Abandoned children are children who are not adequately cared for by their families, relatives, friends nor government or social agencies. They may be physically neglected: left alone, ignored, not properly fed or clothed, never washed, and force to live in filthy conditions. They may be psychologically neglected: looking well cared for but never receiving any love or attention from their parents or guardians. As they grow older, these children roam around during the day, sleep in make shift accommodations like doorways. They may steal, sell illegal goods, resort to prostitution for income, or do temporary labour for income. They may live at home or be orphans, runaways, abandoned or thrown out of their homes.
The abandonment of children is an extreme form of child neglect and a rapidly increasing and serious social problem. In addition to the physical health problems it perpetuates, abandonment presents the threat of improper personality development and creates conditions in which can be bred the negative social patterns of behaviour which are exhibited in delinquents and criminals. Abandonment stems from many sources – family breakdown (which itself can be the result of inadequate housing and social services, poverty and unemployment); irresponsible fatherhood (such as exhibited by the thousands of American servicemen and civilians who sired children during the Vietnam War); premature motherhood (where the mothers feel themselves unequipped to assume the responsibilities of motherhood). It may be due to illegitimate birth, death of both parents (as a result of war, civil violence or natural disasters). Family breakdown may be due to the death or desertion of one parent and be exacerbated by poverty, migration, chronic unemployment.
The problem is not new in human history. In 19th century London, ragamuffins were a familiar element of the urban scene, as were 'street arabs' in New York. 'Children of the Sun' by Morris West records their survival in Naples in the 1950s. What is new is the scale of the problem. The present-day numbers of street children in single cities like Calcutta may be equal to the total population of those cities in the last century.
Reliable information on the causes, magnitude and prevalence of child abandonment is scarce. An estimated 8,000 to 15,000 children were born of American/Vietnamese liaisons during the Vietnam War, most of whom were left behind; 7,000 American children are abandoned annually in the USA; Venezuela and Colombia have thousands of abandoned children per year; Brazil acknowledges child abandonment as one of its main social problems; and Zimbabwe recently had up to 20 babies per day left at paediatric hospitals; in Romania tens of thousands of children were abandoned, because mothers were forced to have children against their will. Rises in infant mortality rates are documented for parts of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Brazil and Costa Rica; in Brazil the incidence of low birth weight and child abandonment has increased.
Economic difficulties break up families, producing an increasing number of abandoned children. In South Korea in the first half of 1998, 2,348 children were sent to the nation's 272 welfare facilities, up from 826 in the same period of 1997.
Abandoned children are no longer just a phenomenon of impoverished families and societies. In 1992, two daughters of a wealthy American couple were left to live unattended in their Chicago home for ten days over the Christmas season, while their parents flew to Acapulco, Mexico for a winter vacation. The daughters, aged 4 and 9, were eventually taken into foster care after a neighbour realized the girls were living by themselves.