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The Stolen Babies of the United States

Child trafficking is a well-known issue across the world, causing children to be sold and used for exploitative purposes. However, a lesser-known side of the coin is child selling without harm explicitly meant towards the child. Instead, it’s a type of adoption fraud intended to turn a profit.  

Child selling has a storied history in the United States, and past examples of it eventually led to reform policies designed for child welfare, which were supposed to render the practice obsolete. However, some cases continued into modernity, with some fraudulent adoption rings lasting for decades at a time and earning thousands, sometimes even millions. Many of these children were kidnapped, never to see their birth families again. From the past to now, these are the stolen children of the United States. 

Legal Adoptions

In order to understand child selling, it’s important to understand what it isn’t. While child selling exists outside the law and involves adoption fraud much of the time, there are legal avenues for adoption that are designed to protect the child. 

Currently, two types of adoptions exist: private and agency adoptions. Private adoptions involve a biological mother and an adoptive family directly. Each adoption must be approved by the court, and the potential adoptive family must undergo a background check. Depending on the state, other screenings may also be required to determine eligibility.

Agency adoptions are either private or public organizations that serve as a go-between for placing children. These agencies must be state-licensed, and they have extra requirements compared to private adoptions depending on the agency involved. Some private adoptions opt to become agency adoptions after requesting that an agency handles the process. These are also referred to as “identified adoptions.”

Building off of this definition, there are many ways in which an adoption can be illegal. The first way is going through a third party who is not licensed. These third parties will pose as agencies and may charge exorbitant fees to unknowing prospective parents. Some children in these adoptions are stolen, creating another layer of fraud. The second way is engaging in a private adoption where the adoptive parent buys the child. While adoptive parents can offer to pay for a biological mother’s pregnancy-related medical care in certain states, they cannot pay a mother for the child. There are more ways, of course, but these illegal adoption methods are the basics of child selling.

Child Selling Used to be Legal

One caveat related to the legality of child selling, however, is that it used to be perfectly legal. The first adoption law in the United States went into effect in 1851 in Massachusetts, and widespread adoption laws came years later. Before this, most adoptions were completely unregulated. Some adoptions were designed for the welfare of the child, while others were not. 

Baby And mom
Baby And mom. By Michiel van Drunen, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Adoptions could be done through courts, but they were socially stigmatized and generally avoided. As such, there were few limits on how adoptions could be conducted. Some children were simply taken in and treated as biological children, while others served as indentured servants. 

At the time, many children were seen and treated as objects. Some children were forcibly removed from their homes or orphanages and relocated without being told. Orphan trains ran in the United States from 1854 to 1929. They were designed to cut out orphanages, instead relocating children directly to families who wanted them. By the end, over 200,000 children moved across the United States.

The process, on the whole, was heavily unregulated. Homes that wanted children were not screened ahead of time. Many homes opted to use children as farmhands. While orphan trains required that families pay orphans once they reached adulthood, some didn’t, and because of this, orphans demanded relocation. Some orphan trains face lawsuits as parents tried to reclaim their children.

One incident in 1904 involved 40 caucasian children, who were moved from the Foundling Hospital in New York to Arizona. At the time, there were racial tensions between the group they referred to as “Mexican Indians” and caucasians living there. These racial tensions were unknown and weren’t taken to account, putting the children at risk. In response, a group of men took the children by force and relocated them with families matching their race. The Foundling Hospital ultimately requested for the children to return, but the Arizona courts ruled in favor of keeping the children with their new families. 

The incident ultimately caused negative press towards the orphan trains, with one headline at the time reading “Babies Sold Like Sheep,” which criticized Foundling Hospital for continuously relocating children across the United States through the orphan trains. The paper argued that the children were sold and treated like animals. Ultimately, it sparked a controversy that played a part in their demise. 

There is some room for debate on the impact of orphan trains on child welfare laws and adoption laws. In terms of adoption laws, many began before orphan trains ever existed, though some still argue they played a major role. Most have argued that it was a major factor leading to increased child welfare laws and changing views on children, however. The newspaper headlines at the time reflected a shifting view of children and a low tolerance for mistreatment and poor adoption placement practices. This makes them an essential part of why child selling is currently illegal, and how later examples of it would involve the courts much more prominently than before. 

History of Baby Farming

Before legislation went into full effect, however, there were baby farms. They were perhaps one of the most widespread forms of child selling in the United States at the time. Baby farms extended well into the 1900s and, similar to orphan trains, were one factor leading to child welfare reforms. 

Currently, documentation is limited on baby farms in the United States. Unless there was cause for investigation, they were largely underground operations. Still, they all functioned in virtually the same manner. Baby farmers would charge a fee to a parent giving up their child. Usually, the parents giving up their children were unmarried mothers who feared social stigma, or impoverished families. In turn, they would either sell the children to adoptive families to turn a profit or murder them outright. 

One baby farmer in the United States ran his scheme from 1908 to 1909– “Doctor” Hans Oftedal. While he referred to himself as a doctor, he in fact was not one. He ran a baby hospital purporting to take care of infants in Minneapolis. In reality, the infants were mistreated, and 27 were found dead. He shut down the scheme of his own accord and abandoned 5 babies, 3 of which were in poor condition. These 3 infants were placed under the care of Mrs. O’Malley at her request, and she desperately tried to get them adopted to improve their condition. One of the babies was losing weight after being fed skim milk. Despite this, the remaining children survived. 

The so-called “doctor” was never prosecuted. However, he did face backlash from many newspapers at the time. One Star Tribune edition released on October 23rd, 1909 announced a superintendent’s desire to take legal action against Oftedal and end baby farms for good. Later, in 1917, Minnesota released the Children’s Code, which was designed to regulate adoptions and require licensure. By 1920, most states took legal action to ensure the horrors of baby farms would never happen again.

Georgia Tann

After adoption laws became widespread and cultural views on children shifted in the United States, there were no excuses when it came to child selling. Regardless, some modern examples of the practice do exist. 

One example of a child seller is Georgia Tann. She ran an illegal adoption ring called the Children’s Home Society that involved kidnapping children. Over the course of two decades, she and her associates kidnapped over 5000 children, and 500 or more may have died before being adopted out. These children were subsequently sold to wealthy families so she could earn a substantial profit. 

Many of these wealthy families subscribed to eugenics. Wanting a genetically superior family lineage, these families used adoption as the means to get the “perfect child.” For this purpose, they were ready and willing to pay any sum, no matter how large. Accounting for inflation, her scheme earned well over $10 million. 

She used a variety of methods to kidnap the children. Some were kidnapped directly. Tann or one of her many co-conspirators would drive into neighborhoods, especially less wealthy ones, and persuade children on the street to come into their vehicle. Others involved paid-off workers who willingly stole children from preschools and playgrounds. 

Along with impoverished families, Tann also targeted women. She would use her vast network of paid-off individuals, or “spotters,” as they were called, to find women who had children out of wedlock, some of whom were unmarried. Social stigma at the time was merciless against these women, and she used this to her advantage. She used their fear and shame as fuel to emotionally manipulate them and take their children. 

Her scheme wasn’t completely underground, however, She frequently published newspaper ads that were referred to as “baby catalogs.” She advertised children as the perfect Christmas present, objectifying them to no end. Her vast support network kept her out of trouble, effectively giving her immunity from the law. She had both a local juvenile judge and the governor in her pocket. 

It only came to an end in 1949, when the governor changed from E.H. Crump– the governor she paid off– to Gordon Browning. Unlike Crump, he would not be swayed. The two governors were actually political enemies, and it was in his best interest to fight against Tann. In 1950, he issued an investigation. However, by then, Tann died of cancer– she could not pay for her crimes. The organization shut down shortly afterward, and authorities launched efforts to relocate children to their original families. Some children were. Others wouldn’t realize they were a stolen child until decades later, as the case gained widespread media coverage and appeared in books and movies. 

Lauryn Galindo

Other child selling schemes in the US had an international spin to them. Such is the case with Lauryn Galindo. From 1997-2001, her illegal adoption scheme separated Cambodian children from their families, children she labeled as “orphans.” While some of the children she adopted out were, in fact, orphans, many others were bought at a price. Using her network of “baby recruiters,” she found and convinced Cambodian families to give up their children. Many of these families were impoverished and couldn’t afford to support them. While they didn’t want to sell their children, the families were reassured they’d stay in the Cambodian orphanage and have a better life. In return, they received money or food, allowing them to support themselves for a time.

Of course, Galindo had spun a false narrative. Instead, the children who would supposedly stay near their families in Cambodia were shipped overseas to unwitting families in the United States. She used the adoption fees and orphanage donations to her own benefit, earning enough to buy seaside property in Hawaii. The orphanage was left destitute and, at times, had no money to feed the children they served. 

Some of the families were suspicious of the adoptions, as many of them listed the birth parents as “unknown” and gave little information. In addition, the adoption process felt rushed, especially once the adoptive families arrived in Cambodia. After arriving at the orphanage, the children were simply handed over, and families were sent on their way and discouraged from asking any questions. 

Still, the desire to give the Cambodian children a better life often outweighed reason, and Galindo carried out 800 adoptions successfully. Due to the lack of records, there is no telling how many of these 800 children weren’t actually orphans. 

The scheme ultimately came to a close when Galindo left the operation in 2001. Shortly thereafter, she was charged with visa fraud and money laundering. In 2004, she pleaded guilty and faced an 18-month prison sentence. She admitted to falsifying documents. However, even after the charge, she still denied purchasing children, though investigators had ample evidence and testimony to believe otherwise. 



Orphan trains:

Baby Farming and Hans Oftedal:

Georgia Tann:

Lauryn Galindo:

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