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Until We Learn from the Legacy of Georgia Tann, We're Doomed to Repeat it

ethics healthcare
legacy of georgia tann adoptions

Have you heard of Georgia Tann, the notorious child trafficker between 1924 and 1950? Wikipedia lists her number of victims at 5000+ during her active baby stealing years! I became familiar with her horrid ways recently from reading Before and After: The Incredible Real Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children's Home Society, the sequel to Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate. In addition to stealing and selling babies and children, an estimated 500 babies died in the care of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society over the decades.

Five hundred unaccounted-for babies! Nineteen of those babies were found buried in the Historic Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis and are now memorialized in a marked grave. The headstone reads:

The Tennessee Children's Home Society An Infamous History. A Tragic legacy. September 17, 1923 - December 10, 1949.

In Memory of the 19 Children who finally rest here. Unmarked if not unknown. And all of the hundreds who died under the cold, hard hand of the Tennessee Children's Home society. Their final resting place unknown. Their final peace a blessing.

The hard lessons of their fate changed adoption procedure and law nationwide.

The last line of this memorial to lost babies -- The hard lessons of their fate changed adoption procedure and law nationwide -- has haunted me. While "adoption procedure and law" has changed, the changes have been far from enough.

The Gasoline that Reignites the Embers

I have watched adoption culture closely over the last 20 years. I've been an adoptive parent since 1998, the founder of a hospital-based adoption support program since 2004, a radio host hearing 5 years of stories of people impacted since the era of Georgia Tann. In addition, I have trained thousands of nurses in adoption-sensitive care in Women’s Centers around the country. I have heard stories coast-to-coast from mothers, fathers, adoptees, birth mothers, birth fathers and adoptive families, and I have seen first-hand the invasion of technology in this process.

Yes, it has been an invasion. The Internet has poured gasoline on the embers of Georgia Tann’s legacy and until we address what it happening, I worry her legacy of corruption will continue.

Why & How Georgia Tann's Legacy Continues

Reason #1: New Folks at the Table

  • When states outlaw the use of “facilitators,” but other titles are created to sidestep laws and create loopholes for “consultants” to walk through -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • When waiting families hire said “consultants” (who may or may not be ethical) to help lead them to “their baby” for a finder’s fee -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • When ethical agencies can’t counsel women about parenting or adoption because expectant moms come in with a “family they found online,” and they already have made adoption arrangements and have possibly even accepted money from the hopeful adoptive family -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • When babies go to the families that can pay tens of thousands of dollars in additional unregulated expenses -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues. 

Reason #2: No Consistent Regulations Across the States

  • When families fly into an “adoption-friendly” state where the mom can terminate her rights 24-48 hours after delivery so she won’t have time to rethink her decision -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • When some adoption professionals in "adoption friendly" states fly in expectant mothers in to avoid needing birth father consent -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • When women can be flown in from outside the country to sell their babies to waiting families for a mere $40,000 -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • When birth mothers and fathers are made promises of connection and contact with their children, but because open adoption is not legally enforceable in most states, the adoptive families may take the baby and disappear -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • In states where open adoption is legally enforceable, birth parents may not have the financial means or the emotional strength to fight the adoptive family over an open adoption agreement in the courts -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • Because all states have varying adoption laws, and babies are constantly crossing state lines so regulation is incredibly difficult -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.

We must understand that when adoptions happen across state lines -- as they often do -- adoption practices can be only as ethical as the least ethical state's policies.

Reason #3: Technology & Vast Amounts of Money

  • When a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy Googles “adoption” to search for her options and top results show adoption professionals that spend literally millions on advertising and search engine optimizing -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • As long as unethical facilitators sell contact information of expectant moms to waiting families for $10-20K with little to no regulation or accountability -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • When a soon-to-deliver woman shows up at a hospital with a folder in hand, with no counseling or in-person support and announces that she has been matched over the Internet with a family from a different state and says family is “on their way” to the hospital -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.

Reason #4: Lack of Hospital Programming

  • When hospitals continue to turn a blind eye to the transactions taking place within their walls; when a woman and a family are sent to the hospital parking lot to hand off a baby because the hospital doesn’t want to set ethical policy to transfer custody under its roof for fear of liability -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • When lawyers tell me that “their" hospitals don’t need help with adoption policies that ensure women stay in control of their adoption decisions because “they" write the hospital policies -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • When training and programming is not created in hospitals to ensure a neutral, compassionate, ethical environment for moms considering adoption -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • When hospitals say “we don’t see enough adoption to justify a program” or even to offer a training in awareness of ethical practices for their nursing staff -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.
  • When ethical guidelines for OB/Gyns include access to adoption resources for women facing unplanned pregnancy, yet there are no standard best practices for neutral choice counseling within healthcare -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.

Bottom line

When couples don’t know what they don’t know and, like myself, find out too late that their adoption placement was saturated with unethical tactics and financial profits for the agency -- Georgia Tann's legacy continues.

I could go on, as all of these examples are based in real life.  Real babies. Real mothers. Real fathers. Real families.

Judy Christie, co-author of Before and After, said it beautifully before she visited the grave of the little ones memorialized in Tennessee:

"We have to pay attention, raise our voices, have compassion, do good. Because I'm about to visit a place that shows what happens when no on insists loudly enough that something is very wrong."

Let it be my voice that says something is very wrong.

We cannot look away, justify behaviors, ignore the impact of the Internet and discount the shadow of Georgia Tann that continues to fall across portions of the infant adoption industry.

And, yes, with approximately 36 families waiting for each newborn placed for adoption, and 1 in 6 couples facing infertility, and the cost of adoptions climbing to as much as $100,000 for hopeful adoptive families -- adoption is absolutely an industry.This industry must be held to national standards or we will continue to have babies trafficked right under our noses, as we are seeing today with the Paul Peterson case in Arizona, Utah, and Arkansas.

Is all infant adoption corrupt? Absolutely not. But even one baby leaving a family to join another through corrupt practices for financial gain is one too many. With awareness and training within our hospital-based standardized program for healthcare professionals, the Internet (high use but low trust) can be replaced by hospitals and healthcare (high trust but currently low use) as the place to get information when experiencing an unintended pregnancy. And the Family to Family Support Network will ensure that healthcare professionals have the training to help to protect real babies, real mothers, real fathers and real families.

If we don’t change something, infant adoption could continue to reflect the tragic legacy of Georgia Tann more and more. Join our efforts to move out of the shadow of this woman and to embrace ethical and standardized adoption practices across the country.

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