Seven years later: baby snatched from mom’s womb

Lit­tle Hope was cut from the womb in a bru­tal at­tack seven years ago that killed her mom. To­day she is thriv­ing but her fam­ily is still heart­sore

DRUM - - Contents - BY LESEGO MAJA PIC­TURES: ONKGOPOTSE KOLOTI

‘She knows what hap­pened to her mother’

H ER eyes sparkle as she sits in her back­yard with her fam­ily’s pet dog on her lap. She looks like any oth er lively seven-year-old girl but as she turns her head a jagged scar is clearly vis­i­ble – a tragic re­minder of her trau­matic birth and the mother she never got to meet. Seven years ago her story left Soouth Africans reel­ing. As a na­tionn we’re used to be­ing bom­barded with grim news sto­ries but this was in an­other league: an in­no­cent baby be­com­ing a vic­tim of crime be­fore she was even born. While lit­tle Hope was still in the womb, her heav­ily preg­nant mother, Va­len­cia Behrens, aged 35, was lured to a house in Toekom­srus, a town­ship in Rand­fontein, Gaut­eng, by a neigh­bour with the prom­ise of a spare pram and baby clothes.

But it was all a ruse. Des­per­ate for a baby of her own, Loretta Cooke (then 30) de­cided to steal some­one else’s. When Va­len­cia ar­rived, she tied her up and, us­ing a ra­zor blade, cut open her ab­domen.

In the process of mak­ing an in­ci­sion in Va­len­cia’s uterus dur­ing the at­tack, Lo retta also cut Hope’s head.

But while her mom bled to death, the in­fant mirac­u­lously sur­vived.

Hours af­ter her birth she was dis­cov­ered ly­ing on the cold floor of Loretta’s home in a pool of blood, still at­tached to her mother’s uterus.

As Va­len­cia was near­ing her due date, the birth wasn’t too pre­ma­ture but what con­cerned doc­tors was the big gash on Hope’s head near her right ear. She ended up spend­ing a few weeks in hos­pi­tal be­fore her fam­ily was given the all-clear to take her home.

“The scar will never go away,” says Hope’s pa­ter­nal grand­mother, Siena Pi­eterse (85), who’s been help­ing to raise her since birth.

And nei­ther will the void left by the ter­ri­ble loss of her mother.

AS she en­ters the liv­ing room of her grand­mother’s home, dressed in her smart school uni­form, the lit­tle girl stops and greets us softly.

Seven years since that fate­ful day Hope, whose real name can’t be re­vealed, is a bright Grade 2 learner who at­tends a nearby pri­mary school.

Pho­tos of her adorn the walls of the mod­est home. She has a shy de­meanour just like her mom had, we’re told.

“She knows what hap­pened to her mother,” Siena says.

For years she ag­o­nised what she was going to tell her grand­child but in the end she de­cided it was best to let her know the truth.

“She and her siblings will tell you that their mother is in heaven.”

Even af­ter so many years Va­len­cia’s ab­sence is pal­pa­ble. She lived just down the road from Siena.

Af­ter her death the el­derly Siena de­cided to step in. She’s help­ing her son, Joseph, raise his five chil­dren, in­clud­ing mir­a­cle baby Hope.

When we ar­rive, he’s just stepped out for a while but his sis­ter, Jean­nie Davids (49), and Siena wel­come us in.

Jean­nie re­mem­bers the fate­ful Fri­day of 6 Jan­uary 2012 very well. “What a day it was,” she says. She was do­ing laun­dry for a neigh­bour when some­one told her some­thing had hap­pened to Va­len­cia.

“I ran to Loretta’s house and when I got to the front door I was told to go around to the back,” she re­calls.

“When I got there I saw Va­len­cia ly­ing there out­side, cov­ered. Peo­ple who were stand­ing around told me she had fallen and that I was too late be­cause she was dead al­ready,” Jean­nie adds.

She re­mem­bers see­ing Va­len­cia’s red dress pro­trud­ing from un­der the cover ing. When po­lice ar­rived and lifted the cover, she wasn’t pre­pared for what shee saw.

“Po­lice told me she’d been cut open,”,” she says.

By this time Joseph, a part- timee painter, had al­ready been alerted andd was on his way to the clinich-whereneigh bours said Loretta’sd­mother, Matilda, had taken the baby.

No one seemed to know what had hap pened. The last time peo­ple had seen Va­len­cia wast-when­she­walked­toLoret ta’s housed to fetch the baby good­ies she’d been promised.

DUR­ING court pro­ceed­ings it emerged Loretta had been fak­ing a pregnancy. Ap­par­ently she’d even fooled her col­leagues who threw her a baby shower. But it was all a lie.

Af­ter she was ar­rested Loretta con­tin­ued to claim she was in­no­cent and that Va­len­cia had cut her­self, but in 2014 she was found guilty of mur­der and sen­tenced to life in prison.

Siena has also been help­ing to raise Va­len­cia’s other daugh­ters, aged be­tween 20 and 11. Hope is too shy to speak to us but Jean­nie tells us the chil­dren are do­ing well, although two of them have had a few prob­lems along the way.

“The el­dest fin­ished ma­tric last year, although with prob­lems. She failed it the first time but now she’s done,” Jean­nie says. Her 13-year-old sis­ter is also strug­gling. “She de­vel­oped epilepsy about two or three years ago,” Jean­nie ex­plains.

But de­spite this, they’re cop­ing. She says she thinks it helps that they’re en­cour­aged to talk about their mother as much pos­si­ble.

“Her chil­dren were al­ways around her. She loved them veryy much. Theyy were

very im­por­tant to her.”

Jean­nie ad­mits she’s still strug­gling to come to terms with her death.

“It’s still hard for ev­ery­one. But we can’t all break down. Some­one has to be here and re­main strong. I break down on my own but when the chil­dren are around I can’t,” she says.

They main­tain a close re­la­tion­ship with Va­len­cia’s fam­ily.

No one in the Pi­eterse house­hold is em­ployed at the mo­ment so Va­len­cia’s cousins and aunts fre­quently help them out with things such as food and money for the chil­dren, Jean­nie says.

It doesn’t make it easy for her that she some­times bumps into Loretta’s mother. “She doesn’t want to greet us.” Jean­nie tells us that Loretta sent cor­rec­tional ser­vices to their house at the be­gin­ning of last year, ask­ing for an op­por­tu­nity to meet them so she could apol­o­gise. But she says they’ve de­clined to meet with Loretta be­cause they don’t think she’d be will­ing to tell them what they want to hear.

“Only she can tell us the whole story but she doesn’t want to,” Jean­nie says.

“We don’t want to hear the sorry. We want to hear the why.

“Why did she do what she did to Va­len­cia? If she can’t tell us, she can’t say she’s sorry.”

Hope with her pa­ter­nal fam­ily fam­ily, aunt Jean­nie Davies (left) and grandma Siena Pi­eterse. The fam­ily is still try­ing to come to terms with the bru­tal mur­der of Hope’s mom, Va­len­cia.

ABOVE: The scar where Hope was cut by a blade bl d while­hil stillill iin­sid­eid herh mother’sh’ womb. b RIGHT: Hope with the fam­ily dog.

Jean­nie is still haunted by the events of the day Va­len­cia was mur­dered.

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