Georgia Tann (July 18, 1891 - September 15, 1950), born Beulah Georgia Tann, operated the Tennessee Children's Home Society, an adoption agency in Memphis, Tennessee. Tann used the unlicensed home as a front for her black market baby adoption scheme from the 1920s until a state investigation closed the institution in 1950. Tann died of cancer before the investigation made its findings public.
Tann used pressure tactics, threats of legal action and other methods to take children from their birth parents—mostly poor single mothers—and sell them to wealthy patrons. Tann also arranged for the taking of children born to inmates at Tennessee mental institutions and those born to wards of the state through her connections.
Tann also arranged for what her victims (now adult) refer to as kidnapping. In some cases, single parents would drop their children off at nursery schools, only to be told that welfare agents had taken the children. In others, children would be temporarily placed with the society because a family was experiencing illness or unemployment, only to find out later that the Society had either adopted them out, or had no record of the children ever being placed. Tann was also documented as taking children born to unwed mothers at birth, claiming that the newborns required medical care. When the mothers asked about the children, Tann told them that the babies had died, when they were actually placed in foster homes or adopted.
Tann's crimes were accomplished with the aid of Memphis Family Court Judge Camille Kelley, who used her position of authority to sanction Tann's tactics and activities. Tann would identify children as being from homes which could not provide for their care, and Kelley would push the matter through her dockets. Kelley also severed custody of divorced mothers, placing the children with Tann, who then arranged for adoption of the children into "homes better able to provide for the children's care". However, many of the children were placed into homes where they were used as child labor on farms, or with abusive families.
When an adoptive parent discovered that the information on the child was incorrect, such as in cases of falsified medical histories, Tann often threatened the adoptive parents with possible legal action that would force a surrender of their children (ordered by Judge Kelley) by demonstrating that they were unfit parents.
Tann destroyed records of the children that were processed through the Society, and conducted minimal background checks on the adoptive homes. Many of the files of the children were fictionalized before being presented to the adoptive parents, which covered up the child's circumstances prior to being placed with the society. As a result, the Child Welfare League of America dropped the Society from its list of qualifying institutions in 1941.
The Georgia Tann/Tennessee Children's Home Society scandal resulted in adoption reform laws in Tennessee in 1951.
Under Tennessee law at the time, the Home charged about $7 per adoption. Adoptions in states such as Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri could be arranged for $750.
But Tann also arranged for out-of-state private adoptions where she charged a premium - upwards of $5,000 per child - for her "services". It is alleged that she pocketed 75% of the fees from these adoptions for her own personal use, and failed to report the income to either the Society Board or the Internal Revenue Service.
The Tennessee Children's Home Society was closed in the 1950s, and is not to be confused with the Tennessee Children's Home, which is accredited by the state of Tennessee. The Tennessee Children's Home has no legacy connection with Georgia Tann or the Society which she operated.
Notable personalities who used Tann's services (but were not aware of the tactics used by Tann to acquire many of the children processed through the Tennessee Children's Home Society) included actress Joan Crawford (daughters Christina Crawford, and twins Cathy and Cynthia were adopted through the agency). June Allyson and husband Dick Powell also used the Memphis-based home for adopting a child, as did the adoptive parents of professional wrestler Ric Flair and New York Governor Herbert Lehman, who signed a law sealing birth certificates from New York adoptees in 1935.
In popular culture
The scandal was also the subject of two made for television films:
- Missing Children: A Mother's Story (1982) (TV) at the Internet Movie Database (1982)
- Stolen Babies (1993) (TV) at the Internet Movie Database (1993)
- Barbara Raymond. The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption. 2007. 320p. Carroll & Graf.
- PROFILE: Mary Margulis St. Louis Post - Dispatch St. Louis, Mo.: May 10, 1993. p. 1 Section: EVERYDAY MAGAZINE
- Report to Governor Gordon Browning on Shelby County Branch, Tennessee Children's Home Society. 1951, [Nashville] : State of Tennessee, Dept. of Public Welfare.
- Investigation of the Tennessee Children's Home Society.
- Tennessee Government: Department of Children's Services: Access to Adoption Records. Retrieved August 10, 2009.
- Tennessee Children's Home.
- Shirley Downing. Quest led Joan Crawford twins, others to Tenn. The Memphis Commercial Appeal. September 11, 1995. Retrieved August 10, 2009.
- Barbara Bisantz Raymond (6 May 2008). The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption. Union Square Press. pp. 107–108. ISBN 978-1-4027-5863-8.
- Linda Tollett Austin (1 July 1993). Babies for sale: the Tennessee Children's Home adoption scandal. Praeger. ISBN 978-0-275-94585-5.
- Edna Gladney or Georgia Tann? A comparison of contrasting legacies in adoption history
- Grave Georgia Tann Burial site
- Grave Camille Kelley Burial site
- Grave Ann Atwood Hollinsworth Burial site, Georgia Tann's adopted daughter and partner