To Kyle Belz-Thomas, an ideal life included a noisy house full of children. “Kyle is a strong, determined, 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 suburb of Detroit on the shore of Lake St. Clair. His mother, who comes from a large Italian family, sent him to an all-boys Catholic high school, where he felt out of place and was teased regularly. When Kyle was twenty, he moved into his own apartment and came out to his family; to his relief, they were accepting. In 2014, on a dating app, he met Adam, an artist with a day job as a private-client banker, and spent the next year trying to get him to go on a date. Adam finally told him, “Come and find me, I’ll be outside mowing my lawn,” giving him only an approximate location. A week or so later, they went out for dinner and drinks. “He was nice, and he cared, and he was interested in what I did,” Adam told me recently. In 2016, they got married and moved with their three dogs into a four-bedroom house on more than two acres in a rural area outside Detroit. Kyle was thirty-five and working as an I.T. manager. He wanted to adopt a child in the next year. “We were both getting older, and, being a gay couple, we figured it would take a while to be matched with a baby,” Kyle said. “And we’d heard horror stories.”

They started researching adoption agencies. Then a friend of Kyle’s mentioned that a former middle-school classmate of theirs named 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 manila file folder of paperwork. She was small, with shiny black hair, dark eyes, and a nose ring; her voice was high, like a child’s. She explained that she was a licensed social worker with a boutique adoption agency called Always Hope. She didn’t look or speak like the staff members from other agencies; she cursed and had tattoos running down both arms, which gave her a folksy air that she said made it easier to bond with young pregnant women, who were often dealing with addiction, poverty, and other challenges. During their meeting, Adam noticed an expensive-looking watch on Lee’s wrist that seemed at odds with her image.

Many adoption agencies are affiliated with churches that disapprove of gay couples; Lee said that she had never worked with a same-sex couple, but that she had no objection to it. “It felt like a comfortable fit,” Adam recalled. He and Kyle signed the paperwork that day and gave Lee a deposit of twenty-five hundred dollars. They prepared a twenty-two-page book about their family, filled with descriptions and photos of their home and of their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. One image showed Kyle cradling a newborn; another showed Adam in his art studio, where he makes custom figurines of people’s pets.

Lee began sending them profiles of potential birth mothers, or “first mothers,” as they’re sometimes called. In April, 2017, Lee sent an e-mail about Angel, whose due date was July 8th. After a horrific sexual assault, Lee said, Angel had become 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 thrilled when Lee told them that Angel had chosen them as adoptive parents. The total cost of the adoption would be around twenty-five thousand dollars, which included eight thousand dollars for Angel’s living expenses. According to state regulations, those could include housing, food, and medical treatment.

They met with Angel and Lee for lunch at a Red Robin restaurant and started going to Angel’s ultrasound appointments. “It was a mad rush to get a nursery done,” Adam told me. They chose a wildlife theme for the room, and decorated the walls with trees and foxes. They had sent money to Lee to help move Angel and her son into an apartment in downtown Detroit, and to pay for furniture and a fridge, groceries and Uber rides. The couple never dealt directly with Angel; payments always went to Lee, who told them it was easier that way. “We kept handing over money constantly,” Adam said.

On June 23rd, Angel gave birth to a boy. Kyle and Adam sped to the hospital, where Tonya Corrado, an attorney Lee worked with, gave them adoption papers to sign. Angel seemed content when they named the baby Maxwell, and she remained calm when the couple took him home. Kyle and Adam were quickly thrown into a life defined by warming bottles, changing diapers, and Max’s sleep schedule.

In January, 2018, Lee called them to say that Angel was pregnant again, and that she wanted them to adopt this baby, too. Max was almost seven months old. He had recently been rushed to the hospital with breathing problems, and he had stayed on oxygen in the intensive-care unit for a week. Kyle and Adam had a mortgage and about thirty thousand dollars of additional debt. “It was crazy,” Adam said. But Lee pressured them. “What are you going to tell Max when he finds out you had the chance to adopt his sister and you didn’t do it?” they recalled her saying. This time, she asked for half of the fees and all of the birth-mother expenses up front. On January 20th, they gave Lee a check for ten thousand dollars.

“Are your hands clean?”
Cartoon by Tom Toro

They prepared a second room, decorated with mermaids and pirates, and bought bright block letters to spell the baby’s name, Alexandra, on the dresser. During the next few weeks, Kyle and Adam were often unable to get updates from Lee about Angel. In February, Kyle invited his parents and siblings over for dinner. Everyone was gathered around the dining table when he handed Max to his mother and asked her to take his sweatshirt off, revealing a T-shirt that said “I’m going to be a big brother.” In a video that Kyle’s sister took on her iPhone, Kyle can be seen wiping tears from his eyes. They sent the video to Lee, thanking her.

In March, they gave Lee another three thousand dollars for Angel’s expenses. But, about a month later, Lee told them that Angel was backing out of the adoption. “It really hurt,” Adam said. The emotional pain was compounded by the fact that he and Kyle couldn’t recover any of the money they had sent to cover Angel’s living expenses.

Soon afterward, Lee called them again: she had found another birth mom, April, who was due at the end of the year. In a document describing April’s situation, Lee wrote that April “is very close to me. We speak daily, even when she isn’t pregnant. She has a heart of gold.” Lee estimated that the cost of this adoption would be higher: about thirty-five thousand dollars, fifteen thousand of which would go toward birth-mother expenses. Fifteen thousand dollars was due immediately. They wrote Lee another check.

Tara Lee grew up in Mount Clemens, Michigan, a town close to New Baltimore. She was the eldest of six children. She told me that her father ran the service department at a Cadillac dealership, and that her mother was a stay-at-home parent and, later, a supermarket manager. Lee’s parents divorced when she was three but remained close. “We did eat dinner at the dinner table as a family every single night,” Lee wrote in an e-mail. “We got into trouble for having our elbows on the table lol. I was raised with manners and respect.”

Lee attended Anchor Bay High School, in a nearby town, where she was outgoing and popular. A former classmate, Kristy Steakley, said, “Tara was a people person. She could talk to anybody.”

Lee was an average student, but she dreamed of becoming an attorney, and couldn’t wait to get out of Mount Clemens. “I planned to live in a one bedroom apartment somewhere on the upper east side of New York City and work in corporate America my whole life,” she wrote in an online-diary entry from 2017. “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-cooling company, got married in 2002, shortly after Lee gave birth to their first child, a daughter.

In 2005, when Lee was twenty-three, she was arrested for writing a series of bad checks, including two to local jewelry stores and one to Costco. She pleaded guilty and was ordered to repay twenty-two thousand dollars to at least seventeen different businesses. 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 improbable-sounding story of meeting the mother of her adopted children at a picnic one day; two weeks later, Lee claimed, the woman showed up at her door and announced that she wanted Lee to adopt from her. Lee declined to discuss her adoptions, but she wrote in an e-mail, “I never wanted to facilitate adoptions. I wanted to help at risk pregnant women with their options.” She added, “I could not believe that many women only knew about either parenting or abortion. I wanted women to know that they had options. . . . I am pro life. I was pro life choices for those who didn’t want to have an abortion.”

In 2015, Lee registered the Always Hope Pregnancy and Education Center in Jacksonville, Florida, where, according to adoptive families who worked with her, she had been counselling pregnant women and helping to match them with families to adopt their babies. Lee travelled frequently between Jacksonville and Michigan, but soon she was conducting adoptions primarily in Michigan. State law requires that adoption agencies be licensed, a process that Lee never completed, and in 2015 Michigan investigated her for operating an unlicensed agency. The investigation initially concluded that she wasn’t violating the law, based on her insistence that she was only taking birth mothers to appointments and arranging clothing donations. After receiving further complaints, state agents told Lee that she had to get a license to continue to facilitate adoptions, but she never applied for one. That year, she took in more than a hundred and thirty thousand dollars from adoption work.