Adoption's Shadow History
Adoption's Shadow History
June 21, 2007 by Barbara Bisantz Raymond
Adoption, a respected institution that has brought millions of people joy, has a secret history. Its architect was a criminal named Georgia Tann, who from 1924 to 1950 operated out of Memphis, Tennessee, terrorizing poor, often single parents by stealing their children and placing them with wealthy adoptive parents, including Joan Crawford and Dick Powell.
Mother kept toddlers indoors, and the mother superior of a local orphanage hid children in attics, but, protected by political boss Edward Hull Crump, Georgia Tann arranged more than 5,000 illegal adoptions. She also killed so many children through neglect that the Memphis infant mortality rate soared to the highest in the nation. She sexually abused some of her female charges and placed some children with pedophiles.
While building her black market business, she also invented modern American adoption. It’s hard to underestimate her influence. When she began working in Tennessee in the 1920s, adoption as we know it didn’t exist. Eugenicists had made Americans afraid to adopt, and thousands of children were languishing in orphanages.
Sensing a business opportunity, Tann declared the children blank slates – and, at the same time, falsified their histories, transforming them from the children of parents she considered “poor white trash” into the children of debutantes and medical students. Her ploy worked. By 1935 she had placed children in all forty-eight states, as well as in Canada, England, Mexico, and Panama.
She did more than popularize adoption. She commercialized it, charging adoptive parents large fees and marketing children in newspaper ads that are heartbreaking, by today’s standards. One, headed “Wants Home,” was accompanied by a picture of a sad-looking little girl in a short dress, posed with her hand on her hip. The copy read, “Madge is five-years-old, and ‘awful lonesome.’”
Another, illustrated by a photo of a handsome five-year-old boy, was headed, starkly, “Yours for the Asking!”
Tann affected more than the parents and children she dealt with directly. Her boasting of the benefits afforded by adoption – two-parent homes and college educations – persuaded social workers more well-meaning than she that the “best interest” of children born to single mothers was adoption. By the mid-1940s, young women across the country were being coerced, even forced, into surrendering their babies.
They did so with incredible pain – and, often, the hope that they might meet their children years later. But another of Tann’s legacies often made that impossible.
She corrupted adoption with secrecy. To hide her kidnapping crimes, she falsified adoptees’ birth certificates, sealing their true ones and issuing them false ones portraying their adoptive parents as their birth parents.
This practice was adopted by legislators in other states who believed it would spare adoptees the onus of being known to have been born out of wedlock. Every state ultimately falsified adoptees’ birth certificates.
Incredibly, they still do. And only seven states – Alaska, Kansas, Tennessee, Delaware, Oregon, Alabama, and New Hampshire – allow all adults who’ve been adopted in their state access to their true documents.
The withholding of adoptees’ original birth certificates hurts them psychologically, and physically. Lack of knowledge of their medical histories has caused some adopted persons to die prematurely.
It’s time to end the secrecy begun by a criminal. It’s time to give adult adoptees access to what those of who haven’t been adopted take for granted: the original birth certificates that tell them who they are.
Barbara Bisantz Raymond is an adoptive mother, and the author of The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption (Carroll & Graf, May 2007