Intricate Adoption Scam Operation Provides A Cautionary Tale

New yorker adoption scam story

The tale of Tara Lee and her adoption agency Always Hope Pregnancy and Education Center is a cautionary one. Lee’s business, while brokering some legitimate adoptions, often left families with broken promises and missing several thousand dollars. In fact, according to a recent article in The New Yorker, in 2020, Lee was found to have defrauded 160 families and seventy birth mothers. She was ordered to pay over one million dollars in restitution and was sentenced to ten years and one month in prison.

Always Hope, which was registered in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2015, predominantly operated out of Michigan, Lee’s home state. It was there that Kyle Belz-Thomas and his husband Adam first met Lee, who helped them successfully adopt their son, Max. Lee met with the couple and matched them with a birth mother, Angel, who gave birth in June 2017. The adoption fees amounted to about $25,000, of which $8,000 was given to Angel for her living expenses. Although Kyle and Adam did meet Angel and attended ultrasound appointments with her, Sheelah Kolhatkar reports that “the couple never dealt directly with Angel; payments always went to Lee, who told them it was easier that way.”

This was apparently standard procedure for Lee. She “carefully controlled all communication between expectant mothers and adoptive families, and tried to prevent the two sides from contacting each other directly; she arranged most in-person meetings and usually came along,” according to Kolhatkar.

During their second attempt at adoption, Kyle and Adam began to encounter problems with Lee. The year after they adopted Max, Lee told them that Angel was again pregnant and wanted them to adopt this baby. When the couple had reservations because of their financial situation, Lee seemed to turn to emotional manipulation. She challenged them, notes The New Yorker, asking what they would say to Max years later when he found out they could have adopted his biological sister but did not. Kyle and Adam agreed to adopt Angel’s baby, but this time around, it seemed more difficult to get updates from Lee about Angel. After they had paid an immediate $10,000 and another $3,000 months later for Angel’s living expenses, Lee reported that Angel was backing out of the adoption, and Kyle and Adam would not be able to recover any of the money they had paid for Angel’s expenses.

Lee soon presented them with another birth mother, April, and estimated that this adoption would cost about $35,000. The couple immediately paid Lee $15,000 toward the adoption. However, problems with April began to surface. While Lee assured Kyle and Adam that April had a “heart of gold,” most of the couple’s knowledge of the birth mother consisted of a blurry photo of her. Furthermore, Lee promised Kyle and Adam an ultrasound picture of the baby but never delivered it. Then, Lee told them that April was refusing prenatal care. Adam later said, “We became kind of skeptical with this one.” When he questioned Lee, she again became manipulative and asked if he was yelling at her. According to Kolhatkar, “He immediately backed down. He didn’t want to jeopardize their chances of getting another baby.”

Still, Kyle and Adam later decided to break their arrangement with April. Lee had kept the money that was left from the adoption of April’s child, $14,000, and promised to apply that amount to the couple’s next adoption. When that time came, though, Lee still needed $5,000 more for this birth mother, Renee. Kyle and Adam paid that amount and soon stopped hearing from Renee. Investigating Renee on his own, Kyle discovered that Lee had promised Renee’s baby to multiple families. Lee refused to return the couple’s $5,000.

Kyle and Adam’s unfortunate dealings with Tara Lee are not unique. The New Yorker reports several similar incidents involving Lee and other brokenhearted families. It was not until a client accused lawyers Tanya Corrado and Talia Goetting of scamming her that the two, who worked closely with Lee, began to investigate their records, as well as Lee’s emails to clients. They found evidence of Lee’s fraudulent activities. When Lee was finally indicted in January 2019, “The charge accused Lee of seeking to defraud families by misrepresenting herself as a licensed adoption worker and social worker, of matching more than one set of adoptive parents with the same birth mother, and of matching parents with birth mothers who weren’t pregnant or who didn’t exist,” notes Kolhatkar.

Goetting later recalled that when the evidence against Lee was mounting, Goetting thought back to earlier warning signs about Lee. “There’s a baby being born, there’s no attorney for the birth mother, the adopting parents have no attorney. Tara has been their only source of information, and she keeps it that way,” Goetting said. “It was always chaos.”