How an adoption broker cashed in on the dreams of expectant parents
For Kyle Belz-Thomas, an ideal life included a noisy house full of children. “Kyle is a strong, determined and caring man who would do anything to protect and support his family,” he once wrote of himself. He grew up as the youngest of three in New Baltimore, a Detroit suburb on the shores of Lake St. Clair. His mother, who comes from a large Italian family, sent him to a Catholic boys’ high school, where he felt uncomfortable and was teased regularly. When Kyle was twenty he moved into his own apartment and went out with his family; to his relief, they accepted. In 2014, on a dating app, he met Adam, an artist with a day job as a banker for private clients, and spent the next year trying to get him on a date. Adam finally said, “Come find me, I’ll be outside mowing my lawn,” giving him only an approximate location. About a week later, they went out to dinner and have a drink. “He was nice, and he cared about him, and he cared about what I was doing,” Adam told me recently. In 2016, they married and moved in with their three dogs to a four-bedroom house on more than two acres in a rural area outside of Detroit. Kyle was thirty-five and worked as an IT manager. He wanted to adopt a child next year. “We were both getting older and, being a gay couple, we thought it would take a while to be matched with a baby,” Kyle said. “And we had heard horror stories.”
They started to research adoption agencies. Then a friend of Kyle’s mentioned that a former classmate, Tara Lee, was running her own adoption business. In January 2017, he and Adam drove to a nearby Tim Hortons to meet her.
Lee, who was thirty-five, was waiting for them at a table with a binder of manila papers. She was short, with shiny black hair, black eyes, and a nose ring; her voice was high, like that of a child. She explained that she was a licensed social worker with a boutique adoption agency called Always Hope. She didn’t look or speak like staff in other agencies; she swore and had tattoos on both arms, giving her a folkloric air which she said made it easier to bond with young pregnant women, who often struggled with drug addiction, poverty and other challenges . During their meeting, Adam noticed an expensive watch on Lee’s wrist that seemed at odds with his image.
Many adoption agencies are affiliated with churches that disapprove of same-sex couples; Lee said she had never worked with a same-sex couple, but had no objection to it. “It felt like a comfortable fit,” recalls Adam. He and Kyle signed the papers that day and gave Lee a deposit of twenty-five hundred dollars. They have prepared a twenty-two page book about their family, filled with descriptions and photos of their home and their parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. One image showed Kyle cradling a newborn baby; another showed Adam in his art studio, where he makes personalized pet figures.
Lee began sending them profiles of potential biological mothers, or “first mothers,” as they are sometimes called. In April 2017, Lee emailed about Angel, whose due date was July 8. After a horrific sexual assault, Lee said, Angel got pregnant and was now determined to give up the baby. She was twenty-one and already had a two-year-old son, whom she was raising on her own. Lee encouraged Kyle and Adam to send their book to Angel, and they were delighted when Lee told them that Angel had chosen them as foster parents. The total cost of adoption would be around twenty-five thousand dollars, including eight thousand dollars for Angel’s living expenses. Depending on state regulations, these could include accommodation, food and medical care.
They met Angel and Lee for lunch at a Red Robin restaurant and started going to Angel’s ultrasound appointments. “It was a mad rush to make a nursery,” Adam told me. They chose an animal theme for the room and decorated the walls with trees and foxes. They had sent Lee money to help him move Angel and his son to an apartment in downtown Detroit, and to pay for furniture and a refrigerator, groceries, and Uber rides. The couple never dealt directly with Angel; the payments always went to Lee, who told them it was easier that way. “We kept giving money back all the time,” Adam said.
On June 23, Angel gave birth to a boy. Kyle and Adam rushed to the hospital, where Tonya Corrado, a lawyer Lee worked with, gave them adoption papers to sign. Angel seemed happy when they named baby Maxwell, and she remained calm when the couple brought her home. Kyle and Adam were quickly immersed in a life defined by warming bottles, changing diapers, and Max’s sleep schedule.
In January 2018, Lee called them to tell them that Angel was pregnant again and that she wanted them to adopt this baby as well. Max was almost seven months old. He had recently been rushed to hospital with breathing problems and had been on oxygen in the intensive care unit for a week. Kyle and Adam had a mortgage and about thirty thousand dollars in additional debt. “It was crazy,” Adam said. But Lee put pressure on them. “What are you going to say to Max when he finds out that you were lucky enough to adopt his sister and you didn’t?” They remembered his word. This time, she requested half the fees and all the expenses of the birth mother in advance. On January 20, they presented Lee with a check for ten thousand dollars.
They prepared a second room, decorated with mermaids and pirates, and bought lighted capital letters to spell out the baby’s name, Alexandra, on the dresser. Over the next several weeks, Kyle and Adam were often unable to get updates from Lee about Angel. In February, Kyle invited his parents and siblings over to dinner. Everyone was gathered around the dining table when he handed Max over to his mother and asked her to take off her sweatshirt, revealing a T-shirt that read “I’m going to be a big brother”. In a video that Kyle’s sister took on her iPhone, Kyle can be seen wiping the tears from her eyes. They sent the video to Lee, thanking her.
In March, they gave Lee an additional three thousand dollars for Angel’s expenses. But, about a month later, Lee told them that Angel was stepping down from adoption. “It really hurts,” said Adam. The emotional pain was compounded by the fact that he and Kyle couldn’t get any of the money they sent to cover Angel’s living expenses back.
Soon after, Lee called them back: she had found another biological mom, April, who was due to arrive at the end of the year. In a document describing April’s situation, Lee wrote that April “is very close to me. We talk every day, even when she’s not pregnant. She has a heart of gold. Lee estimated that the cost of this adoption would be higher: around thirty-five thousand dollars, including fifteen thousand for the birth mother’s expenses. Fifteen thousand dollars was due immediately. They wrote Lee another check.
Tara Lee grew up in Mount Clemens, Michigan, a town near New Baltimore. She was the oldest of six children. She told me that her father ran the after-sales service department of a Cadillac dealership and that her mother was a stay-at-home mom and later a supermarket manager. Lee’s parents divorced when she was three but have remained close. “We had dinner at the family table every night,” Lee wrote in an email. “We had trouble getting our elbows on the table lol. I was brought up with manners and respect.
Lee attended Anchor Bay High School in a nearby town, where she was outgoing and popular. Former classmate Kristy Steakley said, “Tara was a social person. She could talk to anyone.
Lee was an average college student, but dreamed of becoming a lawyer and couldn’t wait to leave Mount Clemens. “I had planned to live in a one bedroom apartment somewhere on the Upper East Side of New York and work in American companies all my life,” she wrote in a 2017 online journal. “However, the Lord had other plans for me.” After Lee graduated in 1999, she moved to Florida to work at Epcot. “I wanted to explore life,” she said. She and her high school boyfriend, Jeremy, who now works for a heating and air conditioning company, tied the knot in 2002, shortly after Lee gave birth to their first child, a daughter.
In 2005, when Lee was 23, she was arrested for writing a series of bad checks, including two at local jewelry stores and one at Costco. She pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay back twenty-two thousand dollars to at least seventeen different companies. Later that year, she wrote a bad check for a Polaris snowmobile, which led to another guilty plea. Lee had another daughter that year, and then, in 2007, a son.
In 2012, Lee adopted the first of two children from a woman she had met in Michigan. According to Melanie Peterson, a mother of five in Milwaukee who tried to adopt through Always Hope, Lee told an unlikely story of meeting the mother of her adopted children on a picnic one day; two weeks later, Lee claimed, the woman came to his door and announced that she wanted Lee to adopt from her. Lee declined to discuss her adoptions, but wrote in an email, “I never wanted to facilitate adoptions. I wanted to help at-risk pregnant women with their options. She added: “I couldn’t believe that a lot of women only knew about parenthood or abortion. I wanted women to know they had options. . . . I am a pro in life. I was pro in the choice of life for those who did not want to abort.
In 2015, Lee recorded the Always Hope Pregnancy and Education Center in Jacksonville, Florida, where, according to adoptive families who worked with her, she had counseled pregnant women and helped connect them with families to adopt their babies. . Lee traveled frequently between Jacksonville and Michigan, but soon she was doing adoptions primarily in Michigan. State law requires adoption agencies to be licensed, a process Lee never completed, and in 2015 Michigan investigated her for operating an unlicensed agency. The investigation initially concluded that she was not breaking the law, based on her insistence that she only took birth mothers to appointments and organized clothing donations. After receiving further complaints, state agents told Lee that she needed to get a license to continue facilitating adoptions, but she never applied for it. That year, she raised over one hundred and thirty thousand dollars in adoption work.