Georgia Tann orchestrated the seizure of thousands of kids — all under the pretense of doing good.
Babies were snatched off the streets by strangers in passing cars, taken from day-care centers or church basements where they played, or stolen from hospitals, right after birth, passed from doctor to nurse to a uniformed “social worker” before vanishing in an instant.
Tann was the mastermind behind a black market for white babies — especially blond-haired, blue-eyed ones — that terrorized poor Southern families for almost three decades. And she did it all through leading the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, a supposedly charitable organization.
It’s estimated that over 5,000 children were stolen by Tann and the society between 1924 and 1950 and that some 500 died at the society’s hands as a result of poor care, disease and suspected abuse.
Particularly vulnerable were newborns. In 1945 alone, as many as 50 children perished in a dysentery outbreak.
Tann had various means of procuring babies and children for her wealthy customers. She bribed nurses and doctors in birthing wards, who would then tell new parents that their babies had been stillborn.
Her organization was quick to snatch babies born in prisons and mental wards. Older children were grabbed off the street by Tann’s agents and were told their parents had died. To cover their tracks, the society falsified adoption records and destroyed any trace of these children’s origins.
Tann would tell adoptive parents that the children were “blank slates,” Lisa Wingate, author of the novel “Before We Were Yours”, tells The Post. “What really resonated with me is that they’re not. Foster kids, adopted kids, they’re not blank slates. They’re people. And they have genetic tendencies and . . . talents and abilities that are all their own.”
While Tann was born in Mississippi and child welfare laws weren’t as strict as they are today, allowing Tann to wheel and deal in her role, she was not careful with her work, nor with covering up her trail, and at least one birth parent sued for return of her children.
So, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee to work for the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in 1924.
Soon after, she launched her adoption racket and got business by placing advertisements aimed at potential adoptive parents in newspapers.
One featured a photo of smiling infants with the caption, “Want a Real, Live Christmas Present?” As if children were dolls or puppies.
Tann presented herself as a kindly matron and pioneer of a new kind of social work — all the while destroying lives and families.
However, Tann had help. Her most useful co-conspirator was Camille Kelley, a juvenile-court judge in the city, who, with the stroke of a pen, would remove parental rights and transfer them to Tann, clearing a path for adoption. Tann was also abetted by the famously corrupt political machine in Memphis, headed by E.H. “Boss” Crump.
Tann was essentially waging class war. She held to the belief that there were two kinds of people: the poor, whom she viewed as incompetent parents, and the wealthy.
As word of Tann’s tactics started to spread, even some adoptive parents started to object. But, in many cases, they were powerless and forced to be complicit in her operation as they feared losing their children. Whispers and accusations went nowhere.
For years, she was too prominent, too well connected, for anything to stick.
Georgia Tann was 59 years old when she died at home of cancer. She never had to face the music for her terrible crimes. She left no money to children’s causes, nor to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The home was closed two months later.
Ironically, an accidental benefit of her work was popularizing adoption for parents unable to conceive. Before Tann, adoption in the United States was uncommon, but after she became known, the stigma over the practice was largely lifted.
At the same time, a damaging legal procedure was put in place: Tann championed the practice of closed, secretive adoptions. Adoption records were sealed, and adopted children were barred from learning the identities of their birth parents.
This legislation is still in place in many states; however, Tennessee was the first state to lift these laws, in 1999.
Meanwhile, the emotional cost of Tann’s decades-long scheme is incalculable. Thousands of families were torn apart; parents never saw their children again and siblings were permanently separated. Wingate’s novel tells of one such family.
“If you’d invented that story, it would seem so far-fetched that you would think, ‘That could never happen. Not in this country,’” Wingate says. “And yet, it did, and it did for a long time.”
For Wingate, this story “still matters today, because there are still so many kids that need that one advocate, that one place to be, that one person who will step in.” She continues, “we do have to still be watching for things that are not above board or are corrupt, where children are being used for profits of one kind or another. That’s on all of us, as a public.”
H/T: New York Post