Shirley Munoz Newson always felt like she didn’t belong while growing up.
One day before her 43rd birthday April 7, 2001, the Gillette, Wyoming, resident received the shocking and life-changing news that finally told her why.
Her father Jim Morgan, who at the time was ill in the hospital, had asked her to take a DNA test. She readily agreed, hoping it would provide much-needed answers as to why she was so different than the rest of her family.
When the results came back, Newson said she was too nervous to open the letter herself and asked her then-boyfriend, Scott Newson, to do it. The result? Morgan had 0.00% chance of being Shirley’s father.
A short time later her mother, Jean Morgan, also took a DNA, which confirmed that she and Newson were not biologically related.
She had been switched at birth.
“I was in shock,” Newson told Cowboy State Daily. “I mean, there are parts of that day I don't even remember. Everything I knew about myself wasn’t true.”
‘The Little Dark One’
Newson’s story began in the early morning hours of April 8, 1958, at Campbell County Memorial Hospital in Gillette.
Jean was in the delivery room about to give birth when she would be moved to the hallway to make room for another woman whose labor was in distress.
Jean gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Shirley in the hallway of the hospital, while in the delivery room another girl named Debbie also entered the world.
It was in the hours following the chaotic births that the unthinkable happened and the mothers were sent home with each other’s babies. It would be more than 40 years before the mistake was officially uncovered and a lifetime of questions finally answered.
‘I Knew …’
Newson was raised in Gillette as part of the Morgan family, which was of Irish-American descent. They were all tall and fair with blue eyes. Newson, the seventh of eight children, was slight with an olive complexion and dark eyes.
“I always stood out,” she said. “When I would be introduced people would say, ‘You? A Morgan? You must be the milkman’s or the mailman’s child.’”
She had a different personality than the rest of her family as well, describing herself as “determined and strong-willed.” Newson never had a close relationship with her parents or siblings, with the exception of her younger brother Bill, and the obvious physical differences between her and the Morgans led to suspicions among those who knew the family, and even her own father.
When she was in junior high, her paternal grandmother sent a letter voicing those suspicions as well. Jean read the horrible words, then let Newson read them.
“My grandmother called me the ‘(N-word) in the woodpile,’” she said.
Newson was hoping for answers when she agreed to take the DNA test years later. She said when she informed her father of the DNA results, he was not at all surprised upon hearing the news. He told her, “I knew the minute I saw you in the bassinet you weren’t my daughter.”
Road To Discovery
Because of her rocky upbringing, Newson had learned from an early age to suppress her emotions. That’s why when everything she knew about herself had been ripped apart, she said she couldn't deal with her feelings and focused instead on getting answers.
Who was her mother? Who and where was the Morgans’ biological daughter?
“I was going to find out who my mother was and that's where I concentrated my energy,” she said.
She had Jean sign a medical release and went to the Wyoming State Archives in Cheyenne to petition to get the birth records, but the Wyoming State Archives refused her request. The next step was to file a petition with the state to have the medical records opened.
It was in May that a judge granted the request, but it would be three more months before she actually received any information. In the meantime, she did her own research at her local library.
“I went through all the microfiche and only found one baby born that day,” she said. “So that led me to believe that in 1958, unwed mothers were frowned upon and would never be publicized in the newspaper.”
At a stopping point until she was given the official documents, Newson received some distressing news from her family. One of her older sisters was determined to find her biological sibling and the Morgans planned to run a letter in the newspaper asking for information about the incident.
“I said, ‘Please don’t,’” Newson said. “‘I will find your daughter. I’m doing the proper procedures; I’m following the letter of the law. Please. Just let me do this so we can keep this quiet.’”
Jean told her, “You don’t understand: This is our family, and we will do whatever we have to do to find our daughter.”
The editorial ran in the Casper newspaper and the Morgans continued to draw attention to the story while Newson waited on the courts.
Finally in September, Newson received the documents and learned her birth mother’s name – Polly Munoz.
Polly and Debbie eventually moved to Worland, and her mother went on to get married and have two more children. Later they moved around Montana before ending up in Utah.
Not A Storybook Reunion
Through her attorney, Newson was given the number for Debra DeLay, who lived in Phoenix. Blonde, tall and fair, she had also stood out in the mainly Spanish-speaking neighborhood she grew up in. Newson was excited to reach out because she thought the things they’d been through would make them close.
“I thought that we were going to be really good friends because she's probably endured many of the same things I had,” she said.
But the call didn’t go as planned. It was Newson’s only true conversation with Debbie, who did eventually travel to Gillette to meet her biological family.
A short time later Polly came to Gillette. There were no hugs, just awkward chit-chat. Newson’s relationship with Polly remained stilted and she wouldn’t become close with her stepsiblings either.
However, she said she has a great relationship with her biological aunt Mary. She’s also close to her extended Munoz and Morgan family members.
Newson later filed a lawsuit against the hospital, which was eventually settled after mediation. She then wanted to put the whole ordeal behind her.
Journey To Healing
When the story first came to light, Newson had numerous requests for interviews from various media outlets, including “48 Hours,” the “CBS Morning Show” and even the National Enquirer. A private person, she refused them all.
“For the longest time I felt ashamed,” she said. “I had opportunities to share my story, but all I wanted to do was hide and be invisible. I was afraid to open myself up to ridicule or criticism.”
Newson later married Scott, and between them they have six children and two grandchildren.
In recent years, it was her son Austin who began encouraging her to write a book about her experiences to help others.
Finally warming up to the idea, she began looking for a ghostwriter. Then in summer 2021 she saw on Facebook that her cousin was writing a book. Newson reached out and was encouraged to write it herself. So, she enrolled in the Book Creators program at Georgetown University.
As Newson began to write the facts of what happened an editor challenged her to also describe how she felt, which was no easy task. Because she had suppressed her emotions so long, she didn’t know how to do that.
“When I started writing this book, I thought I had already healed,” she said. “Boy was I ever wrong. As I was writing I was forced to go back and relive traumas I had experienced throughout my life, ripping off bandages from old wounds that had never healed. I had no idea writing my life story would bring about so much emotion and reveal I had a long road to healing.”
She began counseling with a Christian cognitive behavior therapist, working through feelings of abandonment and unworthiness she had felt most of her life.
“My therapist said, ‘You know, God gave you the ability to suppress all the things that you did not have the capability of handling,’” she said. “And it's like this dam broke open. So then I was able to go back and rewrite what I felt.”
“The Little Dark One: A True Story of Switched at Birth” was released in July. Since her book was published, she’s done several speaking engagements and book signings. She said those also have been healing for her.
"People ask me if I wish the switch hadn’t taken place, but I believe this all happened for a reason,” she said. “It gave me the chance to find my strength, share my story and to help others.”