‘Switched’ baby burial in limbo as DNA test disputed

After months of sorrow and struggle, Definite Chivanga and Tawanda Mutsvene will not be present when their baby is finally buried.

The Mail & Guardian reported on the Zimbabwean couple’s nightmarish experience when an alleged hospital transfer and paperwork mistakes left the parents looking for answers. Chivanga and Mutsvene’s firstborn son died in November, but the couple believed there had been a mix-up and that the corpse they had been shown was not that of their child. Some discrepancies in the sequence of events ­partially supported their suspicions.

As reported at the time, the M&G put the parents in touch with the Centre for Child Law, which helped them with DNA testing through the National Health Laboratory Service.

“The tests showed that the baby who had died was their child,” the centre’s Professor Ann Skelton confirmed. “This news was difficult for them to accept. Losing a child is deeply traumatic, but their grief was compounded by what seemed to them to be bewildering circumstances around the case.”

Hospital staff and administrators had insisted that the couple’s son had been transferred to the specialised Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital in Johannesburg for emergency care after he had been delivered at the nearby Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital.

He had died soon after the transfer, a transfer the parents apparently did not know about because of language difficulties. These issues notwithstanding, Rahima Moosa’s head of paediatrics, Professor Ashraf Coovadia told the M&G that, “from … the hospitals’ side, there is no doubt that this is their baby”.

The parents equally insisted that they had seen a child on the Saturday afternoon at Baragwanath they believed was their son after theirs had supposedly been rushed elsewhere the night before. The corpse they were shown, the parents said, lacked the characteristics they had noted on the baby they had seen and the body in the morgue also had the wrong administrative numbers.

According to Skelton, the parents were understandably concerned.

“They were right to be worried and the matter had to be resolved through DNA testing,” she said. “The wisdom of this approach is that, if babies have been swapped [which is one of the things they were worried about], then the sooner that is discovered and corrected the better.”

With the DNA test completed, health officials now face pressure to conclude a burial. Hospital staff said there had been several attempts to communicate with the family, which had failed. Now, they say, they have to choose between requesting a pauper’s burial without the explicit consent of the family or leaving the corpse in the morgue indefinitely. Regulations allow for the burial of unidentified or unclaimed remains after 30 days, but that period has long passed as the dispute continued.

Mutsvene does not intend to provide an answer. He received news of the DNA test, he said, but did not accept the finding. Should he agree to a burial, it would be acknowledging that the child is his. “In my culture, we believe that you cannot bury someone that isn’t your blood. It’s totally unacceptable” and could be a bad omen for his family, he said.

Mosibudi Ratlebjane is the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Social ­Justice Fellow.

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