Moses became history’s most famous foundling when he was
discovered in the bulrushes 3,000 years ago. Today, there is
nothing like a baby abandoned in a telephone kiosk or church porch
to excite mawkish media coverage. Perhaps this is because there are
only a handful of such cases each year. Since 1996, there have been
an average of six a year.
Foundlings have particular issues that are not faced by other
children because of the absence of information about their family,
and its history and health.
And some issues are still not talked about, says Audrey Mullender,
professor of social work at the University of Warwick. “No one is
discussing issues such as the fact that child abandonment is a
crime. How many people even know that? We would like to generate a
debate among professionals as well as more generally.”
Mullender was co-director of a two-year, Nuffield-funded research
project on child abandonment with Anita Pavolic. She says that
abandoning a child is an indication of the desperate circumstances,
such as violence and poverty, in which women can find themselves.
It is clear that the stereotyped school-age mother is only one type
of woman who abandons her child, she says.
The research looked at 128 cases of abandoned children from 1996 to
2001. When analysed – and discounting the “home-alone children” and
those where the mother was traced, 25 were foundlings who had been
left anonymously in public places. The complex feelings mothers may
have about their intentions can be seen in the case of the woman
who left her child in a hospital, but in a place where it was
unlikely to be found.
There is an argument to be had about whether abandonment should be
decriminalised as it is likely to arise because of a mother’s
distress. Should it be made easier for women to abandon babies as
it was in the 18th century through the Thomas Coram Hospital for
Foundlings and as it still is in several other countries? In
France, women can hand over their baby to a hospital, a practice
stemming from the problems arising for women who became pregnant by
German soldiers during the wartime occupation. And, in Hamburg,
there are “baby banks” – a wall with a revolving shelf in an
institution where a baby can be left. Both methods offer security
and safety for the child.
But why would a mother abandon a child instead of placing them for
adoption? According to Mullender, these women are often poor, have
other children and so sometimes cannot afford to keep another child
for any length of time. Or they may have already been known to
social services for some time and be wary of authority.
Although we can guess at the effects that abandoning a child has on
a mother, there is no research to confirm this. The researchers
looked at police and social services records, spoke to foundlings
and professionals who have worked with foundlings but attempts to
contact the women were unsuccessful.
Post-adoption service the National Organisation for the Counselling
of Adoptees and Parents (Norcap) has a foundling network for
over-18s abandoned as babies who were not reclaimed by their
natural families. As such, they have no original name, date of
birth or any other identifying information.
Norcap’s network co-ordinator Sandy Webster, herself a foundling
(see panel, right), believes women often find it easier to come to
terms with being abandoned than men, particularly if they become
She says: “When you have your own child you think, ‘How could
someone do that?’. But if you get past that anger you think someone
must have been really desperate to abandon their child.”
She adds that a man who is a foundling is more likely to see his
marriage break up. This, she says, may be about male antagonism
towards and anger against women, stemming from the feelings about
the woman who abandoned him.
Because foundlings are deprived of their past, the most seemingly
trivial bits of information (for example, what they were wrapped
and clothed in when found) or knowledge (exactly when and where
they were found and by whom, what the weather was like that day)
attains great significance.
Support means helping foundlings realise they are not alone, that
they are not oddities and helping them learn how to cope with what
is the ultimate rejection. “It means for many people coming to
terms with the question ‘Wasn’t I good enough?'” says
As well as offering advice and support to foundlings, Norcap has a
contact register. It currently has 80 names, but only one contact
has been made. The service believes women who have abandoned their
child are reluctant to make contact because of guilt and fear of
Webster says: “Like many adopted people, foundlings’ stories are
like a jigsaw puzzle, except that for them there will always be one
vital piece missing – their identity.”
– For more information on Norcap phone 01865 875000.
An invisible beginning
Sandy Webster always knew she was adopted but it was only as a
teenager that she discovered she was a foundling.
Her sister, who is also adopted, had asked her adoptive mother
about her birth parents, which led to Sandy asking the same
At the time it didn’t make her feel different from other adopted
people because, until 1976, all of them were fairly restricted in
their ability to trace their birth parents. It was only when her
own first child was born that she started to think about her
situation, a common trigger for adopted people.
Webster was found on 8 November 1955 outside a newspaper office
in King’s Cross, London. She was named Elizabeth after the new
monarch and Gray because she was found near Gray’s Inn Road. Her
birthday was estimated to be 21 October. She has no photographs of
herself until she was six months old, when she was adopted.
Webster trained as a nurse at London’s Middlesex Hospital and
worked on the neurological wards as a staff nurse for a year.
She returned to nursing after her third child was born, working
for nine years as a school nurse in Milton Keynes, where she lives.
She later spent four years with NHS Direct. After a short time as a
nurse at Cranfield University, she joined Norcap part-time last
year, where for many years she had been a trustee and volunteer.
The rest of the week she works for an adoption agency counselling
parents whose children have been placed for adoption. She is now
training to be a social worker. “I hate it when people say I am
fascinating when they hear I am a foundling,” she says. “I’m not.
I’m an ordinary person.”