• October 22, 2019

Author’s luncheon: Searing story of stolen, adopted children - Ocean City Sentinel: News

Author’s luncheon: Searing story of stolen, adopted children

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Posted: Thursday, October 10, 2019 10:00 am

OCEAN CITY – Lisa Wingate, author of “Before We Were Yours,” described the story as a parent’s fondest dream and a parent’s worst nightmare. 

“Before We Were Yours” is a fictionalized account based on true events of children stolen from their families and placed in the care of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, run by Georgia Tann.

From the 1920s through about the 1950s, Tann and her network stole children from vulnerable parents and adopted these children to wealthier families, according to Wingate. 

Wingate spoke at the Flanders Hotel on Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Friends and Volunteers of the Ocean City Free Public Library’s annual author luncheon. 

Wingate first heard the story of Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society on a true crime television show late one night, while she was working on another book. 

“Where I felt closest to it (the story) was as a parent,” she said. 

“What if one day I turned around and these two little pieces of my heart were just gone, and I couldn’t find them, and I couldn’t help them, and I didn’t know where they were, and I maybe never had answers to that questions, never saw them again for the rest of my life?” she asked. 

For others, however, the Tennessee Children’s Home Society gave some, maybe who desperately wanted children, a chance at parenthood. 

Wingate described what it may have been like for some of these adoptive parents, of wanting a child and living in a culture where, within a year of the wedding, you are expected to be pregnant. 

 “But for you, it never happens, it’s never your time,” she said. 

According to Wingate, “if you weren’t the perfect profile back then, you would not be allowed to adopt.”

“Maybe because you have a divorce in your family, or maybe because you and your husband are different religions, or maybe different denominations of the same religion, or maybe just because you’re older, you’re up over 30 by the time you decide to try this process, for whatever the reason, there’s never a child for you,” she said. 

Some of the children in Tann’s care were orphans, Wingate said.  However, there were not enough orphaned children to meet the demand. 

To fill the gap, the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and its network preyed on poor families and unmarried pregnant women. 

“You go to maybe a free milk and bread clinic or a place that offers help with housing or an aid clinic of some sort.  So you go for help, the people there are very nice to you.  They ask you some questions, well, where are you staying right now?  Do you have other children?  Where are they at present?  Where can we find you when we’re ready to help you?  They have you sign some papers that maybe you can or can’t read because you may very well be illiterate.  You leave this place thinking all of your problems are solved,” she said. 

What many did not realize was they were spotted by a doctor, or nurse, social worker, or a worker in a clinic involved with Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

For those who could get enough resources to go to court and fight for their children, they would be told the children were given to people who can give them much more than you can, Wingate said. 

Wingate’s book is told from the perspective of 12-year-old Rill Foss, who is taken with her siblings by Tann’s network off of the shantyboat they lived on with their family in 1939. 

The family docked the boat so their mother could give birth to what she thought would be her sixth child. 

When the midwife realizes she is having twins, the mother is taken to the hospital, leaving the children alone on the boat. 

According to Wingate, the children seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

She described “whole groups of siblings” who vanished while walking down dirt roads, babies snatched while left to sleep on a porch or a child taken to a clinic for medical care and the mother being told the baby died during treatment. 

“You can’t help wondering, how did she get away with it?  Why did she get away with it, and she was an incredibly clever criminal. She was not anyone anyone would have suspected of wanting to sell babies for money,” Wingate said. 

Tann, according to Wingate, came from wealth and was “very clever at associating herself with people whose secrets she knew.” 

For the book, Wingate said she talked to a few adoptees from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, who she said were adopted by prominent Tennessee families. 

Wingate wrote a second book with Judy Christie based on true accounts of people affected by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. 

Peggy Koenitzer, whose mother was a victim of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, also spoke at the luncheon. 

Her mother and her mother’s twin were adopted at age 8 to a family in Philadelphia. 

Koenitzer said she grew up knowing her mother was adopted, from Memphis, Tenn.  

Her mother remembered being picked up by a limousine, being taken to the orphanage and coming to Philadelphia and having new parents, according to Koentizer. 

She said her mother and her twin sister were two of seven siblings who lived in a “little shack by the river.”  Their father worked on a river boat on the Mississippi River. 

“The mother ended up in the hospital overnight and while she was in the hospital they came and took the kids,” she said. 

They took six of seven children because the oldest child was 16. 

“Out of the six that were taken, the oldest was 11.  She was not adopted out. The other five children were all adopted out across the country,” she said.  

Koenitzer said that one sibling went to California and another went to Hopewell, N.J. 

She said when her mother and her sister were adopted the adoptive family was told they were 6 years old. 

“My mother never forgot her family.  She always longed for her family,” she said. 

Koenitzer said that even though her adoptive parents were good people “it was such a trauma to her that she could never get over it her whole life.”

Koentizer has worked to find her mother’s siblings and said she has found out what happened to each of her mother’s siblings. 

“I had found cousins, second cousins, people who said, ‘you know, we never stopped searching for the children,”’ she said. 


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