A Quick History of Closed Adoptions in New York State

In 1935 Governor Herbert H. Lehman (formerly of Lehman Brothers) signed legislation that would close the records of any one who was adopted in New York State.  This was the first of many laws throughout the country that would restrict access of both adopted people and their birth parents to their records.

Governor Lehman
Governor Lehman

Also during this session of the legislature, January 2 to April 17, 1935, was the 1st time that women were represented in both the Senate and Assembly.  In the Senate the first woman legislator was Rhoda Fox Graves and in the  Assembly two women were re-elected Doris Byrne and Jane Todd.

I thought this fact was salient given that we are about two weeks out from the 2018 midterm elections and according to CNN 256 women are running for the House and Senate.

This fact has nothing to do with closed adoptions but since I worked on my first political campaign when I was 13 years old and I am “political” I thought it was a fun fact from my research and included it

Ok back to closed adoptions.

Governor Lehman and his wife Edith Louise (Altschul) adopted 3 children.  One of the children they adopted was through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society located in Memphis.  This is the infamous society that was run by Georgia Tann (born Beulah George Tann; July 18, 1891 – September 15, 1950).

Georgia Tann in many cases resorted to kidnapping children, among other methods of acquisition, who she “sold” to unsuspecting parents for up to $5,000 each.  In addition at least 19 children died in her care due to abuse and neglect and were buried in unmarked graves.

Well known people such as Joan Crawford and June Allison and Dick Powell adopted children from her. It is thought that most people who adopted from her were unaware of her illegal activities.

She was aided in her crimes by  Memphis Family Court Judge Camille Kelly who signed the orders of adoption.

Memorial to the children who died

Now back to New York and Governor Lehman and his reasoning for signing such a restrictive law.

Governor Lehman said he signed the law to protect adopted children from the stigma of illegitimacy and for them to have a clear path for  inheritance.

It is speculated that he signed the law to protect his children from their biological family members seeking them out.  And/Or that he was protecting himself from the scandal that surrounded Georgia Tann.

He had aspirations for higher office.  After all many Governors of New York State have gone on to higher office and his predecessor was  Franklin D Roosevelt.

Whatever his reasoning for his actions; some 80 plus years later it is still effecting adopted people and their families.  As you can guess I support opening up adoption records to adopted people.  Especially now that with DNA testing commercially available.





One comment

  1. Interesting representation history in 1935. I wonder if there were any women in 1935 from New York that represented NY in the US House or Senate then (like the # women you cited that are running this year)? And I wonder how many women are now running for NY Assembly & Senate compared to 1935?

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