In a private Cannes clinic two new-born baby girls were placed side by side for ultra-violet treatment to cure their jaundice.
Removed from their trusting mothers to the nursery each night, they were finally well enough to be taken home by their proud parents.
But unknown to the families, their beloved babies had been left to the care of an alcoholic, auxiliary nurse lost in her own world of intoxication and depression.
A nurse who somehow swapped the two girls leading to years of ‘immense suffering’ for the families involved and a ten year legal struggle which ended in a French court this week.
Now, speaking exclusively to Mailonline, Sophie Serrano, the mother who led the fight, says she can never forgive the drunken nurse who gave her the wrong daughter.
As a result of that unforgiveable blunder, the 38-year-old saw her relationship destroyed, her life wrecked by rumour, accusations and innuendo and her own health suffer.
And she brought up another woman’s daughter who was left traumatised when she learned the truth of her birth.
‘That nurse should not have been working,’ the 38-year-old said bitterly.
‘There were bottles of alcohol in the nursery and it turned out that everybody knew.
‘There should not have been alcohol around newborns. The clinic should have known. Everyone else knew apparently that she was drinking on the job.’
Struggling to find some pity for the nurse who, Mailonline understands, is now in a psychiatric hospital, Mme Serrano said: ‘She was ill, depressed.
‘But when I was in that state, because of the years of pain I was put through with this, I stopped work. I would never have been so irresponsible to work in that condition so yes, I do blame her.’
On Monday in a civil court case which had taken ten years to come to court the two families involved were awarded £1.5 million between them.
Mme Serrano and her daughter Manon, now 20, were in court but the case was held behind closed doors as the other family want to remain anonymous.
Arm in arm, the two women smiled for the cameras, victorious that the clinic had been forced to accept liability. But a victory at enormous cost.
‘This was unforgiveable negligence,’ said Mme Serrano. ‘ For all these years the clinic never apologised, never questioned themselves, and even tried to attack us by saying we should have known our babies were not our own.’
Eighteen at the time her daughter was born, Sophie had queried if the child was hers when brought to her for leaving. Her skin seemed darker, her hair longer but she accepted the explanation that it was the result of exposure to the UV lights.
‘I had hardly seen her the first few days. I was tired, the families were visiting and you feel powerless too with all the doctors and nurses. You do what you’re told.’
Manon was a gorgeous, lively, smiley baby. During the first year her skin darkened and her hair curled. I didn’t think anything of it because my family is Spanish – some are dark, some have curly hair
So Sophie accepted the explanation.
‘Why would I not believe her?’ she says. ‘My baby was wearing the same clothes, she cried in exactly the same way. I noticed, but I accepted the nurse’s explanation didn’t question it.’
Manon was a ‘gorgeous, lively, smiley baby’ and Sophie took to motherhood straight away. During the child’s first year her skin darkened and her hair curled.
‘I didn’t think anything of it because my family is Spanish – some are dark, some have curly hair,’ explains Sophie.
But rumours began to spread in the village, and people joked that Manon must be ‘the postman’s daughter.’ Manon’s father, who had been slower to bond with his daughter, began to have doubts.
‘He began asking me if he was the father, which I found incredibly insulting. He hadn’t taken well to fatherhood, he didn’t help with Manon. And that he could accuse me of being unfaithful was very hurtful to me, I could never do that.
The couple who were teenagers when they fell in love were soon constantly fighting and life became unbearable.
When Manon was 18 months old Sophie took her daughter and moved out.
Over the years Manon saw her father intermittently. ‘Sometimes he just wouldn’t turn up,’ says Sophie, ‘and Manon would get very upset. She felt rejected.’
He is not the father, the lawyer said, but you are not the mother either. I was so shocked. I felt terrified. What if the other parents wanted their baby back? Was I going to lose my daughter?
Finally when the child was nine, her father – whom Sophie does not want to name – stopped paying maintenance and lawyers suggested a paternity test would make the payments enforceable.
For Sophie, who willingly agreed, it was also with the hope that with his doubts satisfied, Manon’s father could rebuild their relationship.
But instead, when the lawyer called her into the office for the results, everything she knew was turned upside down.
‘He is not the father,’ the lawyer said, ‘but you are not the mother either.’ She said, ‘I won’t mince my words, I’m sorry, we’ve never seen anything like this before, we don’t know what to do.
‘I was so shocked. Straight away my mind leapt back to that hair and it was as if things clicked into place. It was obvious what must have happened. The clinic had given me the wrong baby.
‘Immediately I felt terrified. What if the other parents wanted their baby back? Was I going to lose my daughter?
‘Questions ran through my mind: what about the other child, the one I brought into the world? Was she still alive? Was she ok?’
The lawyer advised a traumatised Sophie to go straight to the police, so they could open an inquiry.
Back home Sophie watched Manon play innocently for three weeks before she plucked up the courage to tell her daughter.
I sat Manon down, cuddled her and told her that there had been a mix up at the clinic but that she was my daughter and I loved her with all my heart. She cried and cried, she was petrified she was going to be taken away from me. I was scared too
‘I didn’t want to traumatise her, too. In the end I sat her down, cuddled her and told her the truth, that there had been a mix up at the clinic but that it changed nothing, she was my daughter and I loved her with all my heart.
‘She cried and cried, she was petrified she was going to be taken away from me. I tried to be strong and reassure her, but deep down I was scared too. I had just opened an equestrian centre so I carried on working there, she went to school, I tried to keep things as normal as possible for her, I put my feelings to one side.’
After three months the lawyer called to say they had found the other family – living in the same area and they were happy for Manon and Sophie to visit.
‘I was excited and terrified at the same time.
‘In the event, it was incredibly moving. This girl looked just like me, she was beautiful, amazing. We fell into each others’ arms, we hugged for a long time. It was incredible.
‘We had so much catching up to do, we talked and talked. I was so relieved she was happy and had been well looked after.
‘But it was disturbing, too.’
At first the families met up often, sometimes all together, sometimes just the two girls, but as time went on they began to see less of each other.
Sophie says: ‘In the end, the question of swapping back never came up. I could tell they didn’t want to either. Your child is the one you have shared your life with, after ten years you cannot give them up. And it wouldn’t be right for the children to lose the parents they’ve had for ten years.
It was incredibly moving [to meet my real daughter]. This girl looked just like me, she was beautiful, amazing. We fell into each others’ arms, we hugged for a long time. It was incredible. But it was disturbing, too
‘Over two, three years we saw each other less and less. It was too painful, we loved seeing each other but we suffered from it too. It was destabilising, too much to bear.
‘And our differences became more and more apparent. We hadn’t brought the children up in the same way [Manon’s biological parents are from the island of Reunion], we didn’t have the same views. We never said anything, but gradually we just stopped meeting up.
‘Of course I found it painful, I still do. I’m still grieving for that child, the one I lost.’
As well as grieving Sophie was battling, too. The courts had found no grounds for a criminal prosecution so Sophie and the other family, enraged that the clinic was trying to blame them, sued for 12million euros on the grounds of gross negligence.
Meanwhile, Sophie was fighting her own depression, taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist. ‘Slowly I started falling apart. I lost confidence in myself as a person, as a mother, how could I not have known? I became paranoid, I didn’t want to go out, everything frightened me. I stopped working, concentrated on holding things together at home.’
And of course she was trying to raise an undoubtedly disturbed teenage daughter.
Manon lost her carefree nature, her innocence. She had to grow up very quickly. She lost her trust in people. She became more aggressive and less tolerant. But she and I grew even closer, we’re inseparable
‘Manon lost her carefree nature, her innocence. She had to grow up very quickly. She lost her trust in people. She became more aggressive and less tolerant.
‘But she and I grew even closer, we’re inseparable. I think when you risk losing the person you love, you realise just how much you love them.’
Manon is now at college, studying management and living at home.
‘She says she doesn’t want to have children, she’s scared of what could happen to them. I hope, I’m sure, she’ll fall in love and change her mind.’
Speaking out about her experience has helped, but it wasn’t until this week’s verdict that Sophie says she felt she could start her own healing.
‘The recognition that it wasn’t my fault means everything to me,’ she says. ‘I can feel confident in myself again. And I fought for that, I can be proud of it. Something went wrong and I repaired it as best I could. I made up for it