THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
September 17, 1990
44 YEARS LATER, MOM FINDS LOST BABY - TV SHOW ON BLACK-MARKET ADOPTIONS
LEADS TO REUNION
Author: Beverly Beyette, Los Angeles Times
It had been 44 years since Alma Sipple had seen the woman, and then only briefly, yet she could not forget her - the no-nonsense brown hair, the rimless glasses, the air of authority. Everything about her said authority - and that's why Sipple had handed over her infant daughter. This nice woman was going to take the child to a hospital for a checkup.
Alma Sipple never saw her baby again.
All these years, she has lived with the pain of her loss, with her guilt, with a gnawing need to know if her daughter was alive.
Then, last Dec. 13, scanning the TV dial, Sipple happened upon NBC's Unsolved Mysteries, a program she wasn't in the habit of watching. She sat forward on her chair, transfixed, as Robert Stack told the story of the
late Georgia Tann, an infamous Tennessee social worker who'd made a fortune running a black-market baby adoption ring in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.
Sipple recognized Tann immediately - that face, that air of authority. ''When they showed her picture,'' she says, ''I let out a scream. I said, 'That's the woman that took Irma!' ''
Viewers searching for their birth parents, or parents looking for their children, were advised during the show to contact Tennessee's Right to Know, a volunteer agency in Memphis that reunites families separated by
adoption. On Jan. 3, Sipple wrote to the address - the first step in a seven-month search that would lead her to her daughter. In Tennessee, Denny Glad, president of Right to Know, received Sipple's inquiry and located Irma's adoption records, which gave the names of the adoptive parents. But the records did not indicate the state in which the parents lived.
That's why Sipple contacted Marilyn Miller, an independent search consultant in Los Angeles, on July 27. And on Aug. 3, Miller called back with good news. She had the name and address of Sipple's daughter. She was able to tell her that she was a registered nurse, married and living in Cincinnati. But the phone number was unlisted.
That day, Sipple sent a basket of daisies and carnations to her daughter, with a guardedly written message that read, ''Please call regarding family matters.''
Irma - now Sandra Kimbrell - was puzzled; she knew no one in California.
Kimbrell called the California number the next day. She didn't know it, of course, but she was calling a mobile home park in the Southern California town of Carson, where Alma Sipple and her husband, Steve, live. The
Sipples came home and picked up the message on the answering machine. ''I could feel my blood pressure shoot up,'' Alma Sipple says.
So now she had a number - but what was she going to say to this woman, a stranger whose life she was about to turn upside down?
''Hello, Sandra?'' she said. ''You know you're adopted?'' Yes, she knew. ''Well, this is your birth mother . . .''
Her daughter let out a scream, Sipple says.
They talked for an hour. Sipple says, ''She wanted to know what happened, how, what I looked like, how many brothers and sisters she had.''
This is the story Kimbrell heard unfold over the next few days.
In the spring of 1946, Sipple, then in her early 20s, moved with her infant daughter to Memphis, where her 2-year-old son, Robert, a child of a previous marriage, was staying with friends. Sipple's boyfriend, Julius
John Tallos - ''Johnny'' - had just shipped out to Panama. They planned to be married, by proxy, as soon as possible.
They'd met in Biloxi, Miss., where Tallos was stationed with the Air Force and Sipple was working as a bartender. By the time Irma was born - on Aug. 27, 1945 - they'd been together about two years.
''We were so crazy about each other, it didn't matter if we were married or not,'' Sipple recalls. In Memphis, Sipple and her two children settled into a an oil-heated one-room apartment. About six weeks after they'd moved in, a woman from the Tennessee Children's Home Society, an organization with an impeccable reputation for finding homes for orphans, came to the apartment building, saying she was investigating an alleged child-abuse case involving a neighbor.
The next day, the woman returned, this time striking up a conversation with Sipple, asking her about the baby's father. Then the woman looked at Irma, who had a runny nose, and said, ''Your baby's sick, isn't she? You
should get her a checkup.'' Sipple explained that she had no money for a doctor, so the woman, who identified herself as Georgia Tann, offered to take the child to Memphis General Hospital.
Looking back, Sipple wonders at her own naiveté. ''How did I mess up so bad? I guess she knew the dumb ones.'' Still, she had been worried about her baby's health. And she'd assumed she would go with them to the hospital. So she signed a piece of paper. When Tann told her it would be impossible for her to go along, Sipple remembers, ''I had a weird feeling, but I thought, 'Well, you've gotta trust somebody.' ''
The next day, Sipple went to the hospital children's ward, where she found Irma ''jumping up and down in her bed.'' But when she told a nurse she wanted to see her baby, the nurse said, ''You don't have a baby in there. Those children belong to the Children's Home Society.''
Over the next few days, Sipple's calls to Tann went unanswered. Finally, Sipple says, Tann called back and said Irma had died of pneumonia. ''Of course, I went into hysterics.''
When Sipple said she wanted to make arrangements for the burial, Tann rebuffed her, saying, ''I took it on myself and had the state put her away.''
At that point, Sipple says, ''I guess I went crazy.'' She took son Robert to Ohio to stay with her mother. And she returned to Memphis. ''I wanted to find the grave. I was half out of my mind.''
She found no grave. Her calls to the Tennessee Children's Home Society yielded only the information that ''the case is closed.'' She was told that Tann ''has nothing to say to you.''
With her son, Sipple returned to Kentucky. Her roots were there, and there she had two small daughters, the children of her first marriage, who were living with their father. The letters from the Irma's father in Panama
were fewer and fewer. ''He'd worshiped Irma,'' she says, and couldn't deal with the death.
''That, and my going crazy. I drank, I admit it. I thought it would make it easy. All it did was keep me crying all the time.''
Soon afterward, Sipple married steelworker James Smith, a union that lasted 12 years and produced three sons and a daughter. After her divorce from Smith, she married Steve Sipple, a welder. They had a daughter and lived in Kentucky until 1969, when they moved to California.
Steve Sipple understood her need to trace Irma and, in the last few years, she had resumed her search. In 1982, she sent a query to the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Nashville. The answer came back: There was no death
certificate for Irma Tallos. After that, she ran into brick walls. The district attorney in Memphis couldn't help. The Tennessee Department of Human Services couldn't help.
Then, by chance, Sipple happened to tune into Unsolved Mysteries.
Alma Sipple is but one of thousands of victims of Georgia Tann and her black market baby scam.
Denny Glad, president of Tennessee's Right to Know, says, ''We have been overwhelmed'' by callers who saw Unsolved Mysteries. All together, it is estimated, Tann illegally placed more than 5,000 children.
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