Sunday, June 10, 2007

I'm newly fascinated/horrified by the story of Tennesseean Georgia Tann.

Tann, who died in 1950, was something of a pioneer in the field of adoption. One of her innovations was to create entirely fictional biographies of the children. According to Tann, all of the birth fathers were accomplished professionals, all the birth mothers were college graduates. These were lies but it helped her to market the adoptees for hefty fees, as much as $5,000 at a time when Tennessee law mandated a $7 fee for adoptions (fun fact: Christina Crawford, who wrote of her experiences in being adopted by Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, was a Tann baby).

Georgia Tann acquired children by kidnapping them. She had a few strategies. At the time it was common for laboring mothers to be anesthestized during delivery. Poor women would wake up to be told, "Sorry, it was a stillbirth," when in fact the infant had been taken off to Tann's orphanage.

Tann also had friends who were politicians, judges and social workers. These people worked as "spotters," identifying adorable children whose parents were too poor and powerless to fight back. According to the new book "The Baby Thief," by Barbara Bisantz Raymond, these spotters sometimes received a free baby for their efforts.

Apart from these horrifying elements (I could go on and on) I'm interested that Georgia Tann essentially invented the modern practices of adoption. Adoption, as we know it, was practically non-existent in the early 1920's. The Boston Children's Aid Society arranged as few as five adoptions per year. By 1928, Tann was arranging over 200 adoptions annually. Ultimately, she arranged over 5,000 adoptions.

She accomplished this by commercializing the process, advertising nationally and charging those hefty fees. She also introduced the concept of the falsified birth certificate which presented the adoptive parents as the birth parents. At the time this was described as a way to protect the children from the shame of illegitimacy; it certainly served as a mechanism to destroy the paper trail.

Fun fact: Tann gravitated towards the world of social work after being barred from practicing law (a profession that was "too masculine" for a woman).