HomeChild abandonment and parents who abandon their children (19th-21st centuries)

HomeChild abandonment and parents who abandon their children (19th-21st centuries)

Child abandonment and parents who abandon their children (19th-21st centuries)

Abandon d’enfants et parents abandonneurs (XIXe-XXIe siècle)

Revue d’histoire de l’enfance « irrégulière »

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Published on Friday, May 27, 2016


The Revue d’histoire de l’enfance « irrégulière » (RHEI) will devote its next issue to child abandonment from the 19th century to the present day. Without excluding any line of enquiry related to abandoned children and the structures that support them, the journal editors are particularly interested in receiving proposals focusing on parents who abandon their children, their social trajectories before and after separation, and their relationships with childcare institutions.



The history of child abandonment has inspired significant scholarly work over the past thirty years. Much of this work has adopted a demographic and institutional perspective that attempts to quantify the phenomenon and explain fluctuations in its occurrence. Considerable attention has also been devoted to the establishment and operation of reception and educational structures and the measurement of child mortality. Other scholars have focused on the lives and fates of individual children, from the moment of abandonment to adulthood.

This historiography has tended to deal only in a cursory manner with the parents doing the abandoning. Historians and sociologists have only recently attempted to identify the social considerations that lead parents to part with their children and then, in some cases, to try to find them again. This relatively new line of enquiry has led scholars to take a second look at the causes of abandonment, to examine the relationship between parents and the institutions that receive their children, and to consider the particular situation of single mothers. The RHEI would like to explore these new research frontiers in this issue.

The journal welcomes proposals covering any part of the late modern period and any geographical area. Proposals focusing on the non-European world and/or the second half of the 20th century, relative blind spots in the history of abandonment, would be particularly welcome.

Articles might consider the following themes:

1/ Definitions of abandonment

Although its legal definition varies widely, abandonment is generally understood as the act by which a parent renounces, explicitly or tacitly, his duties of child protection, maintenance and education, thus requiring those duties to be assumed by a third party. An abandoned child can be differentiated theoretically from a ‘child at risk’, who is taken from his family by judicial or administrative means. An abandoned child is considered to be an orphan as a result of voluntary surrender by his parents. States and receiving institutions, which traditionally sought to distinguish between children of misfortune and children of vice, have tried incessantly to define nomenclatures and classify assisted minors according to their social and family background, the causes of separation from their parents, and whether family ties are maintained. These categories erect shifting, uncertain and porous boundaries that highlight the need to question both the definition of abandonment and the particularity of each child.

2/ The act of abandonment

The methods of abandonment vary: leaving children in public places or on the premises of charitable organizations, placing them for adoption, giving birth anonymously or legally surrendering children to the State. Certain methods follow legal channels while others are clandestine and extra-legal, revealing both State concerns and the individual strategies of parents.

The temporality of abandonment is another subject for research and reflection. Separation, abandonment and the reception of abandoned children are often concomitant, but, since the late 19th century, the development of the social welfare State and the proliferation of child welfare programs in industrialized countries have had the effect of prolonging the time of abandonment. In some cases it is only officially declared after a long period of State or charitable intervention through temporary placements in institutions or in foster care, subsidized wet nurses, emergency allowances, stays with the mother in a maternity home, or after the expiry of a period during which the mother has the right to withdraw her decision to surrender her child and may theoretically continue to see him on a regular basis.

3 / The causes of abandonment

Beyond the apparent immutability of the two major causes of child abandonment – poverty and the regulation of family size on the one hand, concealment of births out of wedlock and stigmatization of single mothers on the other hand – it is worth examining the temporal and spatial evolutions and variations, even tenuous, in parental motives for abandoning their children. It is also important to consider the impact of major events, in particular wars and economic crises. In the French case, recent studies on colonial Indochina and the German occupation during the two world wars have shown that discrimination can amplify the stigma of illegitimacy and force the abandonment of mixed-race children or children of the enemy.

4/ The politics of abandonment and its various actors

The attitude of the State towards child abandonment is revealed in the relevant legislation, reception arrangements and educational projects and in the measures devised to curb the phenomenon. While many of these topics have already been addressed by the social sciences, the history of prevention policies and of the families who benefit from them remains to be written.

In the spirit of the pioneering studies on certain professional child protection groups, fruitful research could be done on the personnel in orphanages, maternity homes or other institutions who work with parents before, during and after abandonment. The role of midwives in assisting mothers who wish to give birth secretly is another topic that is beginning to attract scholarly attention.

5/ Abandonment and gender

The vast majority of parents who finally abandon their children are single mothers. Subject to both poverty and disgrace, the single mother has long embodied the transgression of sexual morality and marital order. Yet, by trying to hide her ‘mistake’ from her parents or by acquiescing to their demand that she abandon her child in order to rectify the dishonour that her ‘misconduct’ has brought upon the family, she seems to demonstrate submission to societal norms and the powerful desire for social conformity. Abandoned by the father of the child, constrained by her own father, the single mother also shows that men, by their absence or their omnipresence, are essential actors in child abandonment.

Unwed mothers of yesterday or teenage mothers of today, all identified as ‘at risk’ populations, show that single motherhood evokes a disturbing female sexuality and a worrying family model that is often a priority category for public intervention. The relationship between mothers and the institutions that receive their children, or that offer aid and assistance to try to dissuade women from surrendering their children, must be considered in light of gender studies that have demonstrated the role of social policies in the construction of sexual identity: do assistance programs in fact perpetuate the representation of single mothers as weak and transgressive women?

 6/ Parents and children after abandonment

While many aspects of the lived experiences of children following abandonment have been studied, the experiences of the foster families who are temporarily entrusted with their care remain relatively unknown. Adoptive families have received more attention, at least for the second half of the 20th century. Parents who abandon their children are often difficult to trace after the abandonment. They sometimes reappear in the life of the child, and thus in the archives of child welfare institutions, when they try to recover their children after months or years of separation. Once they reach adulthood, certain abandoned children also try to find their birth parents, a process increasingly facilitated by legislation. The passage of such legislation in many European countries over the past 15 years demonstrates a growing sensitivity to the idea that everyone has the right to know his background and personal history.

Submission guidelines

Paper proposals (250 to 500 words) accompanied by a short CV must be sent to the organizers, Coline Cardi (cardi.coline@gmail.com) and Antoine Rivière (riviere.antoine21@gmail.com)

by July 4, 2016.

Scientific Committee

  • Editorial board of the RHEI
  • Antoine Rivière, historian, Université Paris 8, and Coline Cardi, sociologist, Université Paris 8


  • Monday, July 04, 2016

Attached files


  • abandon, enfant, famille, parent, genre, mère célibataire, assistance publique, protection sociale


  • Antoine Rivière
    courriel : colloqueenfantssansfamille [at] gmail [dot] com

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Antoine Rivière
    courriel : colloqueenfantssansfamille [at] gmail [dot] com


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Child abandonment and parents who abandon their children (19th-21st centuries) », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Friday, May 27, 2016, https://calenda.org/368312

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