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Summer Reading - Abandoned Children

Abandoned Children

It is clear we have become a devotée of the works of Rachel Fuchs. This is one of her best, though it rather spells the end of the line -- as in an impassable brick wall -- for a certain path of genealogical research. 

In the days before birth control, abandonment of babies was something that occurred in numbers shocking to modern society. The causes Fuchs and others cite would seem to be many but can be simplified to two: either the mother did not want the child, or she did want it but felt she could not care for it. Almost without exception, child abandonment was practiced by the poor. Very often the abandoned child was the product of a union between a poor, single woman and a wealthier man. Though she may have committed the physical act of abandoning her child, he was also responsible if he refused to acknowledge or care for the child. "The number of abandoned children is astonishing'" Fuchs writes. "As many as one-fourth of all newborn babies and half of all illegitimate newborn babies in Paris were abandoned each year [during the nineteenth century.]" (p. xi)

The book is a fascinating read, but for the genealogist it is Fuchs's sources, again, that are of such value. As the state (instead of the church) became more involved in caring for abandoned children,  greater efforts were made to identify the parents and to properly identify the child. Prior to the nineteenth century, an abandoned child would have been left at a religious institution or in the street. If found alive and able to be cared for, no questions were asked and no identities attempted to confirm. Thus, it is almost impossible for a genealogist to find the parents of an abandoned child of the eighteenth century or earlier. It is not much better researching those abandoned a century later, for the practice of country mothers sending unwanted babies in carts to be abandoned in Paris means that there may be no way at all of finding a child's biological parents.

Some records do survive. With the state involvement, hospices and hospitals for foundlings, les enfants trouvés, were established, and they had admission registers. These would record as much of the following as possible:

  • the child's name
  • date and place of birth
  • how admitted (left on the step, brought in by a parent willing to be interviewed, etc.)
  • date and time of admission
  • any other useful information
  • the identity number issued to the child

If the child were abandoned with no identity whatsoever, a procès-verbal of the information from the admission register was placed in the City Hall and the officer of civil registrations named the baby. (p.121)

These admission registers and procès-verbaux survive in the Archives départmentales of Paris, which offers a complete page on how to research such children in their archives. It includes explanations on the admission registers and the procès-verbaux, as well as on other documentation that has survived. Of these, none are online except the annual, alphabetical indices of the names of the children admitted. To see the record itself, one must go to the archives. 

If one has such an ancestor, an abandoned child, and can trace no parents, at least be happy he or she survived to carry on the unknown line. Thousands did not, poor souls.

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Abandoned Children : Foundlings and Child Welfare in Nineteenth-Century France

Rachel Ginnis Fuchs

Albany : State University of New York Press, 1984

ISBN 0-87395-748-2

357 pages

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©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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