Nearly a century has passed since Georgia Tann began arranging adoptions in Memphis, Tennessee. And yet, a whole 100 years later, adoptees in many states are still reaping the negative consequences of her deplorable actions by being denied access to their original birth certificates.
Ms. Tann orchestrated over 5,000 adoptions between 1924 and 1950, though the actual number is likely closer to 6,000. She kidnapped many of those children before placing them for adoption into families who were only screened for their wealth. Some were placed with pedophiles. Others were molested by Tann herself before being adopted into families. Sadly, some children who were in her care died from neglect and denial of appropriate medical interventions.
Georgia Tann operated an orphanage in Memphis, Tennessee where so many of her infants died that Memphis ranked #1 by the 1930s for the highest infant mortality rate.
Before Georgia Tann entered the picture, adoption was extremely uncommon. With her black market practice, she singlehandedly popularized adoption, kickstarting it into existence as we know it today. Ms. Tann specifically targeted well known and famous couples so as to make adoption appear fashionable. She changed the perception from adoptive children being the bottom of the barrel to the cream of the crop by presenting them as “blank slates” to waiting adoptive couples. It worked and it worked well.
Very unfortunately for adoptees even still today, Georgia Tann made it common practice to falsify adoptees’ birth certificates to reflect incorrect information. She did this to cover her own tracks and mask her sinister crimes. Legislators were all too eager to approve this practice with the supposed intent of sparing adoptees’ the stigma of illegitimacy. In all reality, many of those legislators turned their heads the other way because they themselves had adopted children through Georgia Tann.
Still today, all 50 states issue an original birth certificate to adoptees, as well as an amended birth certificate that reflects the adoptive parents as the birth parents. The original certificate is typically then sealed forever, unable to be accessed even by the adoptee him or herself. As of this writing, few states allow adoptees unfettered access to their original birth certificate. (Check here for a listing of state laws regarding adoptee access to their original birth certificates).
Imagine not knowing your biological history or make-up, your ethnicity or medical history. Some adoptees have zero knowledge about themselves. Others have only bits and pieces. Still others have been fed misinformation that they have held to for years, only to discover that the information they were given, their very identities, were completely fabricated.
Many adoptees today who are denied the information contained in their original birth certificates are hiring professionals to try and uncover these mysteries. Others are fighting for their right to their information in courts of law. Some are registering their DNA with database providers in hopes of uncovering biological family members who can help them solve the mystery that’s surrounded their existence from day one. This is all thanks to Georgia Tann and her evil intent on covering up her own deplorable acts.
Even when Georgia Tann’s crimes were finally publicly ousted, she remained safeguarded because of the numerous politicians, legislators, judges, attorneys, doctors, nurses, and social workers who would have gone down with her. She had such a wide net of accomplices that to take her down would have also meant the collapse of a very widespread group of prominent citizens. Memphis was a terribly corrupt city at the time.
Tennessee’s then-governor merely announced his intent to recover $1 million Georgia had illegally made during the course of her employment. He completely turned a blind eye to her other unfathomable crimes. But before anything came to fruition, Georgia Tann died from cancer on September 15, 1950 at age 59.
After her death, to protect some of the wealthy families who had adopted children through Georgia’s orphanage, legislators quickly passed a law that retroactively legalized all (over 5,000) of Georgia Tann’s illegal adoptions.
Absolutely no one came to the rescue of those children while they were kidnapped, abused, neglected, and sometimes killed. Even after Georgia Tann’s death and the discovery of her horrid crimes, no one so much as suggested those children be returned to their biological families. No one.
Aside from a few parents who used their own cunning and doggedness to get their children back, most were never returned, not even those who could afford to take their cases to court.
The majority of children targeted by Georgia Tann came from poor, white, single mothers who had no resources or support. During the era of Ms. Tann’s operations, and very much perpetuated by Ms. Tann herself, single mothers who kept their children began to be regarded as selfish. It became the norm for the majority of these women to choose adoption when they no longer received support from their families and were instead sent away for the duration of their pregnancies with shame attached to their “condition”.
Many of Georgia Tann’s adoptees, even those placed in affluent homes, experienced severe hardships - identity crises, bereavement for the loss of their old lives, feelings of isolation, grief over separation from siblings placed elsewhere, depression, confusion, and a host of other negative feelings, behaviors, and difficult experiences. These terribly sad hardships didn’t just stay with them during their childhoods, but followed them into their adulthoods as well.
It wasn’t until 1995 when the state of Tennessee finally brought a bit of light to the myriad of children who were adopted through Georgia Tann’s orphanage. This was the year Tennessee made original birth certificates available to adoptees who had been born in their state.
However, the new law came with two caveats. For adoptees who were not direct victims of Georgia Tann and who were born after 1951, they could access their original birth certificates. But if their biological parents filed a contact veto, those adoptees were not allowed to contact their biological families without being subject to civil and criminal penalties. The second caveat was directed to adoptees who were born as the result of rape or incest. They were completely denied their adoption files, original birth certificates, and the identities of their biological parents.
Several groups and individuals vehemently opposed Tennessee’s new legislation, citing an increase in abortions and a decrease in adoptions would occur as a result.* These same opponents also claimed that birth parents would be up in arms with the possibility of being contacted by the children they relinquished to adoption.
Attorneys went so far as to claim unsealing birth records would “open the way for adoptees or others to blackmail the natural parents by threatening to disclose embarrassing circumstances surrounding the birth.” This quote paraphrased what Georgia Tann’s personal attorney had claimed 56 years earlier.
Georgia Tann was still influencing adoption long after her death.
Finally, in 1997, after much opposition and many legal battles, the Federal Court of Appeals dismissed the entire case and rejected all federal constitutional claims that were attempting to bar adoptees’ access to their birth information. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the decision.
A big win for adoptees in Tennessee.
Unfortunately, opponents of opening birth records to adoptees further pursued the matter in state court. The Tennessee Court of Appeals found that the new adoption law did violate state constitutional law. The case ended up in Tennessee’s Supreme Court in 1999. After several grueling years that contained both victories and setbacks, adoptees finally won their fight to open their birth records when a unanimous decision determined that the rights of birth parents and adoptive parents were not violated by Tennessee’s new law.
Several states followed suit in the coming years by opening records to adoptees - Delaware, Oregon, Alabama, New Hampshire.
However, over 20 years after Tennessee’s victory, adoptees still face pushback and denial of access to their original birth records. Some states allow full and open access. Others allow partial access. Some allow access for adoptees only born in specific years. The battle that Georgia Tann initiated is still being fought all these years later.
I wrote this blog after reading Barbara Bisantz Raymond’s book, The Baby Thief. All accolades should be directed to Ms. Bisantz Raymond who really did her homework and conducted over 1,000 interviews for her phenomenal book. I highly recommend it.
* Kansas and Alaska are the only two states that have always allowed adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates. In 1996, statistics revealed the abortion rates in these two states to be below the abortion rates nationally. Further, the adoption rates in both of these states were higher than the overall rate in the U.S.