Sunday, March 24, 2013

Adoption History: Georgia Tann

Credit: K. Dahlquist & R. Bangert

My thanks to K. Dahlquist & R. Bangert for creating the above graphic and for granting me permission to share it here. I have in fact been doing some research lately, and I was surprised by what I learned.

Before I began reading Barbar Bisantz Raymond's book The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, I knew that Georgia Tann was an adoption worker who who had helped to bring about the practice of amending adoptee birth certificates. And I was aware that her motivation in doing so was to cover her own tracks, given the illegality of the many adoptions she arranged. But I didn't truly understand the extent of her influence and the degree to which the current institution of adoption is her legacy.

For Georgia Tann, adoption was a client-based business, and her clients were the wealthy adoptive parents who could afford to pay her "fees." (Tann's incoming money far outstripped her operating expenses.) What's more, Tann didn't just serve her market -- she created it. Adoption rates skyrocket during her time of operation, starting in her native Tennessee and rippling outward from there. She promoted the doctrine of the blank slate to make her children more appealing and marketable. "Georgia didn't actually believe the children were blank slates, but she made her sales pitch with conviction." (Raymond, pg 78) Tann's methods were unethical to the extreme. She kidnapped. She lied. She coerced. She falsified documents.

She was also a master propagandist who promoted (among other things) the premise of "undeserving" versus "deserving" parents.
[The] babies were, she said, born innocent--blank slates. By virtue of either their single or poor status, their parents, however, were tainted. According to Georgia and the theories of reformers, children raised by these tainted parents would quickly become tainted too. Single mothers, who before their children became marketable would have been forced to raise them, were suddenly considered incompetent to keep them. (Raymond, pg 84)
The results of Tann's methods are chilling. Her actions were devastating not only to the parents who lost their children but also to the children she was supposedly helping, a disproportionately high number of whom were abused or died. But Georgia Tann's direct victims were not the only people she affected. Tann paved the road for the juggernaut that was the Baby Scoop Era, and her influence ripples even into current times.

In her informative and thought-provoking article "Despite Progress, Forced-Adoption Practices Persist Throughout the United States, activist and writer Jessica DelBalzo takes up the history of adoption with the baby scoop era and follows its practices into our own times, ending with familiar question "Will we learn from the past, or will we repeat it?"

Of course, in order to learn from it, we have to know it. The Baby Thief is a good place to start.


  1. There is a special place for Georgia - there is no doubt. Great post and all of adoption history needs to be told.

    At the same time another woman (Lila Young) was also proflic supplier of babies at the same time - primarily to the Northeastern States for rich adoptive parents who couldn't adopt through the normal channels because placement was dictated by religion of the mother. Butterbox Babies by Bette L. Cahill tells the story of another who was just as ruthless and devious as Tann - exporting babies from Canada to the US - often with falsified documents. Just like Tann the babies that weren't perfect seemed to die - hence the butterbox part of the title. there is a movie about her as well.

  2. Thanks! I'll look into those, too.

  3. I am going to have to check both of these out. Do any of you know if there are books about CPS doing the same thing? I doubt it, but want to see.

  4. I learned about Georgia Tann when I was a senior in high school, thanks to a TV movie called "Stolen Babies." Mary Tyler Moore played Tann, and I think Lea Thompson played the social worker who "brought her down" so to speak. I have no idea how much of it was based in fact. I remember scenes in which Tann told a poor mother that her baby had died, a rich couple brought her a bag full of money, and a little biracial girl scrubbing her skin to make it white.
    In any case, the movie inspired me to try to learn more. It was something I hadn't known before, that's for sure.

  5. Thank you, My mother and her younger sister were two of the children that were stolen from their families. If I told you the pain this action caused, it would give you nightmares. I will spare you the gory details. youre welcome.


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