Birth-swap girls ready to return to own parents

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Two small Sicilian girls, switched at birth in a hospital bungle, are to be returned to their real parents this week.

Two small Sicilian girls, switched at birth in a hospital bungle, are to be returned to their real parents this week.

Born on New Year's Day 1998 within 15 minutes of each other, the children have both grown up in the fishing village of Mazara del Vallo, near Trapani, but with the wrong parents, it emerged four months ago. Noticing that their child did not resemble them, one set of parents raised the alarm after recalling that nurses had dressed their baby in the wrong clothes shortly after the birth.

Challenged with the evidence - Chiara is small and olive skinned, Daniela tall and fairhaired - the head of the paediatrics unit at the Abele Aiello hospital admitted to the mistake last October. The blunder probably occurred when the newborns' clothes were accidentally swapped on New Year's Day when fewer nurses were on duty, he suggested, adding that there had been "a certain amount of confusion".

DNA and blood tests confirmed that it was biologically impossible the girls were the natural offspring of the people who were bringing them up.

Although emotionally devastated by the news of the birth-swap, the two families agreed to an extraordinary reunion plan worked out by a team of psychiatrists, sociologists and paediatricians to minimise the trauma. This involved the two families moving in together in the home of one set of grandparents and allowing the two girls and the families to become close.

The children have apparently become as close as sisters and now believe they have four parents and eight grandparents.

The two families celebrated Christmas together, successfully, according to reports.

The next stage of the programme will be for each child to return to her rightful parents and for the families to move back to their own homes but remain close. The girls' names will also be switched.

The case has attracted a great deal of attention in the Italian media but strict privacy laws and the determination of the parents to protect the girls from public scrutiny has kept the prying lenses of the paparazzi at bay, for now.

Nicola Sammaritano, the lawyer chosen to represent both families, said the reunion plan had been carefully monitored. "We are in contact with a psychiatrist on a daily basis and each decision is made with the consensus of each person involved".

He said privacy, as well as investigating who should be held responsible for the "tragic" mix up, was the key concern. "I can't even count how many invitations to talk shows we have had to turn down," he said.