Reporter's Notebook: Gone Baby Gone


For six weeks, Stacy and Ty Mooney were parents of a little girl called Rylee.

The Mooneys are the subject of this week's feature, a piece I wrote about the first adoption malpractice suit filed in Minnesota. To understand how Rylee went from being theirs to the daughter of another couple unknown to them requires understanding of how modern adoptions happen here -- and how they can go bad. This post explains some of the legal issues hinted at in the feature and includes some anecdotes we couldn't find room for. Also, please visit the photo slideshow for images of Stacy, Ty and Rylee.

Ty Mooney with Rylee. More photos in the slideshow.

At every stage, the Mooneys allege, the attorney they retained to handle the adoption misapplied the law, filed some forms before it was legally permissible to do so and didn't file others at all. They also say the lawyer, Daniel L. Giles, failed to counsel them properly about the legal requirements they needed to meet.

Unfortunately, I was unable to convince the attorney representing Dan Giles that he or his client should speak with me for the story. But the focus of the piece isn't the specific legal facts of the case, anyway: it's about the fact that Mooneys had a daughter, and they lost her.

Minnesota's adoption statutes are rigorous and strict. This is good, in the sense that adoptive parents are held to high standards before they can take a baby home. This is problematic in the sense that it takes an attentive and trustworthy attorney to jump through all the hoops.


“Anybody can get anybody pregnant,” says Ty Mooney, remembering the efforts he went through to no avail, “but for adoption, they put you through a lot.” The couple endured extensive background checks, multiple interviews, full physicals for each of them, and home studies. They understand what the laws are intended to do, and hope they're effective -- especially since they now know that Rylee has been placed with another family.

Minnesota adoption law guru Gary Debele has a 20-minute standard primer for anyone interested in the topic, basic groundwork essential before one even gets to the finer points in the process. “If I'm representing a birth parent, a big part of my role is making sure she understands all there is about that process,” he says. “The direct placement statute very specifically lays out, 'Here's how you do it.'”

Debele estimates that there are between 7-10 qualified lawyers in the state fully prepared to handle a direct placement adoption. Still, he told me, this should be enough to meet the demand since adoption rates are more or less static here. I spoke with two other lawyers not quoted in the piece that said roughly the same thing.

Debele recommends going through an attorney who is a member of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, which has a listing of Minnesota adoption attorneys here. He is a member, and several of the attorneys listed by the academy are employed with Debele's own firm, Walling, Berg and Debele. Debele recommends each of those academy-endorsed lawyers, and one Minnesota adoption attorney who is not a member of the academy, Jody Alholinna.

To adopt a baby, you have to “free” the child from parental control. If the state doesn't terminate parental rights, this has to be voluntary. In a case like the Mooneys', this involves securing a set of consent forms from the birth parents at very specific times. “One thing that makes direct placement attractive is that you can get agreement to gain custody upon birth, and can get that secured up to six weeks before birth,” Debele said. “This enables virtually all the paperwork to be filed before birth.”

Legally, the birth parent's final consent can't be signed until three days after birth. This creates a brief period of legal limbo. “If you've got a good attorney,” said Debele, “that attorney makes sure the birth mother signs that consent on the 72nd hour. From there, she has 10 days until the consent becomes irrevocable.”

Otherwise, a birth mother need not even say why she wants to reclaim the child -– the birth mother can change her mind for any reason. After consent becomes irrevocable, a birth mother wishing to reclaim her child generally has to show fraud, which is extremely difficult.

They key is making sure that those consent forms are signed and valid. But if they're not, a so-called "disrupted adoption" is possible. Those words disrupted adoption are pretty sterile, and fail to describe the tumultuous emotional journey taken by the prospective parents who dream of watching a child grow up in their home.

The Mooney farm now has 10 horses, including a new foal. More photos in the slideshow.

Once she found out the baby had been permanently adopted into a new family, Stacy Mooney told neighbor Stephanie Tuott that she and Ty were thinking of setting up a trust fund for the infant. As Tuott remembers: “She said 'Steph, I love Rylee. She once was ours, and if she doesn't know it now, she'll know it when she's 18.' If that's not love, I don't know what is.”