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From 1924 through 1950, Georgia Tann ran the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, from a stately home on Poplar Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. She used it as a front for an illegal foundling home and adoption agency that placed over 5,000 newborn infants and children, from toddlers up to age 16, to sell to what she called “high type” families in 48 states. She used manipulation, deception, pressure tactics, threats, and brute force to take children from mainly poor single mothers in a five-state area to sell to wealthy parents up until outrage, lawsuits, and complaints spurred a state investigation into her tactics closed her down in 1950.
Protected by the infamous Edward Hull “Boss” Crump, Tann regularly altered and destroyed the records of the children “processed” through her custody and did not conduct checks on the adoption homes to which she sent them. It is believed she craved the wealth and power that her position and role afforded her, hopefully to eclipse her locally famous father, who was a judge in Mississippi and who had prohibited her from entering the field of law. She delivered speeches about adoption in Washington, New York, and other major cities and was consulted by Eleanor Roosevelt regarding child welfare. So many children died while in her care that at one point, the infant mortality rate in Memphis was highest in the country and many more deaths were never reported.
Notable celebrities such as Joan Crawford, June Allyson, Dick Powell, Smiley Burnette, and Pearl Buck used Tann’s services as well as the parents of New York governor Herbert Lehman. Her death prior to prosecution in 1950 led to more stringent laws on adoption in Tennessee in 1951. Fewer than 10% of these stolen children were ever reunited with parents or siblings due to the complicity of local and state officials such as Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, who provided about 20% of the children adopted out by her, and difficulty finding true and accurate documentation for identification.
Attorney Robert Taylor investigated Tann and her orphanage, finding that it was a front for a baby-stealing and black market adoption organization. He believes that Judge Kelley was actively involved in the cover-up of her operation. He followed her assistant, who often flew in the middle of the night to Los Angeles to bring stolen children to their adopted families. He also discovered that she charged childless couples a fee for background checks for adoptions that would never take place. In total, she gained over $1 million from her operation. Taylor presented a report to the governor on September 12, 1950. She died of cancer just three days later. Kelley resigned two months later. As a result, the orphanage was officially shut down.
Cindy Lou Presto was one of the children “found” by Tann and placed in her orphanage. After she was adopted, she asked her parents about her birth family. They refused to tell her anything. After her adoptive mother’s death, she found correspondence between her parents and Tann. A few weeks later, she learned that her birth name was Sandra Lee Bridgewater and that her birth mother’s name is Evelyn Bridgewater. They were soon reunited after thirty-two years. She learned that in 1947, she was abducted by Tann while playing at a park when she was just a toddler. She and several other children were taken to Judge Kelley’s courtroom. Evelyn tried to get her back, but was unsuccessful.
Two of Tann’s former children, Lynn Heinz and Nancy Turner, are looking for their birth families. In 1949, Lynn was five years old when she was adopted by a wealthy California couple. When she was an adult, she learned the truth about her adoption and began searching for her biological family. She, Nancy, and several other children are still hoping to find their families.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the December 13, 1989 episode. It inspired the movies, “Missing Children: A Mother’s Story” and “Stolen Babies.” The book, The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, by Barbara Bisantz Raymond, was published in the U.S., Australia, and the U.K. Georgia Tann was profiled on Deadly Women.
Source: The Children of Georgia Tann