In the 1990s, I began researching Georgia Tann, a task that proved both difficult and sometimes frightening. A large man grabbed me and held me down in her hometown in Mississippi. Another man pointed a shotgun at my face.
And, frustratingly, there was, officially, little known about her. She’d been politically connected, so her records had been allowed to be destroyed. She was nowhere online. But inquiries I placed in Southern newspapers brought responses from doctors, nurses, social workers, and others who had tried in vain to stop her. A Memphis collector found Georgia’s attorney’s records, which were being sold as curiosities in a flea market.
Most importantly, I heard from hundreds of the now-adult children she’d stolen. These brave people, some of whom suffered abuse in Georgia’s orphanage and in their adoptive homes, eventually triumphed over her in a precedent-setting court case. They sent me birth certificates, photos, and letters from Georgia Tann and told me their stories. One of their frustrations was that hardly anyone knew about her: that she had escaped through the cracks in history. With their help, I was able to place her in it.
This story is personal to me. I’m an adoptive mother whose child, like all adoptees, continues to be hurt by Georgia Tann. To hide her crimes, she instituted the practice of sealing adoptees’ true birth certificates and issuing false ones portraying their adoptive parents as their birth parents. This prevented many of her victims from reuniting with their birth parents. Eventually, all 50 states followed her lead in falsifying adoptees’ birth certificates, keeping many contemporary adoptees and birth parents apart. And we all need to know our people.
I’m very grateful for the help of Georgia Tann’s victims and others, including Betsie Norris of Adoption Network Cleveland, who helped me find my daughter’s family, and for the response I’ve received from readers. One notable supporter is Academy Award-winning actress and producer Octavia Spencer, who flew from LA to, in her words, “honor” me at a book signing in my town in Ohio. The venue was packed, and a line snaked out the door and around the block.
The Baby Thief is currently optioned for film.
Barbara contributed to the Writer’s Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing and has written for the following publications: