Carla Moquin was in a crisis. With a year-old daughter, an out-of-work husband and a crumbling marriage, she found herself trembling with anxiety when she learned she was pregnant with a second child. At first she resisted when her husband, Charlie, urged her to give the unborn baby up for adoption. Then she found an online parent profile that changed everything: A Sunnyvale, Calif., couple wrote that they were seeking an "open adoption" with birth parents who would "be part of their lives forever." It sounded perfect. After meeting the couple, Carla signed on, giving up her little girl, named Peri, just three days after her birth on Jan. 18, 2004. "It was excruciating," says Moquin, "but I believed I was making the best decision."
Now Moquin, 32, is trying to undo what she calls "the worst mistake of my life." Contending that the adoptive parents never intended to go through with the open adoption they promised, she took the extraordinary step in 2006 of filing suit to reinstate her full parental rights. After nearly three years of legal maneuvering, the case is expected to go to trial this fall in Santa Clara County, Calif. In legal documents, the adoptive parents, Susan Englert, 51, and Demyn Plantenberg, 46—who declined to be interviewed—dispute Carla's version of what was promised and maintain that taking away Peri, who has known no other parents, would be "unconscionable." Says their attorney Jed Somit: "We are fully confident that when all the facts are presented in court, Ms. Moquin's case will be dismissed."
While adoption disputes are not infrequent, according to Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York, efforts such as Moquin's—overturning one on the basis of fraud—are virtually unheard of. "People will go to enormous lengths to get a child," says Pertman, but birth moms trying to get their child back is "rare."
Carla never thought it would come to this, given how well everything started. In 2003, after first talking on the phone, the adoptive parents flew to meet the Moquins at their home in Salt Lake City. They agreed on everything from politics (liberal) to religion (Unitarian). They got on so well that the adoption agency asked the two couples to participate in a Discovery Health Channel series called Adoption Stories
. The program features the adoptive parents, who have careers in aerospace and computer programming, talking about their belief in open adoption. "It made a lot of sense to us," Englert told Discovery. With the help of the adoption agency, the couples signed an agreement that stipulated a "minimum" yearly visit with verbal commitments of even more.
The couples reconnected in January of 2004 when Englert and Plantenberg flew back to Salt Lake City to watch the midwife they hired deliver the baby in the Moquins' living room. "I wanted them to be the first ones to hold her and bond with her," recalls Carla, who cried when Englert and Plantenberg took Peri back to Sunnyvale. Carla visited Peri there two months later and the adoptive family, says Carla, "was wonderful."
But those good feelings quickly began to crumble in September 2004, six days after the adoption was finalized. That's when Englert called Carla to say that she wanted to limit visits to once a year. Moquin says Plantenberg told her his wife just needed time to come to terms with Carla's deepening bond with Peri.
Months later Carla was stunned to discover that the couple had never filed the separate agreement for open adoption they had all signed before the adoption was legalized—meaning that it was unenforceable. That's when she began to go back through the e-mails they had sent one another and discovered a trail of what she views as slippery wording. As an example, Carla remembers when the adoptive parents first said they wanted to treat the Moquins "like relatives." Then, much later, they wrote that they only see their relatives once a year. "I realized they had carefully planned their deception," says Carla, who filed to rescind the adoption on the grounds of fraud. (The adoptive parents have not directly addressed the issue of why they would have signed the agreement and then failed to file it. In legal documents, they only say they would not have proceeded with the adoption if an enforceable agreement for post-adoption contact had been required.)
Since the legal wrangling began, Carla has seen Peri just two times. The problem, says Tiden Moschetti, a San Francisco family law attorney who helped Carla, is that the delays have worked in favor of the adoptive parents, given that Peri is now 5 years old and the court may be reluctant to remove her from her home. "The clock is ticking," he says. "It's an uphill battle."
Meanwhile, Carla's life has changed as well. In late 2004, before getting a divorce from Charlie, Carla discovered she was pregnant for the third time. After what she had gone through with Peri, Carla knew "no matter how tough it got" she would keep her daughter Echo, born in July of 2005. (Daughter Alpha is now 8.) For his part, Charlie is staunchly opposed to his ex-wife's efforts. "Peri is with great parents," he says, "and taking her away from them is cruel."
None of that is stopping Carla, who last was allowed to see Peri for two hours in August 2008. She supports her other two daughters by working as a legal secretary. Right now she says it will take about $60,000 to finish the case and she admits she's about out of money. Despite the bitterness she harbors, Carla vows that if she wins she will make sure the adoptive parents continue to have a relationship with Peri. "I would want her to have a positive view of them, because she would need that," says Carla. "I just want to make it right."