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The Washington Post Magazine Online

Today's Topic: The Virginia Baby Swap
with Tamara Jones

Monday, February 28, 2000
1 p.m. EST

Paula Johnson & Callie

Nineteen months ago, when the baby swap at the University of Virginia Medical Center first came to light, Paula Johnson and the other families involved weren't talking about lawsuits or custody fights or trading children. Now that's all they talk about.

This afternoon, Tamara Jones, who co-authored "They Swapped My Baby!" in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine, will be online to field questions and comments about the article.

Jones is a Washington Post staff writer as well as a contributing editor for Good Housekeeping and YM magazine. Previously, she worked as a foreign correspondent and national writer for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times.

Jones says: "On July 1, Johnson took her new daughter home around lunch time, but five hours later they were back in the emergency room. Johnson was worried because Callie was refusing to eat. When doctors weighed her, she was nearly two pounds lighter than her recorded birth weight. Paula asked why--repeatedly, she claims--but the head pediatrician, Robert Boyle, brushed aside her concerns. 'Sometimes this just happens,' she recalls him saying."

Please read Tamara Jones' article, They Swapped My Baby! and then submit your questions and comments in advance and during the Live Online hour.


Rockville, MD: Tamara: Read your article yesterday and thought it was a good recap of the case in addition to having some new information. After speaking with Johnson and other individuals involved, do you think she is just being selfish and greedy? It seemed to me that not only does she want her biological child, who would be devastated to be taken from her grandparents at this point, but a child that is not hers. What is her rationale behind that move? Also, for her attorney to call Chillums I believe a "rapist" seemed a little harsh considering the circumstances. Where do you think this will end? Will Johnson ever stop trying to collect money for this?

Tamara Jones: Hi, and thanks. Even after spending considerable time with Ms. Johnson and investigating this case for 4 months, I don't feel comfortable putting any particular label on her -- both the emotions and the ethical issues at the heart of this case are too complex. How do you put a price-tag on something like this, or calculate damages? There's no template, really. As for her motivation in seeking custody of Rebecca, she feels that Rebecca should know she has a mother,and live in one home.

Charlottesville, VA: Congratulations on an excellent article. Here's my question: How do you feel about the university's refusal to let you see the police file?

Tamara Jones: Greetings. I felt hamstrung by the police's refusal to open their file, and unconvinced by their reasons for doing so. We have filed Freedom of Information Act requests for those files, as well as the sealed investigation by the state Department of Health.

Somewhere, USA: I was disgusted by everyone in the article, particularly the Johnson woman. Haven't any of these people ever heard of BIRTH CONTROL??

Tamara Jones: A provocative question. Ms. Johnson had her tubes tied after giving birth to her daughter. But I'm curious, and would like to hear what others think about this: Why does the sex life of Ms. Johnson or any of the other parties in this matter?

Silver Spring, MD: From your article it appears that neither mother was particularly well off financially. Did either of the mothers give birth under Medicaid? Could they have gotten second class treatment at the hospital because they were poor? I can imagine that a single mother having her fourth child -plus having her tubes tied-, and a teenager of 16 giving birth would not be the kind of customer a hospital would give the red carpet treatment to, particularly if they were receiving low welfare reimbursement rates. Were these mothers privately insured ?

Tamara Jones: Great questions, and impossible to know. The University and State Attorney General's office did not permit me to interview any of the staff members directly involved in Ms. Johnson or Ms. Rogers' care. That particular allegation does not come up, however, in Ms. Johnson's suit against the hospital.

Richmond, Virginia: The article mentions that at the first meeting of the families, Paula Johnson announced that she was "going to sue for $50 million." Do you know if she or her lawyers had mentioned anything about lawsuits, settlements or compensation to any representatives of UVA before that time and if so, when?

Tamara Jones: Yes, the university's lawyers said the hospital had been in contact with Ms. Johnson's lawyer before that time and had reason to believe she was going to sue. Ms. Johnson told me she wouldn't have sought so much and would have been open to settlement if she had been treated differently from the outset.

Charlottesville, VA: So now that Paula Johnson's 50 million dollar suit against the Commonwealth has been thrown out, is she still eligible to file for the 1 million dollar cap for herself? It seems a shame -despite her "overdoing it" with $50million- that she would receive no compensation for what is obviously gross negligence on the part of UVA Hospital.

Tamara Jones: Since press time, they've amended their suit and resubmitted it to the court. If it gets thrown out again, they still have the option of going to federal court, and the state has said that they're still willing to talk about settlement.

Washington, D.C.: The sex life of the parents may or may not impact on this story. I think that what "Somewhere, U.S.A." was reacting to was a woman who's had four children by four different men. She doesn't exactly sound like a stable, responsible person; she certainly doesn't sound like someone who should be given custody of more children.

Tamara Jones: But, for the sake of debate, why does this make her less sympathetic as a victim? Somewhere, USA is not alone by any means in making the comment about birth control: I got the same response from many people I either interviewed or just privately talked to about the article. Is she more sympathetic if she had had one child and three abortions, or if she had had four lovers but only two pregnancies, for example?

Bristow VA: Did you ever think that the other parents did it, or even the aunt?

Tamara Jones: Believe me, Bristow, you can keep yourself up nights trying to figure out what really happened here! It's one of those stories that keeps your brain busy chasing rabbits. I still do, even though I'm "done" with it.

Orange, Virginia: Given Paula's poor track record of raising children -including actually losing custody of one-that were biologically her own, how can anyone give serious consideration to her obtaining custody of both children involved in the baby switch? Of course, the UVA hospital performed horribly by sending the babies home with the wrong families and performed equally if not more reprehensibly in their well-orchestrated attempts to smear Paula's image once the switch became publicized, but the conduct of the hospital should be a separate issue from Paula's fitness as a parent. I would respectfully submit that your article in the magazine didn't make that distinction.

Tamara Jones: Thanks. I agree that there are two separate issues, and I'm sorry you didn't think the article made that clear. Paula Johnson's fitness as a parent and her private life are germane to the custody case, but, like you, I would say they are of questionable importance in the civil suit against the university. The point I was trying to make in the article is that those two, separate threads have become entangled now.

Oakland, CA: Many of the people in the article seemed to be "blaming the victim"-Paula. I.e., like a rape victim, examining & scrutinizing her life & picking it apart. I think very few people can stand up to that sort of scrutiny. Is my impression correct?

Tamara Jones: That's an interesting analogy, and I think you're right that few people can stand up to the kind of scrutiny you describe.

Charlottesville, Virginia: I can imagine such a switch as this happening at a public hospital like UVA. Charlottesville's other maternity hospital is quieter and can choose to serve lower risk mothers as patients. But I can also imagine that, if such a switch as this had taken place in the 1930s or so, whenever hospital birthing became common, or if no paternity test had been performed today, that neither party would have known about the exchange. And what true harm might have come of the ignorance? It was an egregious error, no doubt. But life isn't exactly fair, and in the realm of childbirth, it can be downright cruel. Both sets of families have bright, healthy children. The public ought to step in and help with counseling to ease the children's adjustment to the mistake. But beyond that, I haven't seen a compelling argument for a big monetary award. What basis for one did Paula Johnson and her lawyer suggest? I have no connection with either UVA or the Chittums, but I also have to say that Cynthia Johnson's "rapist" remark seemed both heartless and ill-placed. After all, the girl's father isn't a party to the custody suit. He's dead.

Tamara Jones: The university initially offered free counseling to everyone involved, but since the Chittums and Rogerses settled, they are having to pay the bill for the time they spend with Rebecca seeing the court-ordered psychologist. What does everyone else think about monetary damages? What would you do if you were on this jury?

Bristow VA: Why was your article so biased towards the Chittums and PDC?

Tamara Jones: Actually, Paula Johnson has far more of a say in the article than anyone else. The Chittums would not be interviewed. As for Precision Dynamics Corp. (the maker of the baby bracelet), their role, as of press time, was officially moot -- Johnson had withdrawn her suit against them and has not refiled it.

Manassas, VA: How is it that you were privy to information about the custody hearing? I thought that when custody is decided those records are kept confidential and not for public knowledge?

Tamara Jones: They are, and I have to protect my sources here, because the information came to me through confidential channels. I chose to use it because I felt that Ms. Johnson's track record as a parent was pertinent, given her efforts to gain custody of Rebecca on grounds she would provide a more stable environment for the child.

Virginia: Will Ms. Johnson ever get along with the other famlies?

Tamara Jones: I think both sides have made admirable efforts, and that the years ahead are going to be rocky for everyone. Think of how acrimonious and ugly "simple" custody disputes involving two parents and a child routinely become. This involves no fewer than 10 adults so far (parents, grandparents, step-grandparent and two aunts)who have been flung together by fate, not love.

WDC: I think Ms. Johnson's sex life is indicative of the choices she has made. No one forced her to have 4 kids by 4 different men. What she was trying to achieve with this - make one of them marry her? Even if she had a better-paying job, she should've given a lot more thought to her relationships. I really believe her oldest boy reflects the problems she has had at home and the lousy choices she has made. Kids need stability. Men coming and going doesn't do much for that. I'm sorry that she has the wrong baby but I feel sorrier for her other kids.

Tamara Jones: Thanks. She was married to one of them, and divorced.

Manassas,VA: While I understand that your sources are confidential...the child involved here I think is of the utmost importance. If this information did not come from Paula then it can not be held as a reliable source. And that should have been mentioned in your article that the information came from a source and not from court documents.

Tamara Jones: Sorry, I think we misunderstood each other. I thought you were asking how I obtained confidential documents. The information came via confidential sources, but I did read over 500 pages of documents myself, and Paula Johnson's own sworn testimony is part of that.

Fairfax, VA: As an adoptee, cases like this really bother me. Blood is not that important!! This would never have happened if Paula Johnson had just let it rest. The girls are bound to be confused no matter what now that they have met the "other" families. Why does everyone in this country think it is so important that their children be of their own flesh and blood?!?!

Tamara Jones: Any other opinions on this?

Charlottesville, VA: You'd be disgusted at the way this town has painted Paula in the paper. Interestingly enough, Marguerite Beck, UVA Hospital spokesperson, is also married to the editor of the local paper. They dug for every possible piece of dirt they could find on Paula and published it front page, but whenever something came out about UVA's negligence, it got 2nd & 3rd page treatment. Your thoughts as a journalist?

Tamara Jones: This is probably one of the toughest stories I've done in 20 years as a journalist. The emotions, the agendas both political and personal, the sealing of police and health dept. records, the unwillingness of some key players to be interviewed, and the lack of any clear resolution, all combine to make any piece -- even an 8,000-word one -- incomplete. Which is frustrating.

Charlottesville, VA: Based on what I know of the settlement for Rebecca...I think that the 2 million was not necessarily a lump-sum but somethingl ike 500,000 invested into roll-over accounts that, at maturity, will be worth 2 million. I think that UVA could have and should have offered life-long counseling to both girls, life-long medical treatment for all parties directly involved and a fully paid college education to both girls; before even talking about actual cash money. It is obvious that it was gross negligence on their part that caused the switch and they should fess up and make good on their mistake.

Tamara Jones: You're right, the settlement wasn't a lump sum. It was an annuity that won't be paid out until Rebecca is well into adulthood. They did offer free counseling, but later reneged on this offer to the Chittums and Rogerses. As for free education, I'm not so sure either family would want to send their children to U-Va at this point, despite its fine academic reputation.

Rockville, Md: Tamara: Thanks for the response to my earlier question. The article does bring up some important points, however.Did Johnson explain to you why she tried to block the other families from collecting the offer made by the state in the hopes of putting an end to the situation? I realize you don't want to put labels on Johnson and she has in fact suffered as a result of this situation, but what does she think would be the ultimate solution? If in fact she was able to adopt the child who has been living with her and take her biological daughter back, what does she think she would gain? Did you ask her what she thought this turmoil was doing to her biological child? I have been following the case since it started and feel your article excellent at capturing the emotions and facts of the case.

Tamara Jones: Thanks, Rockville. Johnson blocked the settlement because she felt all the money should go to Rebecca, and the settlement divided about $125,000 among the grandparents. She also was angry that she was not consulted before they agreed to the offer. The Chittums and Rogerses have sought to shelter Rebecca from the legal turmoil. Her adversaries believe that Ms. Johnson's motivation is monetary and she would collect more in damages by having both girls.

Culpeper, VA: I felt your article discredit Dr. Boyle. Dr. Boyle pulled a miracle for me and my family. If he felt the baby was at any riskfor losing 2 pounds at the emergency room, he would have admitted her. My baby was only 1 pound when he was born and on oxygen, HE SAVED MY SON'S LIFE I have watched him handled other babies in the Nic at UVA. HE HANDLES EACH CASE THE BEST OF HIS ABILITY. I think this Paula Johnson is out for money and stardom. She is a unfit mother. Sure what happen is a tragedy. UVA has done alot of good for the community and the surrounding states.

Tamara Jones: Thanks. I would have liked to have interviewed Dr. Boyle, but he is named individually in the suit and lawyers have advised him not to discuss the case. I'm glad your son won his fight for life!

Manassas, VA: I think you all seem to be missing the point here. Paula Johnson found out in July of 1998 that the daughter she loved and adored for three years was not, in fact, her biological daughter. The initial shock was devastating to her, I was there to witness it. Then came the "where is my real child and is she okay" - heartwrenching, to say the least. People believe that someone who spilled hot coffee on themselves can sue McDonald's for millions, yet Paula suing the hospital for what happened with her baby makes her "greedy"? Something is definitely wrong with this rationale. I didn't read your article yet -I try to stay away from reading about this subject since none of you really know the true story and therefore can't incorporate truth in them-, yet the questions raised here make me want to ask - "Why do any of you care about whether or not Paula sues UVA? How would you react if you found out now that your child was not really your child? Would you sue the hospital? I think the answer is a resounding "Yes!".

Tamara Jones: Thanks. I don't doubt Ms. Johnson's devastation, and the article, if you read it, does address this. I think it's important to note here that, despite the unfavorable publicity she had received and the inevitable scrutiny she knew would result, Ms. Johnson was willing to spend many hours with me and permitted me to spend time with Callie, as well. Callie's a bright, charming girl,and I don't doubt for a minute that she and Paula have a special mother-daughter bond. I hope readers were able to see that, too.

Annandale, VA: There was reference to education for both girls: Is there any indication that either child is -college material-? That has to be a consideration in such an offer. There is nothing about Paula's story that makes me think she would have passed on any genes that include intelligence.

Tamara Jones: The children are 4, which seems a tad early to be making this judgment.

Charlottesville, VA: As an adopted child, I KNOW that bloodlines are not required to have a happy, stable and healthy life. I was blessed. But, as a mother who brought her son home from another Charlottesville hospital one month before this story came to light, I have to say that when you give up a child for adoption, it is a responsible and well-thought out decision on your part. Paula and Whitney did not have that option.....

Tamara Jones: Thanks. I know, though, that both babies were wanted, and neither Paula nor Whitney had discussed giving them up for adoption.

Mt. Rainier : What makes her appear less sympathetic is the appearance of greed. You noted that she -started- the conversation with the other family saying that she was going to sue for 50 million. The hospital people were certainly going to use their PR machine, and I'm sure they milked that for all it's worth -plus-. And yes, the middle class types reading the paper are going to think that any woman who has four children by four men is not close to the ideal mother. You can argue the reasoning, but that's how it is. If she had lived with one man and had his four children, the lack of marriage lines would not have looked nearly so bad.

Tamara Jones: Thanks. I'm seeing quite a few responses to that question I posed earlier on this, and I'll try to post a few more of them before we sign off shortly.

Alexandria, VA: I'm startled at the number of comments which suggest that there should be some sort of litmus test for parenting and for justice. Neither set of parents of the girls were married and having children without marriage is a much more common event than years ago. It doesn't matter whether the parents were married happily, unhappily, widowed, divorced or single. And, UVA hospital needs to apologize as publicly as possible and as soon as possible for its reprehensible treatment of this entire case. Do you think UVA promoted their view of inappropriate parenting as a ploy after the "criminal action" thinking didn't work?

Tamara Jones: I think big lawsuits almost always turn into guerrilla warfare. Your comment about the quick apology is interesting, though, because a recent study of Veterans' Hospitals concluded, basically, that the more compassionate and apologetic you are to a potential litigant from the get-go, the less it's going to end up costing you.

Oakland, CA: Some of the recent responses disgust me-attacking Paula for low intelligence & multiple children. Again, her baby was switched. It wasn't because she was "dumb" or had multiple men fathering her children-it was NOT her fault. I wish people would stop using this as an excuse to attack a single mother who is doing her best.

Tamara Jones: Oakland raises an interesting point: sexism. Johnson's ex, Carlton Conley (biological father of Rebecca), is also suing (for $4 million)but no one has even brought him up in this discussion.

Richmond, VA: According to the Richmond newspapers, the settlement offer was set up to meet the state's $1 million legal limit on damages in medical malpractice cases. I understand the offer was to pay Paula Johnson $200,000 immediatedly; pay Callie $200,000 immediately; and then provide her a structured settlement which would pay over $1.5 million with payments beginning on her 18th birthday. Don't you think that's a good faith effort to provide a fair settlement that complies with the law?

Tamara Jones: Gosh, you sure have an amazing memory for details published months ago in the Richmond papers. Do you perchance work in the AG's office?

Baltimore, Maryland: Is it your impression that the U Va administration is entrenched in a 'culture of silence' and blames the victim to avoid truthfully facing their own errors?

Tamara Jones: It's hard to separate culture of silence from culture of caution in a litigous society. And we still don't know exactly what the errors were or who made them, and because the records are sealed, I can't say whether U-Va knows more than it is telling.

Annandale, VA: I, too, am an adoptee and thank my lucky stars that my birth mother and the mother who raised me, were not related in any way to Paula Johnson. She loved the child she was raising until there was an opportunity for money - first from the probable father, and then from the University of VA and any other deep pockets that might be available. How disguisting and how I feel for the child she is raising! And how I wish the Commonwealth would evaluate her ability to parent because it seems there have been some violent issues in that household.

Tamara Jones: Hi. I'm a little confused by your statement that she loved the child she was raising "until there was an opportunity for money," etc. Why do you think she no longer loves Callie? I didn't get that impression, and certainly didn't intend to convey it.

Charlottesville, Virginia: An article in Charlottesville's alternative weekly last year interviewed an un-named former neonatal nurse who described a habitually overworked maternity staff demoralized by reorganization in a hospital struggling to meet budget goals. Since reading it, the switch seemed more likely to be accidental switch was greater than malicious.

Tamara Jones: If the civil suit ever comes to trial, it will be interesting to hear testimony from the hospital staffers about the work atmosphere and how, or if, that had any connection to the switch.

Manassas, VA: Hooray for Oakland, CA!!! There is intelligent life out there! Thank you for making the point that THIS WAS NOT PAULA'S fault! All of you that have been attacking her should be ashamed. She would never wish this upon anyone, she is a kind-hearted, wonderful woman. I hope the man above doesn't punish you all too badly for what you've said about Paula.

Tamara Jones: Why the mystery over your connection, Manassas?

Phila., Pa.: Paula Johnson is not the victim in this case as this article would have you believe..the real victims are the girls. A mistake was made..the responsible parties need to own it and make ammends to these children. What they both need is a stable environment with all the emotional support they can be given. It's time to set aside issues of personal gain and focus on the real problem here..helping Rebecca and Callie cope with this situation into which they have been cast through no fault of their own.

Tamara Jones: If you accept that the switch was a mistake, and the girls are victims, why does this not make their parents (or, in Rebecca's case, grandparents) victims, too?

Charlottesville, Virginia: These may help answer Silver Spring's question about the quality of the care received by the birth mothers . . . Charlottesville has two hospitals; the public University one, and private Martha Jefferson. Any with money goes to the latter to have a baby. But that doesn't mean the quality of the care is necessarily worse at Uva and it certainly doesn't mean that patients admitted to UVa receive disparate treatment based on their financial means. The problem is that as a public hospital the patient volume is a lot higher and as a result individual treatment might not be as forthcoming and misshaps that are more prone to happen in high volume scenarios -like a baby switch- do tend to occur. That doesn't mean the doctors or nurses or any less dedicated.

Tamara Jones: Thanks for the local perspective, Charlottesville!

Somewhere, USA: I think it is sad the Ms. Johnson's Lawyer had to lower herself to make a statement about a dead person! That person can't defend himself. I think that, that comment only makes Ms. Johnson look bad becuase she letting her lawyer say such a thing.

Tamara Jones: As the article pointed out, that statement by Cynthia Johnson, Paula's lawyer, was also false. Whitney Rogers was 16 when she had Rebecca, and 15 is the age of consent in Virginia. It is also abundantly clear that her relationship with Kevin Chittum was a consensual, loving one.

Charlottesville, VA: It's NOT true that anyone with money goes to Martha Jefferson! I chose to have my babies at UVA because it's a high-quality hospital equipped to provide emergency care if necessary -thank goodness it wasn't!-. But I feel that statement is inaccurate and misleading. By the way, I had my own obstetrician deliver both my babies - not another OB or a resident!

Tamara Jones: Thanks ...

washingtonpost.com: Unfortunately, we've run out of time. Thanks so much to Tamara Jones for staying well over the hour...and thanks to all the participants!

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