The Legacy of Georgia Tann: When adoption looks an awful lot like kidnapping

26 Jul

Georgia Tann is among history’s lesser-known villains. It seems like the role of director of the Tennesse Children’s Home (from 1924-1949) should be played by a mild-mannered, hard-working, well-meaning social worker. And indeed, that was the image that Tann projected during her thirty years playing that role. She was saint and savoir to thousands of orphaned and abused children, tirelessly finding stable middle-class homes where they would thrive.

Except she wasn’t a saint, and they weren’t orphaned or abused.  Instead, she was a kidnapper on the largest scale.

Tann removed children from safe, loving, but frequently poor, homes. She did this by taking them from doctors’ offices and telling their parents they were sick – and after selling the child, telling the parents the child had died.  She fabricated reasons to take them directly from the home “for the child’s welfare.” She stole the children of single parents from nursery schools.  A criminal with a flair for manipulation, she frequently placed children in adoptive homes with many of Memphis’s more powerful figures, so that they would feel an obligation to uphold the legality of the adoptions.  Across the country, Tann arranged adoptions for actress Joan Crawford, writer Pearl Buck, and New York governor Herbert Lehmen (who, as governor, closed adoptee’s access to their original birth certificates).

Many of the secretive policies around private adoptions in the United States have roots in the precedent that Tann set, and in the laws and court decisions that she worked (and bribed) to push through. Sealed birth certificates? High payments from adoptive parents? For-profit business models? Lack of birth family rights? The direct transfer of children from poor families to richer ones – for the good of the child? These are all part of her legacy.

This is coercive baby-stealing, corruption of the highest degree.  But isn’t it a thing of the past?

It isn’t for Encarnacion Romero.  Romero is an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, who was arrested in a raid on her Missouri workplace. While detained, a judge ruled Romero’s “lack of visitation” was tantamount to abandonment. Her son was placed in foster care, her parental rights were terminated, and her son was adopted by a married, white American couple.  An investigation by indicates there are over 5,000 children either in foster care or with adoptive families from the same reason.

It isn’t for Erin Yellow Robe. Yellow Robe lives on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in South Dakota. One day a social worker called to tell her that she was going to be arrested for using drugs, and that her children were going to be taken into foster care. Even though Yellow Robe denied ever using drugs, even though the threat was made based on the accusation of one person (who turned out to have a grudge against the family), and even though her mother was willing to care for the children, they were taken away – in violation of both logic and the Indian Child Welfare Act. Yellow Robe was never arrested. The Crow Creek tribe, to which Yellow Robe belongs, has lost 33 children to white foster homes. There are only 1,400 people on the reservation. An NPR investigation indicates that approximately 700 Native American children in South Dakota are removed from their homes every year under similarly dubious circumstances.

Unlike the in Tann’s story, though, these removals and adoptions are public ones, meaning they are conducted by the state through the foster care system. This is no longer about one dangerous woman; it’s about an abusive system.

For these families and those like them, the legacy of Georgia Tann isn’t a historical footnote. It’s a tragedy that they live every day.  The legal system continually allows parents to be deprived of their parental rights for crimes either nonexistent or disproportionate to the response, and those in power seem to let it happen “for the good of the child.” It’s no coincidence that the children are removed from poorer families and families of color, and placed with white, middle-class foster and adoptive families. Who is more likely to have access the resources and power when it comes time for a court to make its final rulings? Perhaps it’s time that we reassess what is for the good of the child. And perhaps our first answer, barring evidence to the contrary, should be with the family from which they came.

It is disingenuous to entirely conflate these coercive tactics and adoption, and that is not what I am trying to do.  There are ethical people who work in the adoption system, and there are ethical adoptive parents who work hard, every day, to live in adoptions that respect their child’s birth family and support their child’s complicated journey through life as an adoptee. But as long as adoption is, in part, a systematic way of transferring children from families with less privilege to families with more privilege, we should not be surprised to find these abuses hiding within that system – sometimes in plain sight.


One Response to “The Legacy of Georgia Tann: When adoption looks an awful lot like kidnapping”

  1. Jane Karr May 10, 2013 at 8:35 am #

    As a first parent (what most people refer to as “birth parent”) I wanted to congratulate you on this brilliant piece!

    First parents from the Closed Era of adoption have long feared the return of Georgia Tann’s way of doing business. It seems those fears were justified.

    I was surprised to see Fortune Magazine involved in the adoption debate. Then I realized adoption is a multi-million dollar for-profit industry. And in that case it makes a lot of sense.

    In closing, relegating young mothers who choose to parent their child to the lowly social status of first parent (and trust me I know what I’m talking about)is a dangerous precedent. But one the adoption machine seems intent on setting.

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