Sunday, March 12, 2006
Warning to my fellow infertiles in Palm Beach, Florida
Please please please spread the warning. Don't let this sick fucker pray on any more people! Surrogacy center's chief is chargedThe Cherry Hill center stole thousands from clients and from the surrogate mothers themselves, they say.By Sam WoodInquirer Staff WriterFor a fee, the MidAtlantic Center for Surrogacy in Cherry Hill promised to make dreams of parenthood come true. Tauheedah Jones, of Sicklerville, turned to the center because doctors said a pregnancy could kill her; Kenny Rohan of Long Island because his wife had lost her ovaries to cancer; Steven Cerqua of New York City because he wanted his partner, Ernesto, to experience the joys of fatherhood. Each looked to MidAtlantic to provide a surrogate mother who would carry a child until birth and then turn the infant over to the fee-paying parents. But as Jones and others would later relate, they had ventured into an unregulated netherworld where promises, they said, are not always as good as the money they put up. "I thought if I could give birth and not die, that would be great," said Jones, who has systemic lupus. "But it turned into a disaster." On Jan. 27, a Burlington County grand jury indicted MidAtlantic's program director, Len Brooks, on theft charges. Brooks, who has denied the charges, will have his first appearance in court Monday. Following the indictment, the prosecutor's office was inundated with calls. At least 17 people telephoned to register complaints about Brooks. A Marlton fertility clinic and seven individuals, including two in France, also contacted The Inquirer to say that they had lost thousands of dollars. Jones' story is typical of those of former clients. In 2001, Jones, then 23, wanted to have a child. But systemic lupus, an immune-system disorder, had begun to attack her kidneys. Her doctor had advised her against carrying her own child - but that did not mean she could not have another woman carry for her. So Jones scoured the Internet for information and an agency. She chose the MidAtlantic Center for Surrogacy and Egg Donation because it was the closest to her home. Surrogacy as we know it is relatively new. In 1980, a mother of three, known as "Elizabeth Kane," carried a boy for an Illinois couple. Advocates cite the Bible, Genesis 16:1-15, as the first recorded surrogate birth: when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael for Abraham and Sarah. There have been about 25,000 births through surrogacy since 1980, said Shirley Zager, director of the nonprofit Organization of Parents Through Surrogacy. Celebrities have flocked to it. During the last year alone, actress Angela Bassett, singer Art Garfunkel, and model Cindy Margolis became surro-parents, joining Joan Lunden, Kelsey Grammer, Peri Gilpin, soap opera star Deidre Hall, Cheryl Tiegs, actress Laurie Metcalf, author Jacquelyn Mitchard, and Michael Jackson. Jones had her first consultation with Brooks in 2001 and gave him a down payment of $7,000. He showed her pictures of his family - his partner, Brian, and the daughter they themselves had had through surrogacy. "He told me he was affiliated with the Cooper Center for In-Vitro Fertilization," said Jones, who was going to supply her own eggs. "They have a really good reputation." Over the next two years, Jones paid a total of $35,000 to MidAtlantic. The money was supposed to be held in trust and used for doctors, the surrogate mother in San Diego, and miscellaneous fees. From the start, there were problems. Brooks, in his role as coordinator of the pregnancy, gave the surrogate the wrong dates and times for doctors' appointments, Jones said. That was forgivable. She really began to worry when the fertility clinic, the Cooper Center for In-Vitro Fertilization in Marlton, sent her a letter saying they were no longer willing to work with Brooks' clients. "He wasn't paying the bills," said Jerome H. Check, the medical director of the Cooper Center. "He also told several patients he was affiliated with our office, which he wasn't. He used our credibility to have patients pay him, and suddenly nobody could get ahold of him." Jones asked Brooks for her account balance. Even though not even a single surrogacy procedure had been completed, her $35,000 escrow account was down to $14,800. Jones demanded receipts. She called the surrogate mother in California and asked how much of a stipend she was receiving from MidAtlantic. Brooks told Jones the surrogate would get $16,000. The surrogate told her she was getting $14,000. Jones threatened Brooks with a lawsuit if she did not get the balance of her money back. He sent her a check. It bounced, she said. He sent her another check, and she took it to the bank on which it was drawn. "I took it there three times," she said. "Each time, it wouldn't clear." Jacklen Billings, 24, volunteered to become an egg donor for MidAtlantic in 2004 after giving birth to her own child. A professional model in Blanco, Texas, Billings had enjoyed pregnancy so much that she decided to become a surrogate mother. "Everything was OK, until the first time I was owed money from Len. Then, he was suddenly unreachable," Billings said. MidAtlantic owes her more than $4,500, she said - and the paperwork she has demanded to end her contract. So far, only one criminal complaint has been filed against Brooks and MidAtlantic. The Burlington County indictment says Brooks took $24,500 from a single man from Evesham Township and promised to find a woman who would bear a child for him. Soon after cashing the man's check, Brooks told him the surrogate had backed out. Brooks promised to provide another surrogate or make a refund. Months went by. After nine months, the man filed charges, and Evesham police issued a warrant for Brooks' arrest. Brooks sent an $18,000 check directly to the police. He said he kept the remaining $6,500 to cover fees. Brooks denied the charges when he was reached last month in Florida, where he is now operating the International Surrogacy Consultants in Palm Beach. "It is apparent that the accuser is using the criminal justice system as a collections department," he said. He has declined later requests for interviews, at the advice his lawyer. MidAtlantic still maintains a Web site touting its presence in South Jersey. But Brooks has pulled out of his Cherry Hill "office" - a post-office box at a Mailbox Etc. - and set up the Florida agency, the prosecutor's office said. It's a box drop in the rear of a Palm Beach souvenir shop.