One hears this a lot from people who want to adopt a baby – “I applaud you for your courageous choice to give your daughter a chance at a better future. There are so many women with infertility issues like myself who would love to adopt a child. Please keep me in your thoughts if you know of other women in your situation. I have a lot of love to give.”
One cannot really say if being adopted gives anyone a “better life”. Both of my parents were adopted. They both would have grown up with some degree of poverty had they remained with their original mothers. And the truth of the matter is, my dad still grew up with some degree of poverty. In fact, he actually experienced food insecurity and hunger as a child. We always had more food on our table at dinner than we could eat. My mom told me that was the reason why. And my dad was so obese as an adult, he relished his nickname Fat Pat.
I do appreciate his adoptive parents. My granny was hugely influential in my life. We often spent days and weekends with her. A word from her that was very serious about some issue had the power to change the direction I was traveling in. Having learned my parents more or less full background stories, I believe had it not been for my granny, my teenage mother who conceived me out of wedlock, would have been sent away as so many girls in the 1950s through 1970s were, to have and give me up. I believe my dad’s adoptive parents insisted he do the right thing and quit college and go to work, after quickly marrying my mother so I would be born legitimate. And my nuclear family experienced hardships but we knew we were loved, even though our parents were strangely detached, having had their own familial bonds broken before the age of one year.
And how about my mother ? Her dad was the vice president at a large bank in downtown El Paso Texas. Her mother was a socialite and charity do-gooder. She was also influential in my own life for different reasons than my granny. She modeled for us good manners and good taste in home decor and clothing. However, my mom – while wanting for nothing of a financial basis – struggle with her adoptive mother. My grandmother was always thin and trim (she would starve herself if necessary, her mother and sister were quite rotund) and my mom’s body type was never going to be that – big boned Scottish farm girl stock that she was. My grandmother also dangled her wealth as a carrot and a stick over my mom.
My mom’s father was very poor and her mother’s family was also poor. My grandmother lost my mom when she gave birth while separated from her lawfully married husband during a massive flood on the Mississippi River. Unable to contact him for support or reconciliation, Georgia Tann along with her enablers the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley and the Porter-Leath Orphanage supervisor Georgia Robinson (to whom my grandmother turned for temporary care while she tried to get on her feet financially without family support) exploited her financially precarious situation and coerced her into surrendering my mom for adoption. She tried to undo this 4 days after signing the papers but Tann was not letting my mom loose as her soon to be adoptive mother was already on her way from Nogales Arizona by train to Memphis Tennessee to collect her. My grandmother had previously adopted a son from Tann.
One cannot actually say my mom had a “better” life either. The truth about adoption is – the child has a DIFFERENT life from the one they would have had with their original parent(s). Better is a subjective concept that adoptive parents like to believe in order to justify taking a child, due to their own infertility, from another woman. It honestly is that simple.
Try as I might, my heart longs for answers to questions that I will never be able to truly answer. I may have theories but they may be wrong. For too many years, when we knew nothing about my adoptee parents’ origins, we made up plausible stories –
My mom had been stolen from her illiterate parents from the hospital in Virginia where she was born by a nurse in cahoots with Georgia Tann who transported her to Memphis. There was no other way she could reconcile being adopted as an infant in Memphis when she had actually been born in Virginia and who could blame her for that confusion ?
Because my dad was dark complected and seemed so comfortable with the natives in Mexico, I thought that he must have been mixed race with a Mexican mother and an Anglo father and that she had crossed the border with her infant and left him upon the doorstep of the Salvation Army with a note that said – “Take care of my baby, Maria.”
So my maternal grandmother was exploited by three women in Memphis – Georgia Tann certainly but also Georgia Robinson the superintendent at Porter Leath orphanage who had agreed to give my mom “temporary care” and then betrayed her to the baby seller, Miss Tann, as well as the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley who was Miss Tann’s close friend and could be counted upon to remove any child from their parents for nothing more abusive than poverty and a lack of immediate family support.
And my dad wasn’t Mexican at all. His dark complexion came from his Danish immigrant father who was a married man, so his unwed young mother went to a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers at Ocean Beach California just west of San Diego. His father probably never even knew of his existence. More’s the pity, as fishermen who loved the ocean they would have been great friends.
I’ll never know why my maternal grandfather never came to my maternal grandmother’s rescue or why they separated after only 4 months of marriage with her pregnant already. I’ll never know why she went to Virginia to give birth, though I suspect she was sent away to avoid embarrassment to her immediate family in a very conservative religious rural community.
I can only live with the questions that will never have answers while basking in the glow of knowing so much that over 6 decades of living never prepared me to uncover.
I’ve only just started reading the nonfiction sequel – Before and After – to Lisa Wingate’s bestselling fictional novel Before We Were Yours. Sadly, the true life stories of Georgia Tann’s victims are all too familiar to me and her methods clear in my family’s own circumstances. I may have more to say about the book when I finish reading it.
There actually was an adoption ring in Memphis in the decades from 1930 to 1950. The movers and shakers in Memphis were all to happy to make Georgia Tann the scapegoat and bury the evidence along with her – when she conveniently died of the complications of cancer. It was an opportune moment, just before criminal charges were going to be filed against her. And those charges would have only been profiting illegally from the placements and not the worst accusations against Tann.
Her legacy of wrongs emerged as her story came back to light in the early 1990s and eventually caused a law to open the sealed adoption records for the victims by the state of Tennessee. I have that law to thank for my mom’s adoption file. Sealed records remain a hindrance for adoptees in many states even today. I know, I’ve hit locked doors in California, Virginia and Arizona.
Thanks to Lisa Wingate’s fabulously popular telling of the Georgia Tann scandal in a compelling story, the whole story is being added to and told yet again. This brings some justice to the victims and their descendants. I am one of an unfortunate community of such persons. There are thousands of us.
In our family’s story – the adoption ring was composed of Georgia Robinson (the superintendent at Porter-Leath Orphanage who conveniently retired early just before the scandal report was released), Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley (who was forced to retire because of it) and of course, the Baby Thief herself, Georgia Tann. Miss Robinson seems to have escaped the scandal with her “good name” intact but it was she who betrayed my original grandmother. Porter-Leath took my mom in for TEMPORARY CARE. Miss Robinson alerted Georgia Tann to the presence of a “highly marketable” blond baby girl less than a year old.
Judge Camille Kelley was involved in my original grandmother’s life when she first returned to Memphis, after having given birth to my mom in Virginia. Since my grandmother’s widowed father and siblings still lived in rural Tennessee east of Memphis, I can only assume her father sent her away to have my mom after her husband seemed to desert them. I will never have the answer to the questions that weigh heavily on my heart about why that seemingly good man – my original grandfather – did that. Later, when my adoptive grandmother was on her way to collect her prize, Judge Kelley threatened my original grandfather with a subpoena if he didn’t sign the surrender papers.
There is no doubt in my mind that Georgia Tann exploited my desperate grandmother with a no win demand – surrender or be declared unfit (her only deficiency being a financial one). It is also clear that 4 days after signing the surrender papers, my grandmother tried to recover my mom – but Georgia Tann had a paying customer and no way was she going to let my mom go out of her control.
Social workers have been the rank and file workers in the world of adoption, endowing them with authority and expertise was a prerequisite for the professionalization of adoption. Making sure that family-formation would be overseen by professionals was an important part of making adoption modern. Therapeutic perspectives on child placement and adoption grew out of a convergence between social work and science.
In the circumstances surrounding my mom’s surrender and adoption, there were three women who were part of the early profession of social work – whether by education to obtain a degree or simply by choice.
Georgia Tann, who headed the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, was the central figure in our family’s adoption history. Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley was actively involved in a “social work” perspective as she practiced her legal work centered on juvenile delinquency, family stability and child removal. Georgia Robinson, was the superintendent of the Porter-Leath Orphanage, who agreed to take my mom in temporarily while my grandmother tried to get on her feet. She betrayed both my mom and my grandmother by alerting Georgia Tann, who had a customer waiting for precisely the kind of infant my mom was dating back to before she had even been born in Virginia.
I think of them as the original do-gooders and it is likely that they did some good. However power and money eventually corrupted all of them, resulting in an investigation that included pending criminal charges.
Georgia Tann died 3 days before those criminal charges were to be filed and all of the movers and shakers in Memphis were happy to forget all about it.
H L Mencken is quoted saying – “Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of improving or saving X, A is a scoundrel.” There were scoundrels in Memphis from the 1930s through the 1950s.
I went looking for a photo of Georgia Robinson who was the superintendent at Porter-Leath orphanage at the time of my mother’s adoption. My maternal grandmother walked right into a trap when she sought and was granted TEMPORARY care for my mom while she tried to get on a more solid financial footing – after my mom’s father failed to answer a letter from the Juvenile Court of Memphis about his obligations to them.
It is interesting that there is no photo readily available for this woman but the adoption file clearly indicates that she alerted Georgia Tann almost immediately to my mom’s presence there. Miss Tann had a repeat customer who had been waiting almost a year for a baby sister to complement the little boy she had adopted a few years earlier.
In the investigation into Georgia Tann’s baby stealing and selling legacy, Miss Robinson appears not to have been directly implicated but it is no small wonder to me that just before the criminality was made public, she suddenly decided to “retire”. She moved out to California and lived with her sister in good health for over a decade.
In the book, The Baby Thief, the author notes –
“Prominent among them was the superintendent of a Memphis
orphanage that housed over one hundred children. She informed
Georgia of the arrival of particularly attractive children with a
speed that convinced the Children’s Bureau social worker
that the superintendent was being bribed by Georgia. Another
social worker told me that the superintendent was dismissed
from her job in 1950 because of her relationship with Georgia.”
What I found in contemporary newspaper articles was, at the time, Georgia Robinson was lauded for her long years of work there at Porter-Leath and was generally respected. Though the author doesn’t name the orphanage, I’m relatively certain the vague mention was actually the orphanage that Miss Tann sourced my mom from.