Cradles of Contention

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Rebecca Chittum and Callie Conley will always be known as the switched-at-birth kids. But do they know it themselves? Depends on who's doing the raising. Becca, as her family calls her, has no inkling of the infamous switch. "She doesn't understand. It's too early to tell her," says Tommy Rogers, her "grandfather," that is, the father of Whitney Rogers, the woman who brought Becca home from the University of Virginia Medical Center in July 1995. Meanwhile, the woman who took Callie home from the same hospital prides herself on telling her "daughter" the truth. Calling the four-year-old to the phone last week during an interview, Paula Johnson said, "Can you tell me whose belly you were born in?" Callie's reply: "In Mommy Whitney's." Johnson continues, "And how did you come home with me?" Callie answers, "In the car."

Callie's biological parents, Whitney Rogers and Kevin Chittum, were killed in a traffic accident on July 4, 1998, just days before they would have learned of the switch. And in mourning the young parents, there had been some hope that Callie and Becca's accidentally conjoined clans could let the girls share their lives together. A month after the deaths, the Chittums and the Rogerses, who share the care of Rebecca, and Johnson met and seemed to get along. The girls went swimming together in a family pool. Then Callie spent a week visiting Becca's extended family. "It went great," Tommy Rogers says. Both sides decreed that the girls would continue to live with all the families raising them.

Within months the truce was over. Each side filed court papers seeking custody of both girls. Johnson turned down a $2 million settlement offer from the state, saying it was not enough, and is suing the state-owned University of Virginia Medical Center for $31 million. She is also attempting to block a settlement for Rebecca reached by the Chittums, Rogerses and the state for the same reason. The case is on appeal before the Supreme Court of Virginia. Johnson's attorney, John Blakely, did not return phone calls last week seeking comment. Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend, Carlton Conley, is suing the state and hospital officials for $4 million. He triggered the discovery of the switched babies when he balked at more child support for Callie. To certify his paternity, he had his blood tested. The results: not only wasn't he Callie's father, but Paula Johnson was not her mother.

Johnson also has a lawsuit against the makers of the identification bracelets used to keep track of patients. She charges that the babies' bracelets were so loose that they slipped off their wrists and ankles. (This month the medical center will begin to implant electronic bellybutton chips on newborns. Alarms will sound if a baby is taken through restricted doors.) Finally, two of Callie's biological aunts, who helped care for the child last summer, have filed for visitation rights.

The families have stopped talking. "Me, myself, my days of speaking to Paula are over," Tommy Rogers tells TIME. "Paula wants everything--all the money, both kids. I reckon you get greedy sometimes." Johnson has a different view. "Things just deteriorated over time, and it's got worse," she tells TIME. "No, it doesn't have nothing to do with money, not on my part anyway." Why does she think she is entitled to custody of Rebecca as well as Callie? "Being a mother, maybe my maternal instincts kicked in," Johnson says. "She's my daughter. I gave birth to her. I carried her for nine months. I want her, and that's that."

The two girls appear to be oblivious to the wrangling. Tommy Rogers says Becca is a backyard daredevil on her blue-and-orange Big Wheel cycle, a sparkling child with a taste for pepperoni pizza, who is "growing like a little weed." Callie, meanwhile, looks forward to starting preschool this fall. And Paula Johnson is already making the child a regular on the local beauty-pageant circuit. Callie was recently a contestant in a Richmond pageant, winning the titles Miss Photogenic and Miss Personality. Says Johnson: "Callie's doin' real good."