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Tennessee Children's Home Society was an orphanage operated in the state of Tennessee during the first half of the twentieth century, and is most often associated with its Memphis branch operator Georgia Tann as an organization involved with the kidnapping of children and their illegal adoptions. Tann died in 1950 before the state of Tennessee could release its findings on her activities. A story reported by 60 Minutes in 1991 renewed interest in Tann's black market adoptions, and the help she received from Shelby County Family Court Judge Camille Kelley.
Prior to 1941, the Tennessee Children's Home Society and its head, Georgia Tann, were well respected in Memphis circles. The Society received community support from organizations that supported its mission of placing orphaned and unwanted children in the homes of those seeking to adopt. Tann's place in Memphis Society and her connections throughout the community helped her build a strong network of supporters, including Tennessee legislators, socially prominent families and Camille Kelley, the Shelby County Family Court Judge through which the Society's adoptions were finalized.
In 1941 the Society lost its endorsement from the Child Welfare League of America when it was discovered that Tann's organization routinely destroyed most of the paperwork associated with its child placements Tann argued that since Tennessee adoptions were shielded by privacy laws, the Society was not in violation of any practice. Still, the Society remained unlicensed under Tennessee law, the Board claiming that the Society received its mandate directly from the Tennessee State Legislature.
Tann lived well - the Society covered her living expenses. However, the public thought it odd that the head of a charitable organization that could barely balance its books was chauffeured about in expensive Packard limousines.
Throughout the 1940s questions began to build about the operation of the Society and its closed Board of Trustees. By 1950, families that had used the Society to adopt children, along with those who had lost their children while in the Society's temporary custody, finally gained the attention of state authorities, who placed the operation under investigation.
Following a 1950 state investigation, it was revealed that Tann had arranged for thousands of adoptions under questionable means.
State investigators discovered that the Society was a front for a broad black market adoption ring, headed by Tann. They also found record irregularities and secret bank accounts. In some cases, Tann skimmed as much as 80 to 90% of the adoption fees when children were placed out of state. Officials also found that Judge Kelley had railroaded through hundreds of adoptions without following state laws. Kelley also received payments from Tann for her assistance. Tann died in the fall of 1950, and Kelley announced the same year that she would retire after 20 years on the bench. Kelley was not prosecuted for her role in the scandal and died in 1955.
Adoptive parents soon discovered that the biographies and child histories supplied by Tann were false. In some cases, Tann obtained babies from state mental hospital patients and hid the information from adoptive parents.
Parents of children who disappeared from the Tennessee Children's Home Society under temporary custody had been adopted by other families, and Tann then destroyed the records.
Tann worked in collusion with some local area doctors who informed the home of unwed mothers. Tann would take the newborns under the pretext of providing them with hospital care and would later tell the mothers that the children had died and that their bodies had been buried immediately in the name of compassion.
The Georgia Tann/Tennessee Children's Home Society scandal resulted in adoption reform laws in Tennessee in 1951. Adults who come forward with evidence that Tann handled the adoption have open access to records that may have involved their adoptions.
The Tennessee Children's Home Society was closed in the 1950s, and is not to be confused with the Tennessee Children's Home, which is accredited by the state of Tennessee. The Tennessee Children's Home has no legacy connection with Georgia Tann or the Society she operated.
In 1991, 60 Minutes reported on the scandal, and the efforts of both adoptees to find their birth parents and birth parents seeking their now grown children. The report also reinvigorated the efforts to open adoption records by both birth mothers and adoptees.
Well-known personalities who used Tann's services include actress Joan Crawford (twin daughters Cathy and Cynthia were adopted through the agency). June Allyson and husband Dick Powell also used the Memphis-based home for adopting a child. Professional wrestler Ric Flair's autobiography reported that he was a victim of the Society, having been illegally removed from his birth mother (the opening chapter was titled "Black Market Baby"). Auto racer Gene Tapia also had a son stolen by the agency.
The scandal was also the subject of two made for television films: