A new vision is vital to prevent infant desertion
Imagine being abandoned in the street as a baby by your mother. It's
a terrible way to come into this world, but for many abandoned new-born
babies, it's a stark reality.
Healthcare workers have a leading role to play
Technically, such infants are called foundlings. In 1990, one of my
team members came across a foundling abandoned as an infant in a public
phone booth in the Capital. Despite a fair amount of publicity at the
time, her mother never came forward. Now, after 22 years, although she
is well settled in her life under foster parents, and is following
higher studies in IT, she's trying to track down the mother who left
her. This is not out of anger, but she just wants to meet her mother
face to face.
She isn't alone. Over 200 babies are abandoned by their mothers every
year in Sri Lanka, and the figures are rising. Most mothers are never
traced, leaving their offspring with no name, no parents and no
knowledge of their parents.
Abandoning babies is not a new phenomenon. It has happened since
ancient times, including Hindu puranic times and biblical times. Except
in such cases, these abandoned babies were adopted, sometimes by kings
and royalties, and grew up to not only become great leaders, but are
remembered to this day for their contributions.
In current times, abandoning babies and the death of such babies
happen not only in Sri Lanka, but also in advanced countries such as the
United States and United Kingdom and throughout most parts of the world.
In our country, there are no firm national guidelines for dealing
with such cases, but usually when a baby is abandoned, police,
healthcare professionals and social services get involved. Often, the
child is kept at a hospital for a few days and then given to foster
carers. Eventually they will be put forward for adoption.
It is a criminal offence to abandon an infant, as is cruelty or
neglect of a child. Police now have officers especially trained to deal
with such cases. Appeals to the parents are made as sensitively as
possible, as they are often in a traumatised state and need help.
There are no firm conclusions as to why babies are abandoned. Some
psychiatrists believe that mothers - especially young ones – can become
overwhelmed by the presence of something that they denied for nine
months. When the baby is born, the distressed mother can lose contact
with reality for a brief period and may abandon her child.
Often the women can be suffering from post-natal depression or
feelings of inadequacy. In some cases, parents may see abandoning their
child as an alternative to abortion or leave their baby believing the
infant will have a chance of a better life. Economic, as well as
emotional and social factors can also play a part.
When these babies grow into adulthood, their mental health may be at
risk because they were abandoned, say experts. They may require support
which could vary depending on if they were abandoned to die or abandoned
to be found.
Often people abandoned as babies show great resilience, but there is
always another side to them. They have to cope with major issues, such
as not knowing their proper birthday or even having a name when they are
left. It is often harder for them to move on than people put up for
Post-natal depression is a reason for some women abandoning
They may feel rejected, but at least know their parents made a plan
for them. People who have been abandoned don't even have that comfort.
Healthcare staff and the authorities also play a vital part in an
abandoned baby's identity as they often name the child.
How do we deal with this phenomenon? What do we do to ensure that
given the stress levels of today’s society, such problems do not become
rampant? How do we prevent unwanted pregnancies?
Those who abandon babies are usually mothers in crisis situations.
They are mothers who live in insecurity, in fear and in seclusion. These
are mothers who hide their pregnancies. They are mothers who, throughout
their pregnancies, are facing emotional crises and lacking the support
of family members and friends. There are also those who abandon their
babies in a moment of panic.
Firstly, we have to look at long-term solutions. We should request
the authorities and other organisations to set aside funding to deal
with the problem. We should look into proactive outreach programs that
educate and help in preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Secondly, measures should be taken to ensure that the message reaches
out to the women in trouble. Personnel should be trained and systems
should be set up to be on the lookout for these mothers in discreet
ways. Awareness and a committed approach to the problem would at least
see a reduction in the statistics of abandoned babies.
A good approach is to set up a system by which these ‘mothers’ can be
dealt with anonymously. Counselling and assistance should be channelled
anonymously. Anonymity should be guaranteed.
Thirdly, the mothers should be encouraged to deliver their babies in
safe places. For those who are ‘planning’ to abandon their new-born
infants, safe havens should be accessible. These can be government
primary health clinics, district hospitals, 24-hour clinics and
government-run welfare homes. These safe havens should be equipped to
deal with abandoned babies. The identity of the mother should be
confidential and she should not be threatened with prosecution.
Children at the Foundling Hospital in London
Such moves will prevent or at least reduce the number of deaths of
abandoned babies. It is more important to save a baby’s life than to
prosecute the mother who abandoned that baby.
However, I think it is not enough if we just focus on this secondary
prevention. Any mother will tell you that giving birth to a child can be
a traumatic experience, even when she has her husband, doctors and
nurses surrounding her. What must it be like for the young, unmarried
mother who gives birth in secret, all by herself? Society continues to
censure such women.
Some believe that these problems will be solved if only we were more
religious. That may be true. If we were all better Buddhists, Hindus,
Christians or Muslims, then sex would only exist within the boundaries
of marriage and all children would be born within wedlock; ergo, cases
of baby abandonment would not occur. However, we are educated enough to
understand that this will never happen.
We are all flawed humans and there will always be people who have sex
outside marriage. The problem is that this group of people often also
includes those who are young or naive, or who have no idea about the
consequences of sex.
Our youth should learn about the effects sex can have on their bodies
- conception and diseases. Our youth should learn about self-esteem in
relation to sex so that they do not confuse sex with love.
Our youth should be told that sex can arouse complicated feelings,
and should learn how to deal with such things. Our youth need to be
educated about sex, because whether we like it or not, whether we are
religious or not, some of them might experiment with sex at some point
in their lives before they get married.
We teach our children road safety awareness. We teach them how to
count, how to read, how to write. We teach our children to be wary of
strangers. We teach our children all sorts of things to make sure that
they are ready for the world. Yet as a nation and a society, we
continually fail our children because we do not equip them with the
vital knowledge about their own bodies. We leave our children to
discover these things for themselves, by themselves.
Sometimes we’re lucky and nothing untoward happens. Sometimes it ends
with a baby; with shame and stigma for the mother. Sometimes it ends
with a dead baby and a mother with a destroyed life.