I watched this movie on TV when it first came out. I was a senior in high school. I will never forget how affected I was by it.
In the reading and studying I have done since then, I have come to believe that this film was at least loosely based on the story of Georgia Tann, the director of the Tennessee Children's Home Society in Memphis, TN. Ms. Tann placed over five thousand infants and small children, usually under the age of six, beginning in the early 1930s, which was, coincidentally, around the time that "closed" adoption records came into vogue in most states. The closed record system originally had a noble purpose: to allow unwed mothers relinquishing babies anonymity and confidentiality, and to allow children adopted in the system to be spared the "stigma" of illegitimacy which would have been theirs had they been raised by their birthmothers in those times. However, as time has tragically revealed, the closed record system was extremely useful in concealing the illegal or unethical activities of social workers, attorneys, doctors and other personnel who found it quite profitable to engage in flat-out baby brokering.
Georgia Tann appears to have been in collusion with the Honorable Camille Kelley of the Memphis Juvenile Court, through whose courtroom custody of adoptable children was awarded to Ms. Tann, who would then place the children out of state. "Adoptable" children is a bit of a euphemism here, since it was eventually revealed that Ms. Tann's motive was to remove children from poor or slum conditions and place them with wealthy families. Children were literally stolen from hospitals, parks, and right off the streets. From 1947 to 1951 alone, over a thousand babies were placed with couples in New York and California (the most common states of placement) through the Tennessee Children's Home Society.
An investigation began in the late summer of 1950 after numerous complaints to the governor. Ms. Tann died of cancer that September, and in November Judge Camille Kelley resigned from the Juvenile Court after she was ordered to submit court files to the investigators. She died in 1955 and her role in the case was never fully investigated. The Tennessee Children's Home Society closed shortly after Georgia Tann's death.
One of the most famous children to be placed by Georgia Tann was Christina Crawford, who was adopted by movie actress Joan Crawford in 1939. Unfortunately, the main reason she became famous was her bestselling autobiography, "Mommie Dearest," which detailed the abuse and cruelty she suffered at the hands of her adoptive mother. It is not too farfetched to conclude that many other cruel and abusive, if less famous, adoptive parents with money to spend also had children placed with them by Ms. Tann.
This film narrates the story of Katie Bradshaw (Mare Winningham), who is struggling to raise her three children without much help from her husband, T.C. (Robert Wightman), who is presented pretty one-dimensionally as a hard-drinkin', skirt-chasin', bad-tempered ne'er-do-well who isn't above raising a hand to the little missus when he thinks she needs it, nor above taking the rent money to buy a night on the town and ultimately deserting his wife and the kids -- but then coming back to steal Katie's hard-earned wages after she lands a job.
In order to land said job, however, Katie first has to swallow her pride and apply for assistance. The crooked caseworker who interviews her notices that Katie can't read, and denies her application so that she will be desperate enough to take him up on his offer to refer her to the Children's Rescue Mission, a facility run by Mary Gertrude Tyler (Polly Holliday). Miss Tyler clucks sympathetically over Katie's situation, assures her that the Children's Rescue Mission can help, and Katie leaves the children there, accompanying Miss Tyler to court a few days later, where she signs what Miss Tyler has told her are papers to allow the Children's Rescue Mission to seek medical care for the children. What Miss Tyler does not tell her, and Katie cannot read the papers to realize, is that what she has signed are relinquishment papers granting the Children's Rescue Mission legal custody of her three children. When she returns to the facility a few days later, her children are nowhere to be found and Miss Tyler politely informs her that "a miracle has occurred, and just yesterday we were able to place the children with a fine family." Katie is naturally horrified, but soon learns that a woman in her position -- no money and no attorney -- is no match for Miss Tyler.
Through a series of fortuitous introductions and happenings, this story does have a happy ending. I found myself wondering if any of the real Georgia Tann children enjoyed a similar one, but the odds seem poor. If nothing else, seeing this movie should convince people of the evil that was the closed adoption era, and of the necessity for open records, honesty, and compassion for all members of the adoption triad.
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