Durham couple lost thousands to suspected embezzlement at Johnston surrogacy firm
Posted May 9, 2014
Updated May 11, 2014
Durham, N.C. — A Durham couple working with a surrogate agency to build a family say they feel violated and betrayed after learning the owner of the company was charged with stealing their money.
Lauren Onken had tried unsuccessfully for years to get pregnant. She then found a surrogacy agency in Johnston County called Baby Steps online.
"We asked around. People had good testimonials," Onken said Friday. "(We) found nothing that really would have sent up a red flag at the time."
So, she and her husband, Chad, paid $8,000 to match them with a woman to carry the baby. They also put $20,000 into an escrow account to pay the surrogate mother's medical bills and living expenses.
The Onkens hired a lawyer to draft a contract, and the owner of Baby Steps, Jennifer Soronen, signed it in April 2012. Medical procedures and the surrogate pregnancy began last year.
"From the beginning, I always felt like I was always the one asking her for updates. I was not receiving monthly statements per the contract," Lauren Onken said.
By last fall, she said, Soronen wasn't returning phone calls or emails, and checks for the surrogate mother were bouncing. That meant the Onkens had to kick in more money to pay all of the bills.
"It's difficult to focus on the happiness of a baby, the joy of everything you've wished and hoped for coming true, because you're dealing with legal issues and financial issues and emotionally with the fact that you feel duped," Lauren Onken said.
Soronen, 41, of 269 Serenity Pointe Drive in Selma, was indicted Monday on an embezzlement charge and remains in the Johnston County jail under a $150,000 bond.
Agents with the State Bureau of Investigation say she took approximately $170,000 from the Baby Steps trust fund for her own use. Authorities began investigating the company, which is now shut down, in December, and they say the Onkens are one of several couples across North Carolina that were victims of the alleged embezzlement.
"What we hope for is that this brings attention to a broken system," Lauren Onken said.
Like many states, North Carolina has no laws specifically dealing with surrogacy. There is a push in at least three states – Minnesota, Louisiana and New York – to legally recognize and regulate surrogacy. One lawmaker in Minnesota said there's no clear understanding among the parties involved what their obligations are.
Onken said she's not bitter, and she doesn't expect her money back.
"I think we are able to move past that because we did have a happy ending," she said.
The surrogate mother gave birth to a girl, Charlotte, in April. The Onkens also adopted a baby girl in December.