Child abandonment, though not exactly an epidemic, is more common than one might think. It is generally defined as the practice of relinquishing one’s possession of and rights regarding an infant in an illegal manner. The practice has been traced back at least to the Middle Ages, and it was practiced by many cultures. It has also been called “baby dumping” and “rehoming,” among other names. An abandoned child is commonly called a “foundling” as opposed a runaway or an orphan.
There are many reasons for abandoning a baby, such as:
- Unwanted pregnancies, notably teenage pregnancies.
- Illness or deformities
- Unwanted gender.
In recent years, the latter was prevalent in some cultures, notably China, in which a family was only permitted to have one child. For various reasons, most Chinese wanted their one child to be a male.
In the Middle Ages it was not uncommon simply to abandon an unwanted baby at the side of a road or in a near-by field or woods. These babies would soon die from exposure, hunger or attacks by wild animals. Another popular method of infanticide was drowning. In 12th Century Italy, for example, infant drownings in the River Tiber became so common that Pope Innocent III decreed that a device called a “foundling wheel” be installed in hospitals and churches so that mothers would have a place to leave unwanted babies. According to Wikipedia, the first foundling wheels were used in Italy in 1198. Their use quickly spread. Essentially, a foundling wheel was a cylindrical device, similar to a revolving door, that was placed at the outside wall of a church or hospital. The mother would put the baby in the outside compartment, turn the cylinder to push the baby inside and then ring a bell to alert those inside that a baby was present. This device was a forerunner of the “baby hatch” or “baby box” that is used today.
The baby hatch or box works in a similar manner. A church, for example, would make a hole in one of its outside walls and install a bin. The parent puts the baby in the bin and closes it. An electronic signal alerts the persons inside that a baby is present. Many modern-day boxes contain bedding, blankets, pillows, and even heat to provide comfort and protection from the elements. The hatch is also known as a “baby box,” “post box,” “window”, “cradle”, or “window of life” in different countries.
There are a plethora of examples in the Arts in which child abandonment is at least a subplot. For example:
- In literature, we have Snow White, Oedipus and, of course, Moses.
- The main plot of a Charlie Chaplin movie, “The Kid,” centers around the raising of an abandoned child.
- From the Stage, we have George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.”
- From television, we have the “Flintstones” in which “Bamm-Bamm” was left on the Rubbles’ doorstep.
- From the comics, we have Superman.
Abandoned babies that survived were usually not treated well by society. In some cultures they were used as slaves, indentured labor, or military conscripts. This was common in Medieval Europe, but it also occurred in the US. Between 1854 and 1929 over 200,000 abandoned children were transported to the western US by railroad on so-called “orphan trains.” The families that took possession of them grossly mistreated them, using them as servants, maids, laborers and worse. Eventually, the practice became so widespread and scandalous that it led to the promulgation of modern-day adoption laws, notably the sealing of records.
In general, the treatment of “hatch” or “box” babies is horrifying. The thought that one could treat innocent babies in this manner is beyond my comprehension. I must admit that prior to researching and writing this blog I had very limited knowledge of this topic, but now, it has captivated me.
If you want to learn more about it I recommend a documentary, called “Drop Box Babies,” which is currently available on “Netflix.” It is not something that I would normally watch, but I did so on my wife’s strong recommendation. Without giving away too much of the plot, It is a very powerful true story about a South Korean couple, Pastor and Mrs. Lee, that has founded a community center in Seoul called “Jusarang” or “God’s Love Community” specifically for the benefit of abandoned children. The Lees endeavor to ensure that the babies are treated as humanely as possible under the circumstances.
Child abandonment in Seoul has doubled in the last two years and is reaching the crisis stage. The Lees receive about one baby a day. Nearly 400 have passed through their care. As of the date of the movie they were personally caring for 15.
These babies are very high maintenance. Most have severe physical, emotional and/or mental disabilities. Others have missing appendages and other deformities. One, in particular, will spend his short life lying on his back in a bed.
Although I strongly recommend this movie I must warn you that it is very powerful and will tug at your emotions. If you watch it, don’t be embarrassed to cry.