The Study of Foundlings and Abandoned Children

The abandonment of children can result from many factors. A child may be abandoned by a parent for reasons including mental illness, alcohol or drug addiction, poverty or poor health. Children can also be abandoned by foster parents or relatives. Regardless of the cause, the effect can be lasting and devastating to the children involved. Abandoned children often suffer from long-term psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression. They may also struggle with relationship issues and a lack of self-esteem, which can make it difficult for them to form intimate relationships.

Throughout history, children have been abandoned at birth and in infancy, by their parents, grandparents and siblings for a variety of reasons. The practice has been widely accepted in some societies, with parents voluntarily relinquishing their legal interests and claims on their offspring for the purposes of charity or of social order. In other situations, new parents have been compelled to abandon their babies because of economic difficulties or because of the inability to care for them.

Some scholars argue that the term foundlings or abandoned children covers a broad range of experiences and cultures. The study of foundlings and abandoned children may therefore be relevant to historians, anthropologists, demographers, sociologists and workers in the fields of family policy and public welfare.

For example, Hunecke 1994 suggests that the survival of a foundling was closely related to its mother’s employment and the family’s financial stability in early Renaissance Italy. Lynch 2000 demonstrates that, by the end of the nineteenth century, in Europe, a more rational economic approach to the problem and to the treatment of foundlings led to improvements in infant mortality rates.

Abandoned children are frequently depicted in fairy tales, such as the Snow White story, in which the children were abandoned in the forest by their stepmother. The story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the children were abandoned by their parents in a wooded area because they could no longer feed them, is a grimmer variation.

Several studies have demonstrated that the emotional trauma associated with abandonment can be damaging to children, even into adulthood. These consequences may include a lack of healthy attachment, difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships, anxiety and depression, unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, eating disorders and poor nutrition, and a low sense of personal worth. Moreover, a fear of abandonment can develop into a mental illness known as abandonment syndrome, which may have serious consequences for the health and well-being of children and adults alike. People with this condition may be unable to maintain relationships and find a meaningful career. They are at a high risk of depression, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are also at a higher risk for developing other serious conditions such as heart disease, lung disorders and cancer. This condition is also associated with an increased risk for domestic violence, including spousal abuse and sexual assault. This is partly because of the shame that can accompany being an abandonment victim.