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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

July 3, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I’m not yet finished with Cara Tabachnick. I’ll do another post or two on her scurrilous article on the Family Bridges reunification program. But for today, there’s this (New York Post, 6/17/17).

It’s in some ways a shocking story about a woman in Tennessee who, using her political and judicial connections, became wealthy by essentially stealing children and selling them to adoptive parents. Remarkable as that is, the article is all the more so for its failure to grasp how Georgia Tann’s behavior fits precisely within the history of adoption in this country and how similar her behavior was to that of state and adoption agencies today.

Babies were snatched off the streets by strangers in passing cars. Or taken from day-care centers or church basements where they played. Or stolen from hospitals, right after birth, passed from doctor to nurse to a uniformed “social worker” — before vanishing in an instant.

Some were dropped into dismal orphanages; others were sent to a new family, their identities wiped, no questions asked. Most would never see their birth parents again…

It was the dark handiwork of the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, a supposedly charitable organization, led by a woman named Georgia Tann…

Tann was a pied piper without scruple; she was the mastermind behind a black market for white babies (especially blond, blue-eyed ones) that terrorized poor Southern families for almost three decades. It’s estimated that over 5,000 children were stolen by Tann and the society between 1924 and 1950 and that some 500 died at the society’s hands as a result of poor care, disease and, it is suspected, abuse…

Tann had various means of procuring babies and children for her wealthy customers. She bribed nurses and doctors in birthing wards, who would then tell new parents that their babies had been stillborn.

Her organization was quick to snatch babies born in prisons and mental wards. Older children were grabbed off the street by Tann’s agents and were told their parents had died. To cover their tracks, the society falsified adoption records and destroyed any trace of these children’s origins…

Forced to study music, she taught for a time before finding a job in the nascent field of social work in 1916.

Working as a field agent for the Mississippi Children’s Home-Finding Society in Jackson, she may have gotten a taste for the power that she would later wield over so many families. She began placing poor children in adoptive homes, without the consent of both birth parents.

Child welfare laws weren’t as strict as they are today, allowing Tann to wheel and deal in her role.

Tann was essentially waging class war. She held to the belief that there were two kinds of people: the poor, whom she viewed as incompetent parents, and the wealthy. She fattened her own coffers in the process.

Tann died in 1950 having never been brought to justice for her crimes.

It’s important to place her story in historical perspective. Prior to the mid-20th century, states left the business of adoption largely in private hands. The infamous “orphan trains” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were outgrowths of the all-but-entirely unregulated adoption market. Unattended street urchins could be picked up off busy urban streets and find themselves shipped to the mid-West to work on farms or in factories. Whether they had parents and whether their parents were capable and loving were simply not issues to be addressed. Particularly the Progressive Era saw the exact type of intervention in which Georgia Tann specialized as not only not wrong, but as improving society by giving kids better homes.

“Better” homes of course tended strongly to mean “white and affluent.” But whatever we may think of Georgia Tann today, and we rightly vilify her, when she started her adoption racket, I suspect she’d have defended herself by the assumptions of the Progressive Era – that the species is perfectible via the science of eugenics and, once a child is born, by placing it in the best home possible, parental rights be damned. Those Progressive Era assumptions of course came to be in rather a bad odor by their mass application by National Socialists in Germany, but we should never forget that they were quite popular among affluent elites in this country. In many ways, they’re still with us, but now we’re much less candid about the fact.

As E. Wayne Carp points out in his excellent book on adoption, “Family Matters,” the flow of children for adoption has always been from poor people, often of color, to more affluent people, often white. That’s what Tann did and in that way, her business is no different from the adoption industry today.

The Post article assures us that “child welfare laws weren’t as strict as they are today,” which is certainly true. But while we do a better job of protecting parental rights than we used to, we don’t do so nearly well enough. The acrid smell of past misdeeds still hangs over the adoption industry. It won’t go away until we make some basic reforms.

Did Tann sell children to adoptive parents? She did. Today we allow adoption agencies to take money from adoptive parents and hand some of it to birth mothers, while oh so scrupulously telling ourselves it’s for her medical needs and her living expenses.

And where is Dad in all this? We’ve passed laws in over 30 states allowing him, if he’s not married to the mother of his child, to be simply removed from the adoption process. It’s all open and aboveboard; the laws are there on the statute books, passed by the people’s representatives. But only the blind or the very gullible fail to see that paternity registry laws are just our modern way of doing what Georgia Tann did. They take children without the consent of a parents in order to facilitate the profits of the adoption industry.

Then there are state governments and Washington. Via the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1998, the federal government now offers states hefty payments for every child adopted out of foster care. State officials have said frankly that, when that law went into effect, their foster care practices changed dramatically toward taking children from parents.

And, just as in Georgia Tann’s day, it’s poor parents who are overwhelmingly the ones targeted by child welfare agencies, partly because the line between poverty and child neglect can be a hard one to see. But it’s also because the poor neither know nor can assert their parental rights as effectively as can the more affluent.

The adoption industry today wears a veil of legitimacy that it didn’t have in Tann’s day. But lift that veil even briefly and we see not only the same motivations, but the same results as we could have back then. Many people see the adoption industry as giving loving homes to helpless children who otherwise wouldn’t have one and, in the majority of cases, that’s what happens. But the offer of money means too many kids are taken into foster care and the removal of fathers from the system is nothing but a way to cut corners to plump up the bottom lines of adoption agencies and their lawyers.

Georgia Tann is an object lesson, less for what she did than for what we still do.

 

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