Foundlings are children abandoned, almost always by their mothers, soon after birth. There is rarely any intention that the child should die, but the mother is usually in such a mental state that she cannot act rationally, or else in such a position that she is or feels unable to approach the social services for help.
They are usually left somewhere such as a hospital bathroom, telephone booth, church or clergyman's doorstep, where they will be found soon. This sets them apart from feral children (where the loss is usually accidental, although some may have been deliberately abandoned), from captives, who are stolen from their families, and from children deliberately exposed with the intention that they should die, such as Oedipus.
In medieval and renaissance times there were recognized places where a mother could leave a baby. Usually these were attached to convents, which would have a revolving cot set into a wall. The mother would leave her child in the cot, turn it so that it went through the wall to the inside, ring the bell and leave. In a few minutes a nun would come and the baby would then either be cared for in the convent orphanage or sent for adoption. There was an especially famous example of this in Venice, in the convent where the famous composer Vivaldi was the music teacher.
These arrangements fell into disuse but have been reinstated in some places: for example the cities of Berlin and Hamburg, Germany now (2000) have such "Babyklappen." In Hamburg, after leaving the baby the mother has six weeks in which she can return to claim the baby back. If she does, the matter of her taking the baby back or not is dealt with by adoption professionals, not the police. The first modern German Babyklappe was instituted in March 2000, after two cases in 1999 where abandoned babies were found dead in rubbish bins. There are plans to reintroduce them in other cities as well.
In the modern Third World, children may be abandoned because to acknowledge the birth would put the mother's life in danger, for example, because the loss of her virginity would make her unmarriageable; because she cannot look after the baby and there is no one else available to help, such as during famines or social upheavals, and social services and adoption agencies do not exist, or because the child itself is in danger, because of physical disability, or twins, considered in some cultures to be demonic. In other cultures, young unmarried girls also abandon their babies in desperation or shame, unable to tell even their parents or doctor.
In Western societies foundlings are now relatively uncommon (about 50 a year in the UK); until the twentieth century they were common and form a frequent feature in literature. In most cases the mother comes forward in a few days to claim her child back. In the UK there are now only about five to 12 babies each year who are completely abandoned and never reclaimed, although another 50 or so are abandoned and later reunited with their mothers. The number of foundlings in the UK has doubled during the 1990s, but no research has been carried out there to find out either why mothers abandon their babies or why the numbers have begun increasing.
A foundling has no known birthdate or name or parents. They are frequently named by the person who found them or by the hospital staff where they are taken, often given names relating to the place they were found or the time of year. This index includes several foundlings:
A few of the many foundlings from English literature: Tom Jones (The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling), Eppie (Silas Marner), Heathcliffe (Wuthering Heights), Jack Worthing (The Importance of Being Earnest) and Andrew Undershaft (Major Barbara).
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