Tennessee Children's Home Society
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Tennessee Children's Home Society was an orphanage that operated in the state of Tennessee during the first half of the twentieth century. It is most often associated with its Memphis branch operator, Georgia Tann, as an organization involved in the kidnapping of children and their illegal adoptions. Tann died in 1950 before the state of Tennessee could release its findings on her activities. A story reported by 60 Minutes in 1991 renewed interest in Tann's black market adoptions and in the help she received from Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley.
Prior to 1941, the Tennessee Children's Home Society and its head, Georgia Tann, were well respected in Memphis circles. The Society received community support from organizations that supported its mission of placing orphaned and unwanted children in the homes of those seeking to adopt. Tann's place in Memphis society and her connections throughout the community helped her build a strong network of supporters, including Tennessee legislators, socially prominent families and Camille Kelley, the Shelby County Family Court Judge through which many of the Society's adoptions were finalized.
In 1941 the Society lost its endorsement from the Child Welfare League of America when it was discovered that Tann's organization routinely destroyed most of the paperwork associated with its child placements Tann argued that since Tennessee adoptions were shielded by privacy laws, the Society was not in violation of any practice. Still, the Society remained unlicensed under Tennessee law, the Board claiming that the Society received its mandate directly from the Tennessee State Legislature.
Tann lived well – the Society covered her living expenses. However, the public thought it odd that the head of a charitable organization that could barely balance its books was chauffeured about in expensive Packard limousines.
Throughout the 1940s, questions began to build about the operation of the Society and its closed Board of Trustees. By 1950, families that had used the Society to adopt children, along with those who had lost their children while in the Society's temporary custody, finally gained the attention of state authorities, who placed the operation under investigation.
Following a 1950 state investigation, it was revealed that Tann had arranged for thousands of adoptions under questionable means.
State investigators discovered that the Society was a front for a broad black market adoption ring, headed by Tann. They also found record irregularities and secret bank accounts. In some cases, Tann skimmed as much as 80 to 90% of the adoption fees when children were placed out of state. Officials also found that Judge Camille Kelley had railroaded through hundreds of adoptions without following state laws. Kelley also received payments from Tann for her assistance. Tann died in the fall of 1950, and Kelley announced the same year that she would retire after 20 years on the bench. Kelley was not prosecuted for her role in the scandal and died in 1955.
Adoptive parents soon discovered that the biographies and child histories supplied by Tann were false. In some cases, Tann obtained babies from state mental hospital patients and hid the information from adoptive parents.
Children disappeared from the Tennessee Children's Home Society under temporary custody to be adopted by other families, and Tann then destroyed the records.
Tann worked in collusion with some local area doctors who informed the Home of unwed mothers. Tann would take the newborns under the pretext of providing them with hospital care and would later tell the mothers that the children had died and that their bodies had been buried immediately in the name of compassion.
The Georgia Tann/Tennessee Children's Home Society scandal resulted in adoption reform laws in Tennessee in 1951. Adults who come forward with evidence that Tann handled the adoption have open access to records that may have involved their adoptions.
The Tennessee Children's Home Society was closed in 1950 and is not to be confused with the modern-day ministry known as Tennessee Children's Home, which is accredited by the state of Tennessee. The Tennessee Children's Home has no legacy connection with Georgia Tann nor the Society she operated.
In 1991, 60 Minutes reported on the scandal, and the efforts of both adoptees to find their birth parents and birth parents seeking their now grown children. The report also reinvigorated the efforts to open adoption records by both birth mothers and adoptees.
Well-known personalities who used, or were victimized by, Tann and the Society included:
- actress Joan Crawford (twin daughters Cathy and Cynthia were adopted through the agency).
- June Allyson and husband Dick Powell also used the Memphis-based home for adopting a child.
- Professional wrestler Ric Flair's autobiography reported that he was a victim of the Society, having been illegally removed from his birth mother (the opening chapter is titled "Black Market Baby").
- Auto racer Gene Tapia also had a son stolen by the agency.
Memorial to victims
Over several decades, nineteen of the children who died at the Tennessee Children's Home Society under the care of Georgia Tann were buried in a 14x13 lot at the historic Elmwood Cemetery (Memphis, Tennessee) with no headstones. Tann bought the lot sometime before 1923 and recorded the children there by their first names, "Baby Estelle," "Baby Joseph" and so on. In 2015, the cemetery raised $13,000 to erect a monument to their memory. It reads, in part, "In memory of the 19 children who finally rest here unmarked if not unknown, and of all the hundreds who died under the cold, hard hand of the Tennessee Children's Home Society. Their final resting place unknown. Their final peace a blessing. The hard lesson of their fate changed adoption procedure and law nationwide." 
There is also a memorial in Spring Hill Cemetery in Madison, Tennessee. Twenty plots were purchased in the early part of the 1900s; however, only one child was ever buried there. That burial took place in 1914.
The scandal was the subject of two-made-for-television films:
The scandal is the subject of the nonfiction book, The Baby Thief, The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, by Barbara Bisantz Raymond.
The scandal is also the subject of the novel:
- "Investigation of the Tennessee Children's Home Society". tennesseechildren.tripod.com.
- Tennessee Government: Department of Children's Services: Access to Adoption Records. Retrieved: 2009-08-10.
- "Tennessee Children's Home". www.tennesseechildrenshome.org.
- Shirley Downing (September 11, 1995). "Quest led Joan Crawford twins, others to Tenn". The Memphis Commercial Appeal. Retrieved 2009-08-10.
- Gerald Hodges (April 14, 2005). "Well-known local racer Gene Tapia dies at 80". Fatboysports. Retrieved 2009-03-05.
- "Meet America's Notorious Baby Seller, Georgia Tann". Southern Hollows Podcast.
- 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. pg. 1 Section: Everday Magazine
- Report to Governor Gordon Browning on Shelby County Branch, Tennessee Children's Home Society 1951, [Nashville]: State of Tennessee, Dept. of Public Welfare