Georgia Tann
Georgia Tann's Home
Judge Camille Kelly
Joan Crawford and Twins
 
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From her orphanage on Poplar Avenue, Georgia Tann and her Tennessee Children’s Home Society attained national prominence in the field of child adoption with the help of Judge Camille Kelly. After over two decades, the truth began to surface to reveal a shame that Memphis had to endure.

Georgia Tann

Georgia Tann was born Beulah George Tann in Hickory, Mississippi in 1891. At some point, she relocated to Memphis and by 1924 was working for an orphanage called the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Her society specialized in adoptions, which in Tennessee, as in most states, meant that most of the records involving the adopted child and birth parents were kept private.

Judge Camille (McGee) Kelly

Judge Camille (McGee) Kelly was from Tennessee, the daughter of a doctor. She had spent two years in medical school before marrying a prominent Memphis attorney, Thomas Fitzgerald Kelly. She became the first female Juvenile Court judge in the south and the second in the US. In time, she became a judge in the Shelby County Family Court.

At some point, Judge Kelly and Georgia Tann appeared to have reached a business agreement. As a child custody case was brought before the court, the judge would award guardianship of the child to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. From that point, the child would be adopted out, legally, to those seeking children. The society recieved seven dollars for each child adopted out to a family within the state of Tennessee. However, an out-of-state adoption sometimes cost as much as five-thousand dollars per child. The money was then split between the judge and Georgia. It was very profitable to market the children to out-of-state wealthy people.

The Wealthy and Sometimes Famous Clients

Some of these people were quite famous, such as actress Joan Crawford, actor Dick Powell and his actress wife, June Alyson and western movie sidekick, Smiley Burnette. These people had no way of knowing the unscrupulous methods used in acquiring their adopted children. In fact, Georgia Tann came highly recommended for her supposedly kind work and devotion to her children. Judge Kelly was even visited by the first lady and in her daily newspaper column on November 22, 1937, the first lady wrote of this visit. Read it here .

Acquisition of Children

Behind the scenes, out of public view, the court system and the orphanage targeted poor families, widows, divorced mothers, unwed mothers, pregnant women in prison and mental institutions.
Usually a nice lady would show up at the home of a poor family, offering to provide a good home and upbringing for one or more of their children. If the family didn’t agree to release their child, the court would issue an order signed by Judge Kelly. The judge also denied mothers the right to contact the children in any way following the child’s separation from the mother.

In the case of unwed mothers, the child would be taken at birth. When the mother requested to see her newborn, she would be told that the child was too ill for her to see at that time and must receive immediate medical attention. She would later be told that her newborn had died. In some cases, the mother would be told her child was stillborn.

In other cases, a child attending a nursery or school in Memphis would simply be picked up by welfare workers during the school day!

After having been adopted, many of these children were used as child labor on farms or other family-owned businesses. Many were placed in what turned out to be abusive situations.

Deaths

There were cases in which children were not adopted out. These became financial losses for the society and it was later discovered that some of these children died from malnutrition and neglect! In her book, The Baby Thief, Barbara Bisantz Raymond states that the number of children that died under the guardianship of Georgia Tann was so great that the infant mortality rate of Memphis was the highest in the country!

Complaints and Investigation

However, complaints from the impoverished families who had lost children to the legal system and the society fell on deaf ears.

During the nineteen forties, suspicions began to arise about Tann, who had difficulty balancing the books for the charitable organization, while living in a luxurious home and being chauffeured around in expensive cars.

In 1941, the Child Welfare League of America withdrew its endorsement of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society when it learned that Tann was routinely destroying records. Her argument was that it was legal practice to keep secrecy about the children and the poor birth parents. As a result of this, children simply disappeared with no trace of their origins. Georgia Tann continued to operate, claiming that the society did so under a mandate, directly from the Tennessee State Legislature.

Finally in the 1940s, complaints from both, the adopting parents and the children’s birth parents began to get the attention of Tennessee authorities. An investigation of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and its hidden Board of Trustees was begun.

In September of 1950, Georgia Tann died of cancer before the results of the investigation were made public. In the same year, Judge Kelly resigned after twenty years on the bench; she died in 1955 without having ever been prosecuted for her part in the illegal activities uncovered during the investigation.

Following the investigation, the Tennessee Children's Home Society was permanently closed.

The investigation Uncovered the Following:

 

The Tennessee Children's Home Society was a front for a vast illegal black market child adoption ring.

Birth Certificates, biographies and histories of the adopted children were falsified, making it almost impossible for the real families to be traced.

Georgia Tann recieved as much as 80% to 90% of the money recieved for out-of-state adoptions.

Judge Camille Kelly routinely sent children to the Tennessee Children's Home Society, in exchange for money. Hundreds of cases were initiated without consideration of Tennessee adoption laws.

Various illegal methods were used by Georgia Tann and Judge Kelly in the acquisition of children.

 
 
 
 

Changes:

As a result of the investigation, in 1951, Tennessee adoption laws were changed. Within the changes was the provision that if anyone had evidence that he or she was adopted through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, he or she would be allowed access to any records that may exist concerning the case.

©Copyright 2009 Wilson Jay