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The parent trap

The parent trap


Len Brooks markets himself as a fellow gay man who understands the desire to become a biological father. But some of his clients question whether the surrogacy sage and his agencies are too good to be true.

Len Brooks has a lot of nerve.

He waited years and threw down more than $100,000 to become a parent with his partner via surrogacy--not once, but twice. It was that experience, he says, that prompted him in 1999 to start, without any professional training, several gay-friendly surrogacy agencies, including International Surrogacy Consultants and the Center for Reproductive Alternatives. And facing charges of improperly taking $6,500 from one of his clients last year, Brooks listened as the judge ordered the charges dismissed and laughed.

He'd later insist that he wasn't mocking justice but merely laughing at an unrelated joke. Even so, it takes a certain kind of bravado to look at a possible five-year prison sentence and laugh--for any reason.

Joe Thomas* and his partner of 11 years thought they were prepared for fatherhood. They had significant savings, good jobs, and extended family living nearby. They'd even bought a bigger house to accommodate multiple children. "We had been looking to have a child through surrogacy for a long time. All our ducks were in a row," says Thomas. "We were finally ready to pull the trigger."

Thomas found Brooks's agency, the Mid-Atlantic Center for Surrogacy, online in 2004. It had a real advantage over the other gay-focused, mostly West Coast agencies he'd looked at--it was just an hour away from his home in New Jersey. Says Thomas: "He offered one-stop shopping, he was close by, he was midrange in price, and he kept a small caseload, so he told us we'd have his undivided attention."

And Brooks was gay, which mattered to Thomas and served as a calling card for Brooks. "I have clients who will call me five years later and ask, 'How do I approach their teacher when it's Mother's Day?' Brooks says. "I've been down that road."

When Thomas and his partner first met Brooks at a restaurant, he was charming. He said the right things; he recounted his own difficult story of surrogacy and commiserated over the challenges of being gay and wanting to be a biological parent.

Soon after that first dinner Brooks found the couple a surrogate. She was perfect: married, involved in education and women's issues. "She was someone with a real moral center. That appealed to us," explains Thomas. Thinking she was the one, Thomas paid $18,000 into what Brooks called a "holding" account to cover the mother's expenses. But not long after the money was deposited, Brooks called Thomas to tell him the surrogate had backed out. "We were devastated," remembers Thomas. "Coincidentally, that's also when the trouble started." The couple were anxious to meet other surrogates, but Brooks was suddenly unavailable. For five months, Thomas says, he was unresponsive to phone calls and e-mails. And yet when they signed on with Brooks, the literature Thomas originally received promised, "As program director I'm available to go 24 hours a day in most cases."

Brooks shrugs off such criticisms: "I do my best, but I handle everything personally. I'm the guy who designs the information systems and coordinates the pregnancy. It's a tough act to do everything yourself." He finds fault elsewhere. "I tell my clients, 'Be persistent with me. If you need more of a response, pick up the phone.' "

That tactic clearly didn't work for Thomas. What's more, he says that Brooks was not handling the administrative side of the bargain either. He says his first surrogate complained that Brooks wasn't sending her payments or paperwork or insemination materials. "In the beginning it was just frustrating. Toward the end his unresponsiveness was a nightmare."

Thomas had to press to get additional surrogate candidates from Brooks, and when Brooks finally did make introductions, the women apparently hadn't been vetted. Medical histories were left blank on their applications. They were too young. Or they used drugs. In one case the woman was autistic, with a family history of autism.

One particular candidate cost Thomas and his partner additional money and time. They flew to her home in Colorado to inseminate her there. When that didn't take, they flew her and her husband to their own home on the East Coast. They paid months' worth of medical bills and insurance. And when she asked him directly for more money, which was Brooks's responsibility, Thomas gave her cash. "I knew it wasn't right, but what's a couple hundred dollars if the end result is we have a child?" asks Thomas. "We're not naive people. We're both professionals. But, you know, your emotions get so involved in this. You really want a child. You've been thinking about it for years and years. They knew how to play upon that."

Then, after several months of unsuccessful insemination attempts, the surrogate confessed that she had a drug history and her mother and sister were both crack-addicted prostitutes. "Clearly, had we known all this, we would never picked her," says Thomas. "Not on your life."

Brooks says, in fact, he was just minimizing the costs of medical and psychological tests until the clients decided the relationship with the surrogate would work. "In the end, it saves everyone money," says Brooks. He adds that finding the right match between mother and client can take time, and he picks the candidate based on personality more than anything else. "There has to be the right chemistry between the two. After doing this as long as I have, you get a feel for it."

But for Thomas, crack addiction and prostitution proved the last straw. So he asked Brooks about the $18,000 he'd set aside. Several months went by, but he never got an answer. And he never got another potential surrogate. So after about two years of working with Mid-Atlantic, Thomas and his partner decided they had had enough and ended their relationship with Brooks. Their signed agreement promised they'd get any unused money back. But when they asked for it, Brooks again was nowhere to be found. That's when Thomas and his partner joined the growing number of clients filing lawsuits against Brooks.

Thomas's story isn't unique. A number of Brooks's clients are still childless after many years of working with him. To make matters worse, they are each out thousands of dollars--some, their entire life savings. Sean Smith* and his partner learned about Brooks from trusted acquaintances who had been clients of Brooks. But $30,000 and six years later, they too are still childless and frustrated. Again Brooks was unresponsive to phone calls, e-mails, or letters. "When I finally did get him, he said he would send the money. But even the FedEx [tracking] numbers he gave us were made up," says Smith. Brooks eventually told Smith he couldn't afford to pay them back but would set up a payment plan. "But still nothing," Smith says.

Like Smith, almost all of Brooks's unsatisfied clients have a feeling they might never see that money again.

In January 2006 a grand jury indicted Brooks on theft charges. A gay client in Burlington County, N.J., who has not been named publicly, accused Brooks of taking $6,500. The man had paid $24,500, but Brooks never provided a successful surrogate and offered no reimbursement until an arrest warrant was issued, at which time he repaid $18,000 and told the client the remainder was an agency fee. After the charges were made public, at least 17 other clients, including Thomas, called to register similar complaints, according to the county prosecutor's office.

A New Jersey superior judge ultimately dismissed that criminal charge due to what the judge called "exculpatory evidence" related to a contract between Brooks and his client. However, a New Jersey superior court did rule by default judgment against Brooks in two civil cases involving Thomas and two other unhappy clients, alleging fraud and breach of contract, which means he owes them nearly $150,000 in total. Brooks says he didn't show up to challenge these civil cases because he was too busy defending himself in the criminal case to pay attention. He says he's leaving it up to his lawyers to decide if anyone in these civil suits should get paid.

"I wish I could find the money again, but there's no hidden pot of gold," says Brooks. "The fact that these lawyers think I have it is crazy."

There is some confusion over where the money went. Brooks admits the surrogacy business gave him "a comfortable life," as a recent report from the Boynton Beach, Fla., police department can attest. Brooks got stopped driving a 2001 Mercedes S430 erratically in Boynton Beach (near his current home) this past February. Police searched the car and found 3.3 grams of cocaine and impounded his vehicle. Brooks was charged with cocaine possession and providing false identification. The case was still pending at press time. Also, public records indicate that Brooks and his partner have shared several expensive homes.

At any rate, his troubles are far from over. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is now looking into Brooks's business practices. FBI officials say that since the inquiry is still in process, they can't discuss the details or speculate when the investigation will be complete. Nevertheless, their interest has given Brooks's clients tentative hope.

And Smith gets some satisfaction from his Web site The site has become a kind of global clearinghouse for information about Brooks and his business. Smith says he's heard from couples in New York, New Jersey, California, and as far away as France and Australia who feel they've been ill-served by Brooks. "It's amazing how many couples have come out of the woodwork," says Smith. "So many couples tell the same story over and over again. The worst part is that Len's still in business and he's gone global."

Brooks dismisses his critics. He says his supporters have created a Web site called to counter the negative information. And he says he's pleased with his expansion overseas and his domestic surrogacy cases are "going well." He points to his overall success: By his count he's been involved in the birth of more than 60 babies since 1999. Not bad when you consider that on average, experts think there are fewer than 1,000 children born via surrogacy annually. "That's something I can look back at, at the end of my life, and be proud of," he says.

As for the complaining couples? "They are just mad that they don't have children." He's the victim, he argues, not they. "People who walk away without a baby, it's their perception that I didn't try hard enough. But it's a tough process. I stuck with it, and look at me: I'm the father of two lovely kids. Don't walk away and blame me if the program is not working. It's their lack of commitment that's the real problem here."

Thomas and his partner still want a child, and they've found a surrogate on their own. But he says he hopes Brooks can be stopped. "The thing is, your emotions get really involved in this, and he knew exactly how to play on that. What he's done to his own community is absolutely disgusting," he says. "And my biggest fear is that he'll drag more people like us in. I want him to stop. I want him to see the inside of a federal prison."

Smith and his partner, however, have given up their quest to have a child with a surrogate. "We've survived all of this, thank God. But it makes us sad. When we got off the train from work the other day, we saw a man get off at the same time. His little girl came running to him, yelling 'Daddy, Daddy.' I looked at my partner, who was also watching. He said, 'That could have been us.' "

*The names of Brooks's clients have been changed to protect their privacy.

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