This interview with Francesca about her adoption experience appeared in The Times magazine on 19 March.
Author and adoption campaigner Francesca Polini, 41, and her husband, Rick, adopted their children, Gaia, 2, and Luca, 3 months, from Mexico after being turned down by their local authority for being “too white”.
“My husband and I have always had an unconventional relationship, but travelling to Mexico as ‘backpacker adopters’ was by far the craziest thing we’ve ever done.
“We could have had children of our own, but thought, ‘There are so many kids in the UK who need a permanent home. Why bother with the whole biological thing?’ But in 2007 we were rejected for domestic adoption on the grounds that we were ‘too white’. Our local authority had placed a cap on the number of white couples who could adopt black, mixed-race or Asian children – so we weren’t even able to apply. It was disgraceful, but there was nothing we could do.
“That’s how we came to be the first British couple to adopt from Mexico. After months of gruelling interviews, we finally completed our adoption home study in September 2007 and were matched with a baby girl.
“We took leave from work, rented out our apartment and said our goodbyes. But just before we were about to get on the plane, we received an e-mail from the Department of Education saying they had made ‘a mistake’. It turned out we couldn’t use the private US agency they’d originally approved. They said, ‘You’ll have to give up that match.’
“To have a baby suddenly ripped away from us like that was devastating. We’d decorated her nursery, chosen a name – how could we go back to work and explain what had happened? So we thought, ‘Why not fly over there and do it ourselves?’
“When we stepped off the plane in Cancún, all we had were our backpacks and a couple of addresses. We started off in the south, travelling to remote orphanages in broken-down buses with chickens on our laps. But it was one disappointment after another. Some orphanages couldn’t facilitate international adoptions; others said we hadn’t been married long enough. We felt like the more we travelled, the further away we got from having a family.
“In utter desperation, we agreed to meet a Mexican lawyer who assured us he could get us a baby, ‘No problem.’ He said, ‘The women I work with are very reliable; they never change their minds.’ The alarm bells started ringing when he added, ‘In a few years, you can come back and I’ll make sure they sleep with the same man, so your children look alike.’ This wasn’t adoption; it was glorified child trafficking. We politely declined a ‘baby to order’, and went on our way.
“Another lawyer introduced us to a woman who, he claimed, was suicidal and wanted to give us her baby. She turned up at our hotel demanding a new car and a flat by the sea in exchange for her daughter. It was like being sucked into a real-life soap opera. At the very last minute we found out she was planning to take our money and do a runner with the child. At this point, we didn’t know who to believe any more.
“But as luck would have it, the day before I’d had a call from a Roman Catholic institute for unmarried mothers, offering us a newborn baby girl. We’d said no at first, because we felt we were under a moral obligation to the other woman, but as soon as I found out we’d been hoaxed, I rang back and said, ‘Is she still available?’ The institute director said, ‘Yes, but hurry. Meet me at my house, 10pm tomorrow.’
“We turned up on her doorstep the next day with backpacks and a wilted bunch of flowers. We were so broke and disillusioned, we didn’t even believe there was going to be a baby. Minutes later this woman opens the door holding a baby girl and says, ‘So what do you think?’ It was Gaia. I watched my husband – a typical Mancunian tough guy – fall in love with her at first sight.
“It was the quickest prep for having a baby you could imagine. The next morning we rented an apartment, turned up at Wal-Mart with two trolleys, and went through the aisles, picking up armfuls of nappies and clothes, Supermarket Sweep-style. At 1pm we were asked to attend a ceremony for her at the local Catholic church, and within a couple of hours, she was ours.
“Becoming instant parents was a steep learning curve. The next morning I woke up, still a bit delirious, and said, ‘Rick, what’s that noise?’ He replied, ‘It’s the baby.’ I was still confused. ‘What baby?’ I’d wiped everything out. ‘It’s your bloody baby,’ he said. Poor Rick had been up all night feeding her every three hours.
“We spent the next couple of months in Mexico getting the adoption finalised. After much discussion, the British Embassy advised us to bring Gaia into the UK on a Mexican passport and get her British visa once we arrived. We had the relevant paperwork and notified the British authorities; what could go wrong?
“Tired and jet-lagged, we arrived at the immigration desk at Heathrow to be greeted by a stony-faced official asking, ‘Where’s her visa? You’re bringing this child into the country illegally and we’re going to have to detain her.’ We were left alone in a room for three hours, with a two-month-old baby and no water, like child traffickers. Gaia was classed as an illegal immigrant and our passports were confiscated. It was unbelievable.
“After we were finally allowed home, we lived with the constant threat that Gaia could be sent back to Mexico at any moment. We had to hire an immigration lawyer, appeared in court twice, and spent thousands in legal fees. In the end, I contacted David Miliband and, thanks to him, Gaia got her passport back, exactly a year after she entered the country.
“Despite everything – and having spent almost £50,000 – it didn’t put us off from filling in an application for a second child. We went through the same Catholic institute and soon received a phone call saying, ‘A baby boy has been relinquished. How quickly can you get here?’ Within five days we were on a plane to meet Luca.
“Gaia and Luca have transformed our lives. Every day I look at them and wonder where they might have ended up – on the streets begging, abusing drugs, starving to death? Adoption is even more amazing than giving birth because it’s like discovering your soul mate; it feels as though it was always meant to be. We didn’t find them; they found us.”