Miami Sound Machine’s Gloria Estefan sings about a “bad, bad, bad, bad boy” that makes her feel “so good.” How does this have to do with adoption fraud? Sadly, in real life, some bad, bad, bad, bad girls have made members of the adoption triad feel awfully bad through adoption fraud. Such fraud is nothing new; it occurred in the past and continues to occur today. Then and now, misdeeds have been perpetrated by women, and the results of these bad girls’ actions are the same–heartbreak. Only the methods used to cause the heartbreak to have changed over time. An awareness of these bad practices may help one to avoid falling victim to a bad girl’s scheme.
Beulah George “Georgia” Tann was a notorious child trafficker who is alleged to have stolen over 5,000 children, whom she placed for adoption. She was born in July 1891 into a well-to-do Mississippi family. Tann’s father, for whom she was named, was a judge, whose responsibilities included dealing with homeless children who were wards of the state.
In 1913, Tann received a music degree from Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia. But she had higher ambitions. Tann studied the law under her father and ultimately passed the state bar in Mississippi. Nevertheless, given the times, practicing law was not viewed as a fitting profession for a privileged young lady, and her father forbade it. Accordingly, Tann turned to social work, a socially acceptable career for a woman of her means.
She secured employment with the Mississippi Children’s Home as the Receiving Director at the Kate McWillie Powers Receiving Home For Children. By 1920, Tann was placing children, kidnapped from poor women, for adoption by exploiting the lack of regulations on adoption and her father’s position as a judge. Although single, Tann adopted an infant girl, whom she named June, in 1922. Ultimately, she was run out of Mississippi for her child-placing methods.
In 1924, Tann moved to Memphis, where she was hired as the Executive Secretary at the Shelby County Branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, the Society’s largest branch in that state. Tann eventually managed to take over the organization.
Not challenged simply to run the CHS Shelby County Branch, Tann masterminded a black market for babies, especially blond, blue-eyed ones. She was a firm believer in class distinctions, and felt children should be taken away from poor families and placed with those in a higher class–she insisted on placing babies with wealthy adoptive families. Several well-known public figures used Tann’s services including actress Joan Crawford (who adopted twins Cathy and Cynthia), New York Governor Herbert Lehman, and acting couple June Allyson and Dick Powell.
Tann employed a variety of methods to procure children for adoptive placement, including pressure tactics and threats of legal action. She deceived or coerced birth parents, typically poor single women, to turn children over to her custody. The children’s custody was often obtained under false pretenses. For example, Tann might’ve told a mother her baby needed medical care and offer to take the child to the doctor for her. After leaving with the child, she would subsequently and falsely tell the mother that her child had died. Additionally, doctors and nurses in birthing wards were bribed to provide babies for adoptive placement, and babies born to mothers in prison or in mental wards were snatched.
One of Tann’s favorite schemes was to use her vehicle to lure children. She would drive her luxury black car through a poor neighborhood looking for the prettiest ones. The targeted youngsters would be offered a ride in her shiny automobile. Once inside, the children usually never saw the families again.
Memphis politicians and judges were in cahoots with Tann, and protected her as she stole children from families, most of whom were poor and in need. Juvenile court Judge Camille Kelly would terminate the parental rights of birth parents, often divorced mothers, appearing before her and give Tann custody of the children.
Approximately 80% of the adoptions Tann arranged were with couples in New York and California. Her agency placed 3,000 children in those two states between 1940 and 1950. She looked outside Tennessee to make her placements because that process was more lucrative. Tennessee law only allowed seven dollars to be charged for an adoption, so she arranged for private out-of-state placements where she could charge a premium, around $700—10 times what she could receive for a Tennessee placement.
An unlicensed home was the front for Tann’s black-market baby adoptions. It was a house of horrors where children awaiting placement were kept. Around 500 children are believed to have died of neglect and abuse while in her custody.
Tann took advantage of the lack of adoption regulations and the desperation of couples desiring to become parents to successfully pull off her scheme. She covered her tracks by falsifying adoption records and destroying any trace of a child’s origins.
In 1950 Tennessee’s governor, Gordon Browning, appointed Memphis Attorney Robert L. Taylor to investigate Tann based on numerous fraud complaints. As a result of his investigation, Taylor estimated Tann had made well over $1 million selling babies. On the other hand, Taylor determined Judge Kelly had not benefitted economically from Tann’s scheme. Accordingly, Kelly was allowed to resign from her judicial position. Tann died of uterine cancer at age 59 on September 15, 1950, three days before the State of Tennessee filed charges against the Society, so she was never prosecuted. The home Tann ran was permanently closed in 1950.
In 1979, the Tennessee legislature passed a law requiring the state to assist siblings affected by Tann’s placements in finding each other. Tann’s destruction and falsification of records had made reunification efforts difficult.
While the fraud perpetrated by Tann was absolutely inexcusable, the adoption community was made aware and motived to change some important aspects, which resulted from her bad acts. First, the publicity over her scheme led to much-needed reforms in the Tennessee adoption laws. A second result from Tann’s actions was the popularization of adoption for couples unable to have biological children. The high-profile personalities who adopted through Tann put such adoptions in the news and made adoptions more socially acceptable, though Tann’s practices were immoral.
Books and movies about Tann have also kept adoption in the public eye. In 1993, Mary Tyler Moore starred in a TV movie, “Stolen Babies,” in which she portrayed Georgia Tann. A 2007 non-fiction book by Barbara Bisantz Raymond, The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, and a 2017 best-selling fiction book by Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours, based on Tann and the black-market baby scandal, spotlight the commission of adoption fraud.
While past bad girl Georgia Tann perpetrated fraud on birth mothers to steal children, modern day bad girl Taryn Lynn Lee targeted prospective adoptive parents for her fraud. Unlike Georgia Tann, Taryn Lynn Lee lived to face the music in court for her bad acts. On February 26, 2020, Judge Bernard A. Friedman of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan sentenced Lee to 121 months of incarceration in federal prison, three years of supervised release, and the payment of over $1 million in restitution in U.S. v. Tara Lee, Case No. 19-CR-20128. What did this bad girl do to warrant such a severe sentence?
Macomb County, Michigan resident Tara Lee, age 38, ran the unlicensed Always Hope Pregnancy and Education Center. According to the Detroit Free Press, Lee held herself out as a licensed social worker who held a master’s degree from Northwestern University–neither claims were true. Lee collected more than $2.1 million from couples who wanted to adopt. Rather than producing a baby for these couples to whom she represented they had been matched, she pocketed couples’ money, and spent it on luxury items such as jewelry, trips, and electronics for herself. An FBI investigation identified over 160 adoptive couples and 70 birth mothers in 24 states who had worked with Lee.
Lee’s scheme was to match prospective adoptive parents with birth mothers who did not exist, who were not pregnant, or who were not interested in placing. On more than one occasion, she matched multiple couples with one birth mother. In June 2018, for example, Lee matched two couples in different states with the same birth mother. She collected $12,000 from an Ohio couple for the match and $18,000 from a South Carolina couple for a match with the same birth mother. When contacted by investigators, the birth mother stated she had worked on a placement with Lee three years previously, but she was not pregnant and had not been in contact with Lee.
An even more heartless act by Lee involved a match she made for a Georgia couple with a birth mother she called RaShaunda. A few days prior to the due date, Lee called the prospective adoptive mother and advised her the birth mother had been shot and killed and the baby had died. Lee then asked if the couple wanted to donate money for the funeral. RaShaunda, investigators determined, was fictitious—she never existed. Per The Detroit News, the adoptive couple was out $15,000.
At the time she was breaking prospective adoptive parents’ hearts, Lee was living the good life. WXYZ Detroit reported that federal investigators concluded she made luxury expenditures totaling $372,892.63. These expenditures included $34,899.44 in purchases from Saks Fifth Avenue, $42,705.91 at David Yurman, $44,065.03 from Louis Vuitton, and $130,000.00 from Cartier and Tiffany & Co. In addition, Lee spent over $29,000 to upgrade cabinets in her home and buy new furniture and counters. Another $26,000 was paid for flights and about $13,000 on boats.
On August 20, 2019, Lee entered a guilty plea in federal court in connection with a plea agreement with the government. She admitted guilt to two counts of wire fraud and to all allegations of her conduct detailed in her indictment. Sentencing, however, did not take place for another six months.
The advisory sentencing guidelines for incarceration ranged from 97-121 months. Judge Friedman thus imposed the maximum possible prison time on Tara Lee when he sentenced her to 121 months. Restitution in the amount of $1,005,398.78 was recommended by the United States Probation Department, and the judge ordered restitution of over $1 million to be paid. Lee forfeited her ownership interest in her residence with the proceeds going to pay restitution to the victims. While restitution of monetary damages was ordered, the emotional and psychological pain inflicted by Lee’s criminal actions was unquantifiable.
The harsh sentence imposed by Judge Friedman on Tara Lee indicated he was not swayed by the arguments of her attorney. Paul Stablein pointed out that his client was a mother of five and that her behavior was aberrant to the responsible behavior she had demonstrated for most of her adult life. Lee’s severe punishment exhibits the disdain the presiding judge had for Lee’s breaking the law to prey on the emotions of vulnerable prospective adoptive parents.
Times may have changed, and adoption practices may have improved to include more regulations and safeguards. Nevertheless, one thing has remained the same in the adoption area. There are cold-hearted women—bad, bad, bad, bad girls–in the world, who will exploit couples seeking to adopt a child. Even worse than breaking the law, these extremely bad girls are breaking hearts and inflicting emotional damage, which can never be made right through the payment of money. Laws are in place to prohibit these actions, but greed is often more compelling than a desire to do the right, or at the least, legal thing.
Prospective adoptive parents, as well as birth mothers, must be wary about with whom to work. If bad, bad, bad, bad girls do bad, bad, bad, bad things, those people and actions must be reported to the authorities so the law can act before these bad girls hurt even more people. Bad girls’ misdeeds will not make any prospective adoptive couple, or birth mother feel good, but seeing justice done when misdeeds occur might make society feel a little better.