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The parent trap

The parent trap

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 LenBrooksTheCrook.com.
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 LenBrooksIsNotACrook.com 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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