Real Lives: Lost and found

The number of babies abandoned at birth has tripled. HESTER LACEY investigates

The word foundling has a grimly Victorian feel to it, harking back to when babies who couldn't be looked after were abandoned. In these days of contraception, adoption and fostering it seems unlikely that anyone would have to resort to such measures. But in fact one baby is abandoned every week, a figure that has tripled in the past decade, according to the latest Government figures.

Nearly 60 children under the age of two are abandoned in England and Wales each year. Of these, 85 per cent are reunited with their mothers. But the minority that aren't face a life of uncertainty.

Margaret Kent was found on the steps of a police station when she was about three weeks old. She had been well cared for and there was a name pinned to her clothes: Sheila. She was taken to the local hospital, Orpington General in Kent, given a name, Sheila Elizabeth Ward, and kept there for eight or 10 months - she's not sure why, because there is no record of her being ill. Then she was adopted and given a new name: Margaret Ellen Pickrell.

Margaret loved her new family and had a happy, stable childhood, marred only by the death of the woman she knew as her mother when she was nine years old. By the time she was in her early teens, she had guessed that she was adopted. "In those days parents weren't as open with children, and only the immediate family knew I'd been adopted. They were sworn to secrecy." When she asked her father for the truth, he was, she says, "very upset". Even then he didn't tell her the full story. It wasn't until she wanted to get married at the age of 21 and needed her birth certificate that she realised that she had been a foundling.

She is now in her early 60s and it has taken her decades to decide to contact the foundling sub-group at the National Organisation for the Counselling of Adoptees and Parents (Norcap). "I didn't give my antecedents a thought for years," she says. "I was curious when I found out but then it would have been almost impossible to find anything out. The only way would have been to put adverts in the papers. But now I do wonder increasingly about my mother. I just feel if she is alive somewhere I'd like her to know that I'm alive and well and happy." She feels no anger towards her. "She meant me no harm. I was wrapped up, fed and cared for. I had a name. She risked being found when she left me where she did. If she was young and unmarried, which I think she must have been, she couldn't have kept a child."

Margaret has four grown-up children and eight grandchildren. "It was a conscious decision to have a large family," she says. "Family relationships mean a good deal to both me and my husband." And she has always been drawn to working with children - she was a mother's help and later a primary school teacher. "I'm a great collector and hoarder," she says. "You can probably ascribe that to needing to belong." She is currently attempting to trace any documentation she can about her circumstances, including her full birth certificate and contemporary newspaper cuttings. "I'm aware of the fact that it's probably too late. And I haven't even thought about the possibility of other relations. If anyone turned up I'd be pleased."

In fact it is unlikely that Margaret will be able to fill in the gaps in her background, according to Sandy Webster, herself a foundling, who runs the Norcap foundlings sub-group. Only one foundling from the group has ever found any relatives. It is, she says, impossible to say why numbers are again increasing. "The bottom line is that nobody knows why," she says, though she speculates that rising incidences of teenage pregnancy, abuse or mental illness may be factors.

Margaret Kent at least has come to terms with her background. "I had and have the security of a loving family. Although the other day my husband's cousin was researching the family tree and a part of me thinks, 'I'd quite like one of those too'."

Norcap: 01865 875000.

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