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Amid embezzlement investigation, did Fargo's infant loss group co-founder lie about baby's birth and death?

The Hopeful Heart Project was founded to help women in the Fargo-Moorhead area cope with the loss of a pregnancy or baby, but now co-founder Kayla Sorum is under investigation.

Kayla Sorum case
A photo submitted as part of a court exhibit of Kayla Sorum and baby she says died at birth.
Court exhibit submitted to WDAY
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FARGO — A woman who helped start a well-known nonprofit in town that helps mothers who lost a baby could face charges of embezzlement from the organization.

The Cass County state's attorney's office is reviewing Fargo police investigative reports after allegations surfaced that Kayla Sorum embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from the group she worked at and helped found: The Hopeful Heart Project.

But allegations of embezzlement may be just the beginning in a bizarre, troubling story of alleged deception.

The Fargo-Moorhead organization Hopeful Heart Project is known for its great work with moms who are dealing with the tragic loss of a baby, a miscarriage or a sudden death at birth. In fact, WDAY did a story about the nonprofit when it organized, and Kayla Sorum was one of those moms.

"But by the time I had gotten to the hospital, Hope...her heart had already stopped beating," Sorum said in a 2018 interview as she shared the story of her loss. Sorum said baby Hope died after a placental abruption.

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Sorum would go on raise money with other mothers, talking with groups and donors sharing the story of her loss. She was operations manager for the charity. But Sorum was fired from the charity following allegations of embezzlement, that Fargo police investigated and turned over paperwork to Cass County state's attorney's office.

No charges have been filed. The alleged embezzlement has left the other moms in the group, like co-founder Jen Burgard, frustrated and baffled.

"A newer organization, right, where every dollar matters, and to have something to this level happen...it is devastating," said Burgard.

But WDAY News has uncovered exhibits from court documents that point to something the nonprofit says may be even more troubling: Sorum's story of Baby Hope. Was it all a lie?

Drew Balstad says he dated Kayla Sorum, but months after the relationship ended, July of 2016, Sorum told Drew she was pregnant.

"Yeah, obviously it was shocking because I did not expect that to happen, but I was basically just like, what are the options here?" said Balstad.

He was shocked but agreed to co-parent the baby and started looking for day care, even more.

"Figure out a birth plan, figure out custody arrangements, all of that. I put in a nursery. We had everything you would have to expect a baby, because we did," said Balstad.

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But there would be no baby to co-parent. Sorum told Drew the baby died at birth at Sanford.

"It was the most difficult experience of my life, and it was crushing. All of this anticipation leading up to what you think will be a happy event, and it is quite the opposite," said Balstad.

Drew says he was asked to pay hospital and funeral expenses, but Balstad says Sorum could not produce any invoices or receipts.

"Let's sit down and look at all the bills and we can figure out a way to split it up, and figure out payment plan or whatever you need to do. I saw no bills...nothing existed," said Balstad.

According to court records, a check with the North Dakota Health Department produced no death or birth certificate for the baby. And WDAY has learned from sources close to the investigation, Sanford has no record of the baby's birth that day, Feb 15th, 2017.

"That is something official, at that point, we didn't have anything official that said it, but when we go to the state and ask them give me the record of my child's death, and they don't have it, that is pretty official," said Balstad.

The charity's co-founder, Jen, had access to Sorum's Amazon account.

"It was a rabbit hole," she said.

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According to court exhibits filed by Balstad, Sorum had ordered a realistic looking baby doll from Amazon. That, according to those exhibits entered in a restraining order case, Sorum sent to friends, following what she called the loss of her daughter.

"When I was on the tablet and I saw those dolls, my heart sank. I knew. Everything snowballed," said Burgard.

"It is a crazy story, there's a lot," said Balstad.

According to those court exibits, Sorum even had hospital bracelets that appeared to be from Sanford.

"This (the bracelets) has to be something that says it is true, and looking into this even more, we realized Sanford doesn't use these bracelets, those are Essentia bracelets she doctored, essentially," said Balstad.

According to court exhibits, Sorum used pictures of random babies from social media sites to put on her own, and was even called out by someone in another state.

"She could have stopped at any point," said Balstad.

There was a birth announcement, even invitations to a funeral. Drew, who got a restraining order against Sorum, says Sorum offered to drop off memory items.

"She says she has hand and foot molds, I don't know where she got those from," said Balstad.

We reached out to Sorum for comment. We didn't hear back. But in court filings to seal all these previous court documents, she wrote, "One of the allegations in this case is that I have falsified my pregnancy and the death of my child. I am horrified by this. It has caused me a great deal of emotional and professional harm, as the rumors of these unsupported allegations have circulated."

Meantime, the nonprofit is hoping to change its name but keep the mission going to help moms who have lost babies, while, as an organization, struggling with months of anger and hurt.

"A gut punch is an excellent way to describe it, because we have been taken advantage of so egregiously," said Burgard.

The Hopeful Heart Project website can be found here.

Related Topics: CRIME AND COURTSNONPROFITS
Kevin Wallevand has been a Reporter at WDAY-TV since 1983. He is a native of Vining, Minnesota in Otter Tail County. His series and documentary work have brought him to Africa, Vietnam, Haiti, Kosovo, South America, Mongolia, Juarez,Mexico and the Middle East. He is an multiple Emmy and national Edward R. Murrow award recipient.

Contact Email: kwallevand@wday.com
Phone Number: (701) 241-5317
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