-old toddler in a black and white checkered dress, black patent leather shoes and ribbons in her swinging braids. She's laughing in her grandmother's arms -- until another woman wrenches away the frantically kicking and screaming young girl. Imagine this happening twice: Two happy children torn from their homes and forced to live with strangers.

Fortunately, that's not what happened. The baby switch that occurred in 1995 at the University Hospital could have had this heart-wrenching consequence for two toddlers -- Rebecca Chittum and Callie May Conley -- when their biological relatives sued for custody. But for now, Rebecca is safe in her grandparents' arms.

On Friday, a juvenile court judge in Buena Vista, Va., had Rebecca's best interest at heart. He decided that she would remain with the two sets of grandparents raising her rather than handing over custody to her biological mother, Paula Johnson.

The judge made this choice despite a Virginia law requiring him to presume that a child is better off with her biological parents. But Rebecca has suffered an enormous amount already, and there's no need to expose her to further trauma or turn her life into a drama for a TV mini-series.

Everyone involved has been subject to intensive media coverage already. The mysterious switch occurred in 1995 but wasn't uncovered by DNA testing until last year, after the parents who had been raising Rebecca, Whitney Rogers and Kevin Chittum, died in a car crash. Since then, flashing cameras, courtrooms and frantic lawyers have infringed upon the girls' ordinary days. It's time that disputing relatives remove both youngsters from the spotlight and let them begin to have normal lives again.

The Chittum and Rogers families have alleged that Johnson only wants custody to get money -- the state awarded Rebecca and the grandparents $2 million in February. Johnson maintains that the blood relation is the reason she sought custody. But whatever the motives of relatives, at least Rebecca's best interest was foremost in the judge's mind when he made the decision to give Johnson weekend and summer visiting time but let the grandparents retain custody.

The judge could have caused immeasurable harm by granting Johnson custody of Rebecca. The car bearing Chittum and Rogers crashed just 16 months ago, abruptly taking away the two most important people in Rebecca's life forever. It's like suddenly sending this innocent three-year-old to college -- except infinitely worse since her parents can never come visit. And to once again -- less than a year and a half later -- remove the central figures from Rebecca's life would have been nothing short of cruel.

A psychologist who spent five hours with Rebecca over the past month testified that she is a happy child, recovering well from the devastating loss. But she said another change in custody could have devastating consequences on Rebecca's mental health. ("Birth Mother Stymied in Baby Switch Case," The Washington Post, Nov. 13.) Just when she appears to have recovered from one loss -- and now probably is adjusted to new parental figures, new routines, a new atmosphere -- she certainly doesn't need to be thrust into a foreign environment again.

Johnson's suit appears selfish because it ignores her own daughter's best interests. She hasn't alleged that the two sets of grandparents have been poor guardians to Rebecca and she already has custody of the other switched girl, Callie Marie. Johnson wants both to keep the daughter she has raised for four years and gain custody of her biological daughter. This would leave the Chittum and Rogers families bereft of everything: Each has lost a child and then would lose a granddaughter.

The judge not only ruled wisely -- he ruled quickly. Chittum and Rogers' lawyers had 24 witnesses prepared to testify, but the judge ruled after only one, the psychologist, had spoken. This prevented the other witnesses from speaking -- several of whom planned to demonstrate that Johnson was an unfit mother for Rebecca and probably would have further estranged the opposing families.

The best outcome was that all three families appeared to be pleased with the judge's decision and willing to work together in the future, keeping Rebecca's best interests at heart. Hopefully the visitation arrangement will work smoothly and all parties will keep open lines of communication.

If Johnson wants to be considerate of Rebecca's needs in the future, she shouldn't appeal this case, even though her lawyers vowed to take it all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. But a reversal would be a mistake. None of the families should tie up any more precious time -- better spent having fun with their daughters -- in court.

With that in mind, the grandparents who have filed for custody of Callie Marie, their biological granddaughter, should drop that case. The grandparents should be given visiting time with Callie Marie in the same way Johnson can visit Rebecca. But after fighting valiantly against displacing Rebecca, they should realize that it also could be devastating to force Callie Marie away from the only home and mother she's ever known.

Cooperation is essential. If these three families really love their young, cheerful girls, they will seek to protect the well being of these children. They will be content with what they have and treasure every moment of these toddlers' quickly passing youth. They will provide stability, support and love -- and never wish to tear either girl's world apart.

(Jennifer Schaum is a Cavalier Daily associate editor.)

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