Saturday 21 April 2018

Sacre bleu: bizarre baby swap that has bewildered France

Mix up: Sophie Serrano, right, poses with her daughter Manon
Mix up: Sophie Serrano, right, poses with her daughter Manon

It is the kind of far-fetched, melodramatic storyline you might expect from a soap opera or made-for-TV movie.

Two mothers, two daughters. A careless maternity ward nurse and two decades of doubt, guilt, rumour and heartbreak.

When the case that has enthralled France finally concluded in court this week, the four women at the centre of it were not celebrating or talking about happy-ever-afters.

What one mother spoke of was a feeling of relief, but also regret.

On July 4, 1994, two baby girls were born in a private clinic on the French Riviera. The mother of one girl, a woman called Sophie Serrano, was briefly given her baby to hold until being told that because she had jaundice, the baby would have to be returned to an incubator.

When the child she had named Manon was returned, Ms Serrano noticed that her hair had grown remarkably fast, but was told by a nurse not to worry as "that's what happens under the lights".

In another room in the clinic, another mother was having similar doubts after her daughter, (who was also suffering from jaundice) was returned to her. But exhausted after the births, both mothers, thinking they were just a little confused, decided to take their daughters home.

It was the start of a strange, disturbing saga. And one that would only be fully explained some 20 years later.

Earlier this week, a French court, after previously finding that the girls had been "switched" due to the actions of a careless, part-time nurse, awarded the two families (only the Serrano family were named) more than €1.8m in compensation. The award fell far short of the €12m their lawyers had sought.

Sophie Serrano told reporters that she was relieved to have the full story come out in court.

"Finally, after so many years, the error has been recognised. Now I'm cleared of everything. I've no reason to feel guilty for anything any more," she said. "The clinic has been found responsible; I feel liberated, vindicated."

Her daughter Manon also spoke of her relief, telling French TV: "Now I can move on. It's finished. We have nothing more to fight for. We have done the hard bit and it's a relief."

For almost two decades, the Serrano family had suffered from rumour and insinuation in their home town. As Manon grew up, locals noticed that she had different hair and darker skin than either of her parents. As Ms Serrano told the courts, some went so far as to say her daughter "was the postman's child".

Her daughter was teased in school and was left traumatised, despite the assurances from her mother that "your father is your father".

As they were to find out, because of a strange coincidence and a shocking mix-up, Manon was not her father's daughter.

When both girls were born, they arrived at the same time that a third child, a boy, was also delivered showing signs of jaundice.

The small hospital had only two incubators. So the two girls were put in one and the boy in the other. When it came time to return the baby girls to their mother, an auxiliary nurse simply didn't check their identities and switched the girls by mistake.

It was only when Manon's father, convinced his daughter bore no resemblance to him, insisted on a DNA test that the truth began to emerge. Ms Serrano then went for a DNA test. And was shocked to find that she too had no genetic link to the girl they called their daughter.

The tests were carried out when Manon was 10 years old. It would take another decade before the case was finally settled.

The Serranos decided to tell their daughter after the DNA tests.

"I was afraid of being separated from her, from my family, my life," said Manon this week. "What does a 10-year-old do when she learns something like this?"

The family of the second girl was traced and a meeting was arranged between the two sets of parents and the girls.

Manon said it was a "disturbing moment", coming face to face with "a woman who is biologically your mother but who is a stranger".

The two families tried to establish some sort of relationship but failed. Today they have no contact except through their lawyers.

Sophie Serrano said this week that she hoped the case would encourage other parents who have concerns to speak up, adding that her relationship with her daughter has never been closer. "We were so afraid to lose one another that we realised how much love we have for each other. We don't need the same blood to feel part of the same family."

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