Two Families Living A Parents' Nightmare The Boys Were 3 Days Old When They Were Switched By Mistake. Seven Years Later, One Mother Is Claiming Both.

Posted: August 11, 1991

RADCLIFF, Ky. — The overnight letter blasted the quiet, ordered world of Edith and Eugene Moore and their 5-year-old son, Melvin, with a few lines of evasive bureaucratic prose.

The terse March 1989 note from the Georgia Department of Human Resources revealed that Melvin's adoption records had been opened by a court order. And it warned that the Moores might need an attorney to help resolve "serious potential legal issues."

Even then, the Army staff sergeant and his ebullient German-born wife had no real premonition of the bizarre tragedy that would embroil two families in a passionate, high-stakes struggle.

A phalanx of social workers and lawyers arrived a few days later at their home in Fort Knox, Ky., to drop the bombshell:

On Oct. 9, 1983 - in a plot twist associated more with Victorian light opera than with modern maternity wards - two babies in a Georgia hospital, each 3 days old, had apparently been switched.

A boy born to an unmarried white mother and a black construction worker at Griffin-Spalding County Hospital had been sent home instead with a white couple, Walter and Jodie Pope of Griffin, Ga.

The Popes' newborn son, meanwhile, was handed to the unmarried mother, Tina Williams, who later gave the baby up for adoption. He wound up with the Moores.

In short, it appeared that the Moores, through no fault of their own, had adopted, raised and loved the wrong child.

And now that the mistake had been discovered, Melvin's natural mother, Jodie Pope, was trying to get him back - and had gone to court to do it.

To Pope's attorney, Tommy Malone, the legal issue involved is simple: His client's claim on Melvin is no less than if the child had been kidnapped as a baby and left on the doorstep of a kindly couple who raised him as their own.

"He has been lost, and now he is found," said Malone. " . . . I think Jodie has been more than nice to address this matter in the courts rather than sending two burly guys to get the child from a grocery store like she could have done."

But the Moores, who are fighting desperately to retain custody of Melvin, say that justice cannot demand that he be wrenched from them. They say Melvin's interests will be best served if he remains with them; they have offered Jodie Pope liberal visitation rights.

"How you feel if somebody gives you a child that you want and you raise him and then somebody jump in and say, 'Give me my child back'?" Edith Moore said in her idiosyncratic English. "I think it's the worstest thing in the world that can ever happen."

*

The tale of the Moores and the Popes, which has generated 18 lawsuits in Georgia and Kentucky, gives the lie to the truism that every story has two sides. This case is far too complex for that.

Its only approximate analogue is the story of the Twigg family, former Langhorne, Pa., residents, who discovered through genetic testing that a daughter they had raised from infancy and who died of a heart defect had been swapped in a Florida hospital with their natural child.

The Twiggs recently won a $7 million settlement with the hospital and are still fighting over visitation rights to their natural daughter, Kimberly Mays.

In this case, the Moores' anguish may come through most keenly because they alone among the key participants agreed to talk directly to a reporter.

Or it may be simply that they stand to lose the most - if Jodie Pope gets her way, she will have two children and the Moores will lose the only one they have ever known.

The views of Jodie and Walter Pope, now divorced, were communicated by their attorneys and court papers, as were those of the Griffin-Spalding County Hospital Authority and the Georgia Department of Human Resources, which are defending negligence suits filed by both couples.

No doubt, Tina Williams and her lover, Melvin Barnes, also have stories to tell, but they are not parties in any of the lawsuits and could not be reached for comment.

Eugene and Edith Moore, now ages 36 and 42, met in 1977 in a German

discotheque near what was then the east-west border. Three years later, they were married and Moore was transferred from West Germany to Fort Stewart, Ga.

Unable to have a child, the interracial couple turned to adoption and asked for a mixed-race baby, Edith Moore recalled during a recent interview at the Radcliff office of their attorney, David T. Gray.

The Moores were given 6-month-old Melvin, a fair-skinned boy with blondish- brown hair and hazel eyes.

"I just know that was not a mixed child after I got him, the first time I saw him," Edith Moore said - and she repeatedly told the social workers as much.

At first, she said, she was assured that little Melvin would eventually become darker. " 'Give him time,' " she said she was told. "I gived him time - seven and a half years. And he never changed."

Her social worker, Henrietta Lovett, kept calling her. "She asked me, 'Has Melvin changed color?' So I told her no."

Later, Gray said, Lovett came up with an alternative hypothesis: that Tina Williams might also have had a white lover and might have been confused about the child's parentage.

Moore said that if she had known early on that Melvin was someone else's child, she would have returned him.

But to her and her husband, "it not really matter what color a kid is. A child is a child, and that's what I wanted. . . . We just raised him with love, just like anybody else."

In Griffin, Ga., meanwhile, all was not well with the marriage of Walter Pope, an automobile mechanic, and Jodie Pope, a slender, dark-haired waitress suffering from a hereditary kidney disease that had caused her father's death.

The precise nature of the Popes' marital difficulties is unclear. But Malone, Jodie Pope's attorney, said there was no question that the swarthy complexion of their child, whom they named Cameron, contributed to their conflicts.

While the couple originally attributed Cameron's appearance to Jodie's dark-skinned American Indian relatives, Malone said, Walter Pope eventually began to question that explanation - along with his wife's fidelity.

During divorce proceedings in 1988, Walter Pope demanded that a blood test be done on the boy. The results were astonishing: Cameron was not related to either one of them.

Walter Pope went on to marry one of Jodie's close friends and have a daughter of his own. His attorneys say he has no contact with either Cameron or Melvin - although not for lack of caring.

Walter Pope was himself an adopted child, and consequently is not sure that Melvin should be uprooted from Kentucky to Georgia, said Pope's attorney, Bill Fears. "He said it's the worst thing in the world to be in one home and tossed around to another," Fears said. "He doesn't want that to happen to Melvin."

But Jodie Pope, believing her son belongs with her, is determined to get him back.

At one point, even before the Moores learned that there had been a mix-up at the hospital, Jodie Pope appeared to have achieved her goal: The Spalding County, Ga., Superior Court awarded her custody of both boys along with her October 1988 divorce decree.

But because the Moores were not a party to the case, Malone said, the court order was not enforceable against them.

Since then, the Moores have tried to adopt Melvin, but a Hardin, Ky., Circuit Court judge threw out their petition because Jodie Pope's parental rights had never been terminated. They are now suing for custody of Melvin in

Kentucky, while Pope is seeking custody through the Georgia courts. An impasse could throw the case into federal court.

Pope, meanwhile, took legal action to hold on to the boy she has been raising. Despite opposition from the Moores, who wanted to keep open the option of an exchange as a last resort, Georgia courts allowed Pope to adopt Cameron.

Having cared for and loved Cameron from infancy, Malone explained, Jodie Pope "could not bring herself to the thought of parting with that child."

How the switch occurred remains a mystery.

"We don't have anything in our records that would indicate what happened," said Wade Copeland, an attorney for the hospital authority. He added that "circumstantial evidence . . . points to the babies' leaving the hospital with the wrong parents."

Some hint of why Melvin's light color triggered no alarm among social workers emerges in the court record of Jodie Pope's suit against the Georgia Department of Human Resources and others.

According to the record, Tina Williams told state officials that she and Barnes had had a previous child, a daughter named Reanna Barnes, "who also appeared to be fully Caucasian in appearance." The court record says that Williams showed a social worker a photograph of the daughter, "a blonde, fair-skinned child."

The state maintains that if anyone should have noticed that the children were switched, it was Jodie Pope. She and Tina Williams each most likely nursed her own real child several times before the mysterious error occurred.

One of Jodie Pope's lawsuits contends that the Georgia Department of Human Resources also had an opportunity to catch the mistake during Melvin's infancy as a foster child, before he was given to the Moores.

Both babies had their blood typed during hospitalizations in the first few months of life, Melvin for hernia surgery, and Cameron for gastroenteritis. Pope's suit argues that the state should have noticed - and investigated - Melvin's inconsistent medical data.

In the fall of 1989, when Jodie Pope's travails were featured in the National Enquirer, Edith and Eugene Moore realized they could no longer avoid telling their son the story that would shatter his peace of mind.

Edith Moore said she showed Jodie Pope's picture to the 6-year-old and said: "Melvin, that's your other mother. You've got two mamas."

"No," he said, "I've got you. You're my mama."

"Yes, I'm your mommy. But that woman had you in the tummy, and Mommy raised you," she told him.

On Mother's Day weekend of this year, by mutual agreement among the parties, Melvin and Jodie Pope met for the first time. At Edith Moore's behest, he hugged his birth mother hello.

"It was certainly the high point in Jodie's life," Malone said. Edith Moore, whose relations with Jodie Pope are by now severely strained, said of Melvin's feelings: "In some ways, he likes her like a friend."

She said Melvin, whose favorite pursuits include playing Nintendo and going fishing with his father, was confused and fearful about the uncertain custody situation.

"Every time we go to the lawyer, he's afraid that he'll have to go," she said. But she dares not reassure him too much because, she said, "I cannot lie to my child."

She cannot, in the end, reassure even herself. "You wake up with the idea. You go to bed with the idea" that some morning Melvin might be gone, she said. "I pray every day to God to let me keep my child."

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