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Adoption fraud: how a Michigan woman scammed hopeful families

Drew Hays/Unsplash
A Macomb County woman pleaded guilty to duping couples from several states

The birth mom was due in March 2019, but “typically delivers a couple of weeks early,” Tara Lynn Lee told the couple in South Carolina. They knew Lee through her Michigan-based organization, Always Hope Pregnancy and Education Center. In October 2018, Lee set up a phone call with the South Carolina couple, and the woman they believed was considering them to adopt her unborn child.

At first, they chatted about the birth mom’s morning sickness.

“It’s starting to get worse,” the birth mom told the South Carolina woman, who is identified in court documents as “A.P.”

“It’s supposed to be getting better, not worse,” A.P. sympathized.

Lee encouraged A.P. to tell the birth mom about their lives in South Carolina. “Is it ok that I…tell her, that you experienced a loss?” Lee asked. The South Carolina couple had lost a pregnancy. It was twins.

“23 weeks,” Lee told the birth mom. Later, Lee would call again, this time with good news: the birth mom had chosen the South Carolina couple to adopt her child. Payment was due immediately: $15,000 for Lee’s services and the birth mom’s expenses.

Except there was no birth mom. When A.P. looked up the name she’d been given on Facebook, it was clear from the woman’s profile that she had no intention of putting her child up for adoption. The woman she’d spoken with on the phone was an impersonator.

And Lee was not a certified social worker. Her organization, Always Hope, wasn’t even licensed. Instead, Lee was conning families from several states, double-matching them with birth moms or, in some cases, making up fictional birth moms entirely. Would-be parents sent her tens of thousands of dollars, only to be eventually told the birth mom didn’t want to give her child up after all.

Earlier this year, a grand jury indicted Lee with 18 counts of wire fraud. On Monday, she pleaded guilty to two counts, and faces a maximum fee of $250,000 and up to 20 years in prison.  

A fictional birth mom

According to the plea deal, Lee told one couple that a woman named “RaShaunda” had selected them to adopt her baby boy. Lee sent them a picture of a woman she claimed was RaShaunda, a fake ultrasound, and texted updates like “Let’s schedule a call Tuesday to talk about birth plans. Your baby is due this month!”

Then, in June of last year, Lee told the adoptive family “that RaShaunda had been shot and killed and that her baby had died,” the plea deal states. “That was false. Lee made this story up because RaShaunda did not exist.”   

The federal government is also charging a woman named Enhelica Wiggins, alleging she pretended to be the birth mom on the phone with the South Carolina couple and several families.

Red flags for potential scams

Adoption scams are not the norm, experts say, and families pursuing it as an option don’t need to be paranoid. But adoption organizations do advise prospective parents to work only with “reputable agencies,” rather than attempt an independent adoption. Meet in person. Don’t transfer money directly, and don’t trust anyone who finds you online and presents you “with the ‘perfect’ opportunity.” Use tip sheets from agencies like the National Council for Adoption.

Diana Moore, Executive Director of Lutheran Adoptive Services, says to be especially careful of anyone asking for payment for the parents. “LAS does not charge for adoption services and most adoption agencies working with State Ward adoptions do not charge for adoption services.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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