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The desertion of a child by a parent or adult caretaker with no provisions for reasonable child care or apparent intention to return. A child may be considered abandoned if left alone or with siblings or nonrelated and unsuitable individuals. Abandonment is considered a form of physical neglect by the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect. About 16% of child victims suffer from such forms of maltreatment as abandonment or "threats to harm the child."

If the deserting parent does not return or contact the child or does not provide any support for an extended period, the state ultimately may seek to terminate parental rights and place the child with an adoptive family. A social worker must prove to the court of appropriate jurisdiction that abandonment has occurred. States vary on their adoption laws and what proof is required before parental rights may be terminated. Before such action is taken, the child is usually placed in foster care while the state or county social worker attempts to find the parent or relatives of the child. (See TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS.)

The parent(s) who abandoned the child usually do not provide information on their own whereabouts, although social workers and police officers will seek to find them, using various investigative means.

Every year a number of infants are abandoned in trash cans, outside homes and in a variety of settings. The mother may have been a teenager who sought to conceal her pregnancy or who couldn't take care of a child. She may have been convinced she would be rejected by her parents, peers and others who could never accept her pregnancy or the infant itself. Also, she may not have obtained an abortion because she was denying the reality of her pregnancy, because she felt abortion was immoral or she was unaware of available abortion facilities and was afraid to ask anyone for information.

Although outsiders may find it difficult to believe a teenager's parents could fail to notice her progressing pregnancy, parents often assume the girl is merely gaining weight. Pregnancy can be particularly hard to recognize if the girl is overweight to start. In some cases parents even encourage the pregnant girl to exercise and diet, based on this mistaken assumption.

Sometimes the deserting mother has a romantic image of a happy couple finding a baby on the doorstep. Consequently, when she abandons the child in a safe place, the mother may falsely conclude the child will be reared by the people who find it; however, abandoned infants and children are almost always placed under the legal control of the state social services department and in a state-approved foster home. Efforts are made to locate the biological parents or any relatives before placing the child in a permanent foster home.

Infants are not the only children who are abandoned: children of all ages are abandoned by their parents. Very often today the problem of the biological parent is alcohol or drug abuse-related.

If neither parent and no relatives make a claim on the child within the course of at least 18 months after placement into a foster home, the court may opt to terminate the birthparents' parental rights so the child may be adopted by other parents.

In the event the birthparents are found, they may be given terms and conditions by the court with which they must comply in order for the child to be returned, for example, supervision by a social worker or intensive counseling by a trained therapist. Or if the problem was leaving the child alone for extended periods while the parent worked, a suitable babysitter may be arranged. In some states, parental rights may be terminated if the abandoned child was an infant.

Older children are sometimes abandoned when the parent believes he or she cannot care for the child or if the parent is overcome by personal problems, alcoholism, drug abuse, financial difficulties or a combination of these.

Homeless families may attempt to live out of their cars or makeshift shelters. Such living arrangements may be considered neglect or, if the parent leaves the child alone in such circumstances for an extended period, abandonment. If a child abuse worker is notified, the children may be taken from the parents by a state or county social worker and placed in a certified state foster home until and unless the parents provide adequate shelter.

Thousands of children in countries outside the United States are abandoned every year by their mothers, and some of them are placed in orphanages. People from the United States and abroad adopt some children who need families, but many of these children spend their entire childhoods in institutions until they are turned out to make room for younger homeless children.

Birthmothers from other countries who abandon their children do so primarily because of cultural factors or because they are destitute, powerless or are lacking in support and options and see no hope for their abilities to parent their children. They may or may not have other children. They may have been rejected by their parents or by the birthfathers.

In some cases, the birthmother from another country may be legally prohibited from voluntarily signing a consent to adoption. Abandoning her child at an orphanage or hospital may be the only route she can find that could ultimately lead her child to be placed in an orphanage and hopefully later in an adoptive home. (See also ABUSE, TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS.)

John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989).

"Child Maltreatment, 1996," Reports from the States to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Find more information on abandonment

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