Devy Bruch: a wonderful life

Wed, 09/02/2009 - 9:42am
By: Ben Nelms

Devy Bruch: a wonderful life

At less than five pounds, little Nell Howell was born in Memphis on Nov. 2, 1937. At six weeks of age she arrived in central Pennsylvania with Tennessee adoption specialist Georgia Tann and a nurse in a chauffeur-driven limousine to be presented to her adoptive parents. It was the perfect beginning for an infant said to be in need of a loving home.

“My new home already had a baby boy just three months old, adopted from another agency in central Pennsylvania. It was like having twins for mother and daddy. We were known as the two D’s, Dennis and Devereaux,” said Devy Bruch, whose name was changed with her adoption.

Sitting in her home in Peachtree City, Devy had limitless praise for her adopted parents, the home they provided and their love that filled her life. She is the daughter of a research chemist who worked with the likes of Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk. But it was in 1995 Devy’s adopted father gave her a copy of an article on illegally adopted babies. Devy came to learn that, in terms of her birth and the few weeks that followed, all was not as it seemed.

Good Housekeeping Magazine in March 1991 ran a story entitled, “The Woman Who Stole 5,000 Babies.” It was the story of Georgia Tann, the now-infamous woman who ran the Memphis office of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. A part of the material Devy has amassed for a manuscript she is writing, the magazine’s story recounted how Tann had first operated her agency legitimately, but soon turned to a more sinister form of business. She began trafficking in human life using lies and deception as the tools of her trade.

In Devy’s case, Georgia Tann had her birth mother, Lena Howell, sign surrender papers while she was sedated during childbirth. The unwed mother was later told she had given birth to a baby boy who had died. Yet the records of Tann’s agency said Lena “wishes to place her baby, born out of wedlock, for adoption.”

“Georgia Tann also operated a home for unwed mothers,” Devy explained, sitting at her dining room table and surrounded by stacks of photos and documentation. “The mothers would be told that Tann would take care of the babies until the mothers could decide what to do about their babies. But Ms. Tann would sometimes ship the babies with a nurse to buyers and would tell the mothers that their babies had died.”

Into the 1940s, Tennessee adoptions came with a cost of $7 and those adoptions usually went to parents that were relatively affluent, the Good Housekeeping story said. But Bruch says that Tann’s treachery far exceeded the accepted norms of adoption.

“Georgia Tann’s modus operandi was to shelter unwed girls who were pregnant or to seek out the babies of poor families, promise them care and schooling,” Bruch said. “While in the throes of childbirth and under sedation, Tann would have the girls sign surrender papers, thinking they were signing permission for her to care for the baby until they could do so themselves. The new mothers were later told that their baby had died or was stillborn.”

Bruch said her investigation found that Tann had the protection and assistance of city officials, judges, police and others for whom she provided a kick-back. And developing a variety of marketing techniques and a network of accomplices, Tann into the 1940s had accumulated more than $1 million from her crimes from adoptions that brought $1,500-2,000 per baby plus expenses, Devy said. Hers was an empire of child trafficking built on lies. With her network in full swing, Tann placed infants in the homes of college professors, professionals and movie stars such as Joan Crawford, June Allyson and Dick Powell, according to Good Housekeeping. In all, she placed more than 5,000 babies, Devy said.

Devy Bruch was one of the fortunate ones. She went to a home where she was cared for and loved. But not all the placements were so fortunate. Some were placed in abusive homes, some were returned into Tann’s care several times over and others suffered deprivation and abuse at her hands while in the care of her agency, the article said.

Now at age 71, Devy spoke of the article on illegal adoption her father gave her and the desire of her daughter Robin earlier this year to find more information on the adoption.

“Robin asked if she could look into the records and find out anything about the adoption. She got in touch with the Tennessee Children’s Home and they had 82 pages of records and photos,” Devy explained. “Robin did a net search and discovered a cousin in Richmond who told her that I have a sister. To find out I have a sister I never knew I had is exciting.”

Devy and her recently found sister Patricia, age 65, have emailed each other and have spoken on the phone. They will meet for the first time in early December.

“It was very emotional,” Devy said of the first contact. “We’ll meet in Memphis the week after Thanksgiving. This has been a wonderful new chapter in my life.”

Much of a lifetime away, and though she was stolen by a woman whose love for money diminished her love for people, Devy Bruch is a remarkable woman, a researcher and writer who is a strong advocate for legal adoption and the wonderful life that comes from it.

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