Ringing Up Baby

Cashing in on the adoption biz is easy in Texas, where lax rules let almost anyone play. Take Jennalee Ryan, for instance...

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Jennifer Potter. While she resided with her outwardly happy blond family in Los Angeles County, she lived mostly in her mind. When she grew up, she would remember things that other people said never happened.

She would use different names, depending on who she was talking to. She would give birth to many children from many fathers, and she would adopt other children. And even though she would later give some of those adopted children away, she believed kids were her reason for living. She wanted to create happy families, as she believed hers should have been. She worked hard, built a successful adoption referral business in California in the late '90s and later lost it in bankruptcy in 2000.

So Jennifer Potter went to court and changed her name to Jennalee Ryan (sometimes just "Jenna") in 2000. She moved to San Antonio in 2005 and built what she called the "world's first human embryo bank," which she advertised on a Web site for a company she called The Abraham Center of Life (www.theabrahamcenteroflife.com). She wanted to facilitate the creation and sale of frozen embryos. The story went worldwide. She didn't expect the media backlash. Designer babies, critics railed. Aryan embryos.

In some states, adoption advertisers and facilitators can make lots of money off birth moms and adoptive parents.
Mark Greenberg
In some states, adoption advertisers and facilitators can make lots of money off birth moms and adoptive parents.
Jennifer Potter or Jennalee Ryan—figuring out her adoption business is as hard as pinning down her name.
Jennifer Potter or Jennalee Ryan—figuring out her adoption business is as hard as pinning down her name.

The media wanted to know the ethical implications. Reporters corralled professors of bioethics who raised the specters of eugenics and Brave New World. They talked about an explosion of blond-haired, blue-eyed über-infants.

The freak-show aspect was juicy enough that no one bothered to check out who Jennalee Ryan really was; the allegations of violence and financial fraud that followed her from California to Texas; her ties to an adoption agency in Utah, a state whose adoption laws allow out-of-state birth mothers to give up their kids without notifying the father or state adoption authorities.

In the world of adoption "advertising" and facilitation, there are thousands of dollars to be had with each expectant mother. The definitions of adoption advertising and facilitation are vague and confusing enough to allow a smart person to set up shop in the right state and make money off birth moms and adoptive parents throughout Texas and the country, without any license or regulations. Jennifer Potter, aka Jennalee Ryan, is a smart person.

And, for her baby business, Texas is the right state.


It's March 1996 in Riverside County, about 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and Jennifer Potter is talking to a newspaper reporter for a story about interracial marriages. As a white woman married to a black man, she says, she has felt the sting of being other.

"In a mixed relationship, you have to take on the social pressures blacks have always dealt with," she's quoted as saying in the Riverside Press-Enterprise. Potter is described as owning an adoption agency; her husband, Cornelius Braxton, is a model and actor when he's not at nursing school. She tells the reporter that police recently suspected Braxton in a neighborhood robbery, "despite the fact that the couple lives on 3 1/2 acres in a $500,000 home in Temecula."

Potter speaks glowingly of their 4-year-old son, whom she describes as "a star in preschool." She says her father "disowned" her for her relationship with Braxton, but he "has had a change of heart, and loves visiting his grandson."

A few details don't make it into the story, namely that Jennifer Potter and Cornelius Braxton were never married. (Ryan would later tell the Houston Press, the Dallas Observer's sister paper, that theirs was a common-law marriage, but California does not recognize such a relationship.)

Also left out of the story: In 1993, three years before the newspaper interview, Potter filed a restraining order against Braxton, according to Riverside County court records. According to the visitation schedule they hammered out, the 4-year-old preschool star would be exchanged betwixt Potter and Braxton at an Arco gas station on the first and third weekends of the month. Braxton declined to comment for this story.

It also might have jacked up the newspaper story if Potter gave one of her vivid descriptions of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. How, when she lay in her bed at night, she would hear his footfalls down the hall and pray that he didn't stop at her room. According to these stories, Gerald Potter painted in black and blue with his belt, and little Jennifer was his canvas. There were times when she was so bruised she couldn't go to school.

And now, the man loved to visit his grandson.

Four months later, same newspaper: Jennifer Potter of Temecula is picketing her branch of Bank of America. Her 19-year-old nanny has apparently stolen her checkbook and withdrawn $9,000 over an eight-month span. Even though the nanny will ultimately plead guilty, the bank will not reimburse Potter's money. Potter, who is now described as having eight kids, is apparently outraged enough to leave her $500,000 home and picket on a regular basis.

"I'm going to do it once a week," she tells the reporter.

Eleven months later, July 1997, same paper: A news brief indicates that a Wildomar woman named Jennifer Potter-Clay is planning a demonstration outside the Riverside County District Attorney's Office. She says the district attorney isn't doing enough to collect child support from deadbeat dads. Potter-Clay has left her phone number, in case anyone wants to support her.

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