Richard Cushworth, a British missionary, and his El Salvadoran wife, Mercy Casanellas, are accusing the doctor who delivered their child of switching it out for a different baby to sell in a human-trafficking scheme.
The couple lives in the U.S., but had specifically planned to give birth in Casanellas’s homeland of El Salvador in May. But when Casanellas was handed her baby boy upon release from the hospital, she complained that it didn’t look like the son she delivered via C-section.
“I saw my son at 9:30 p.m. when he was born, and then they put me to sleep. In the morning, around 8 a.m., they brought in everyones’ baby, but they never brought mine,” she told the Daily Mail when the story broke.
“I told them ‘Where is my baby? Where is my son?’ but they just told me: ‘He is coming, he is coming. They brought him at lunch time, and I asked them ‘Why is this baby different?’ He has darker skin, his facial features were different, his nose, his eyebrows. They told me that it was because he was a newborn and that he was swollen and that he would change. They said his skin would get lighter and that the swelling would go down. They said everything was OK, so I believed them.”
A DNA test later confirmed her fears, showing a 0 percent match with the baby she had been given. Casanellas initially told the Daily Mail that she would like to keep the non-biological baby they had spent months raising if they weren’t able to track down its parents.
But investigators ordered the other four other mothers who delivered boys that day at the hospital to have DNA tests as well, and Casanellas and Cushworth’s rightful child was found.
The couple has accused the doctor, Alejandro Guidos, of stealing their baby to sell to human traffickers, but he claims that the mix-up was an accident. He has been released from custody, but is still under investigation.
The El Salvador case is rare in that the family caught the mix up outside of the hospital but before too much time passed. Only infrequently are the cases actually discovered, and usually years after the swap occurred.
If vague estimates are to be believed, hospitals dole out babies to mismatched families multiple times per day.
A 1998 Baltimore Sun article cites a Las Vegas-based study that 28,000 babies per year are given to the wrong parents—but there is no empirical data to support these numbers.
The rate has presumably lowered with more hi-tech wristband IDs and the increased time hospitals allow newborns to spend with their mothers after birth.
In the late 1990s, a hospital in California revealed there had been multiple incidents in which the wrong child was brought to mothers. Officials admitted that a child was sent home with the wrong family once and there had been three other brief in-hospital switches over the past year.
When the mix-up isn’t discovered for decades, the discovery of a real biological family is painful for both parents and children grappling with years of mistaken identity.
For responsible hospitals, legal battles can rack up hefty settlements of thousands or even millions of dollars.
This past February, a French court settled a baby-swapping case for around $2 million—more than 20 years after two baby girls were mistakenly given to the wrong parents.
In 2013, a Japanese man sued a hospital 60 years after being accidentally given to an impoverished family, while his affluent biological family doted on another child with private schools and tutors.
Twelve-year-old Russian girls discovered they were being raised by the wrong parents in 2011, when a paternity test for one came up without a DNA match.
The girl’s mother recalled another woman giving birth at the same time as she did, and found her biological child living just a few miles away.
“Suddenly my whole world turned upside down and inside out,” the mother told ABC News. The girls stuck with their non-biological parents, but the families decided to stay in close contact. Now, the girls reportedly refer to both sets of parents as “mama” and “papa.”