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On View : Licensed to Steal : ADOPTION SCANDAL IS SUBJECT OF LIFETIME'S 'STOLEN BABIES,' WITH MARY TYLER MOORE AS GEORGIA TANN

March 21, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To childless couples, Georgia Tann was a salvation. From 1924 to 1950, Tann headed the Tennessee Children's Home Society, a highly respected adoption agency. During her tenure, permanent homes were found for more than 5,000 babies. Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford and Dick Powell and June Allyson were just a few of the famous people who received their children from the home. But Tann guarded a deep, dark secret: a vast majority of these children were actually stolen from their natural parents.

Lifetime's new movie, "Stolen Babies," premiering Thursday, dramatizes this shocking true story. Lea Thompson stars in the drama as a county welfare agent who works closely with the society, only to discover the illegality in adoption procedures; Mary Tyler Moore plays Tann.

Executive producer Kim Moses' interest in Tann was sparked when she read an article about her in a newspaper. But when she contacted the welfare department, the governor's office and the public relations office of Tennessee, everyone disavowed knowledge of Tann. "I felt that was curious, since it covered such a long period of time," Moses says. "I think it is really a mar on the state of Tennessee. It is something they are not happy about, so they really don't want to make it a part of that history."

So Moses and her partners, Ian Sander and J. Moses, began doing independent research. They found a social worker in Tennessee who had taken over the home after Tann died of cancer in 1950, and was responsible for writing the current laws to protect adopted children.

"She was the first one to be suspicious of Georgia Tann because she was putting together statistics (on adoptions)," Moses says. "There was a high percentage of children in the adoption system in Tennessee from (a certain) county who had mental problems. There were repetitive adoptions. People would bring them back because of their behavior."

Though there also were a number of Tennessee families awaiting children, there were large numbers of out-of-state adoptions. In Tennessee, adoptions were free, but Tann was able to charge any amount for out-of-state adoptions.

"Why would they be adopting so many children from out of state when in Tennessee they were still waiting for children?" Sander says.

The stolen children came mainly from poor, uneducated families.

"Many of the homes they were adopted to were financially very well off," Moses says, "even though they were not from good backgrounds. There was this story where they was a little girl who was adopted out to a wealthy family, and she ate garbage because they didn't feed her. But then there were other children who did get to college."

Tann's rule endured, Sander says, because of the Tennessee political machine. She worked with Judge Camille Kelly to "legally" get the children away from their natural parents.

"When there was a judge who went up against them, he found himself absolutely exiled on the bench," Sander says. "There was a flu epidemic and 40 children died because (Tann) wouldn't give them penicillin because she thought it was too expensive. When a doctor tried to uncover that, he found himself out of a job."

No one was ever prosecuted for the illegal adoptions. Tann destroyed many of the adoption records. She died before she was brought to trial; Kelly resigned her post.

Mary Tyler Moore was drawn to the project because she felt that Tann was a fascinating character. "I wanted to play that character because I am sure she was a product of her time," says Moore, who is almost unrecognizable as the matronly Tann. "If you have a choice between raising a child in a wealthy home with little love, or a poor home with a lot of love, there is no question the children would do better in the wealthy home. That was the conventional wisdom."

Tann was the daughter of a doctor who was from the wrong side of the tracks. "She was not accepted by Tennessee society, so she used this position for power," Moore says. "She had leverage to work her way into the place she wanted to be. With Camille Kelly, they would look at somebody--a worker who was temporarily unable to support his family. They would take the children under the guise of temporarily protecting them, and then send them out for adoption. Because of the disclosure laws at the time, once that family was back on its feet and came looking for the children, they couldn't trace them. It was a heinous thing."

Thompson, who plays the idealistic social worker, says "Stolen Babies" is all about class. "It was really about the poor versus the rich," Thompson says. "'There was a heavy class system in the South--the poor white trash and the rich people. I totally see both sides of the coin, because I have really rich friends and they can't have babies and when a woman wants a baby, man, it is like an intense physical desire."

"Stolen Babies," Moore says, is an important piece not just because it shows how Tann persuaded herself that she was in the right but because it reveals "how people can convince themselves that they are right in all areas of life, when they are really doing terrible things. I am almost saying, don't be so sure of yourself, no matter what you are doing. Look very carefully at your motives and the outcome and be aware of other people's opinions before you take action."

"Stolen Babies" premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. and repeats Saturday at 6 p.m. on Lifetime.

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