No name, no past - abandoned children face a life of trauma. Sarah Edghill finds out how they cope; Left out in the leaf litter
Every time Sandy Webster hears of another baby abandoned by its mother, her heart aches for what that child will go through. She knows how shocked it will be to learn it was given up; how it will resent having only a presumed date of birth; will hate the tag "foundling", and believe it is somehow different from the rest of society. There will be feelings of betrayal, abandonment, sadness and anger. Throughout its life that child will be plagued by the thought, "Was I really so awful that my own mother couldn't bear to keep me?"

Sandy has lived with these feelings all her life. Thirty-nine years ago she, too, was an abandoned baby. A child with no name, no birthday, no history.

Found at the back of a newspaper office near King's Cross in London and later adopted, she has tried for years to find out more about her past. But she has never been able to discover who her mother was, where she came from, or why she could no longer cope with looking after her child. All Sandy knows is that she was about 18 days old when she was abandoned, was wearing good clothes and had been well cared for. There the trail goes cold.

Recognising that other people must be as frustrated by this lack of information as she was, Sandy, who now has a family of her own and lives in Milton Keynes, has set up a support group for those facing similar problems.

"It's an immensely traumatic thing to live with, because no adults have been reunited with the natural parents who abandoned them," she says. "You feel you are up against a brick wall because no one can say where you came from, why you were left or even how long you'd been alive. Nowadays they keep newspaper cuttings for abandoned babies, as well as the clothes they were wearing. That wasn't done when I was found, but it's important because it's the only link that child will have with the past."

Since she started the group three years ago, Sandy has been contacted by more than 40 foundlings, ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies. Some have been able to find out a little about their early lives - such as the name of the person who found them or the hospital to which they were taken. But most know so little about themselves that it creates practical as well as emotional problems.

Dave Shreeve, who is now 30 and lives in Warrington, grew up knowing he was adopted, but learnt he was a foundling only in October 1992, when he decided to look for his natural parents. All he has since discovered is that he was left at the Elephant and Castle tube station in November 1965, when he was about 10 days old.

"There's a big gap for me, where everyone else has a history," he says. "When my girlfriend, Jayne, became pregnant, the doctors asked us routine questions, like whether there were any hereditary problems they should know about. I hadn't a clue. When Ryan was born it brought a lot more home to me. He is my only blood relative, and when he grows up I won't be able to tell him anything about his roots. At the moment he looks a lot like me, but who do I look like?"

Sheila Smaza has experienced similar uncertainty about her looks. Now 30, Sheila was left in a shop doorway in Birmingham when she was about three weeks old and was then adopted. She believes she is of mixed race. "Because of my colouring, people often ask me about myself - where I get my dark hair or dark eyes - but I have to say I've no idea," she says. "There is a possibility I may be Asian or Pakistani, but I'll never be certain. Whether or not I come from a particular cultural or religious background might affect the sort of person I am."

Many foundlings find it hard to live with the question of why their mother had to give them up. Some believe they might have belonged to a teenager who couldn't cope, or an unmarried woman with no financial support. But there is always the possibility that their mother had been raped, or that she was a prostitute.

But while most feel isolated and rejected, few are bitter. "Whatever drove her to do it, she must have been under great pressure," says Dave Shreeve. "As a parent myself I now realise what an awful lot it would take to abandon your own child. My mother must have been desperate and have hoped she was doing what was best for me."

Most foundlings will try to investigate their past at some stage, and the decision to do so is often sparked by a major event in their lives. For Sheila it was turning 30 and feeling she had come to an important crossroads. For Sandy it was having a family of her own.

"Being a foundling wasn't something that I ever really talked about, although I thought about it more as I got older," she says. "But having my own children brought things home to me. When my daughter was born eight years ago I had bad post-natal depression for about a year, and I think some of that was because she was a girl and looked like me, and it stirred up so many questions in my head about my own mother."

Joan Horslen, who is 63 and lives in Sheffield, also found that becoming a mother made her think more deeply about her past. "I experienced the wonder of having a child of my own, and began to realise how a woman must suffer if she has to break that bond," she says.

All Joan has been able to discover is that she was abandoned at Ardleigh Green, near Romford, Essex, in February 1932. "I left it too late to find out anything really," she says. She had been adopted but learnt she was a foundling by accident when she was 17. She applied for her first job and had to provide a birth certificate.When it arrived details of both parents were recorded as not known.

"In those days to be classified as illegitimate was a dreadful thing, so I took it very badly. I got married at 20 and put my past to the back of my mind because I couldn't cope with it. By the time I felt able to write letters to social services and adoption agencies, I was told it was so long ago that there were no relevant records still in existence."

Joan doesn't believe that something like this becomes easier to cope with as you get older. "The initial shock of finding that you're a foundling is terrible," she says. "And although you have to get on with your life, you never really get over it.

"I've thought about my real mother every day since I was 17, and have never lost the feeling that one day I might track her down. If she was a teenager when she had me, she might still be alive and I'd love to meet her. I've always felt that without her there is a big gap in my life."

The Foundling Group can be contacted c/o Norcap, 112 Church Road, Wheatley, Oxon, telephone 01865 875000. Please enclose an SAE.