Switched at Birth

by Jan Goodwin
DeeAnn Angell (left) and Kay Rene Reed in family photos from 1953
Photograph: Photos, from left: Courtesy of DeeAnn Shafer, Courtesy of Kay Rene Qualls

When DeeAnn turned 20, she married Rick Shafer, then a car salesman, and became a homemaker. Last summer DeeAnn and her husband moved to Mead, Washington—hunting country, home to herds of moose and elk. When I go to meet her after visiting Kay Rene, I am struck by the differences between the two women. While Kay Rene has a no-frills style, DeeAnn jokes that she wouldn’t fetch the mail unless her nails and makeup were done. “I’m a girly girl, always have been,” she says. She favors high heels, leopard-print fabrics, short skirts and low necklines. “I’m nothing like the Angells I was raised with,” she says. “I always felt I didn’t belong.” And there was one person from the past who agreed with her, which is how the baby swap eventually came to light.

IN THE SUMMER of 2008, Iona Robinson, the onetime confidante of DeeAnn’s mother, Marjorie, was 89 years old and very frail. For decades, she had kept her opinion to herself—but she had always felt that DeeAnn didn’t belong in the Angell family. She also knew the Reeds, and she believed that their daughter Kay Rene was the spitting image of Marjorie’s oldest daughter, Juanita. At long last, Robinson phoned the Reeds’ son, Bobby, telling him she needed to get something off her chest. “I knew it had to be now or never,” Robinson said afterward. “I felt the families should know before it was too late.”

Bobby Reed “didn’t know what to do,” he says. So for eight months, he did nothing. “I’m an avoider. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like to change things,” he says. “And I was very scared of hurting Kay Rene. I love her with all my heart, and I wanted her to be my biological sister. It was a horribly touchy situation. How do you tell someone they don’t belong to your family?” Finally, he confided in his sisters Dorothy and Carol. The siblings decided that before they said anything to Kay Rene, they wanted to meet DeeAnn. “The moment I saw her, I realized she looked just like my mom,” Bobby says. In March 2009, Bobby broke the news to Kay Rene. She was devastated. “I was very happy being a Reed,” Kay Rene says. “I didn’t want that to change.”

A few days later, she called DeeAnn. It was a conversation neither one knew how to handle. She remembers saying something like, “This is Kay Rene, your switch, er, your swister. We were switched at birth, apparently, or something.”

“That’s what I’m hearing, too,” DeeAnn said.

The two arranged to meet at a restaurant the following weekend. Both brought relatives along for support. Juanita Angell—the oldest of Marjorie’s girls—was not at the lunch, but everyone felt Kay Rene looked like her twin, right down to her short hair and conservative clothes.

BEFORE LONG, Kay Rene and DeeAnn started sorting through clues in their past. At one point, Marjorie Angell had mentioned her suspicions about DeeAnn to Juanita, who was only 12: Juanita never told anyone. Later, neighborhood kids teased DeeAnn about being the only blonde in a family of brunettes. “Are you sure your father wasn’t somebody else?” they asked.

As for Kay Rene, she’d gotten into a fight with her high school biology teacher during a freshman class on genetics. “He told us that two blue-eyed parents couldn’t have a brown-eyed child,” she says. “I told him, ‘Look at me—my parents have blue eyes, and I have brown.’ ” The teacher held his ground, and Kay Rene stormed home later, insisting she must have been adopted. “Of course you’re not,” Donalda Reed had reassured her. “You’re my daughter and you always will be.”

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