Child abandonment, the recession, austerity and our society’s values

by Nov 4, 2012Poverty0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 6 minutes
This week in the news we read about another mother, Felicia Boot,  killing her 14 month and 10 week old children. This time there was no charge for murder and psychiatrists are involved. This is one of a spate of such killings, some of which become high profile. Not so long ago we read about Veronique Courjault, an ex pat French woman living in South Korea who killed three of her children, burning one, and two being discovered in her freezer. She was sentenced to 8 years in prison. In all such cases when one digs a bit deeper there are serious mental health issues and often terrible depression.

It is easy to condemn this and lesser forms of child maltreatment and in the process join in a kind of mother blaming.  I wanted to make a link with another phenomenon many professionals  are increasingly seeing in the current environment, which is that there is at the moment a big increase in rates of abandonment of children in Europe. For example according to SOS Villages, a European charity that attempts to help families in financial hardship before abandonment occurs, in the last year alone 1,200 children in Greece and 750 in Italy have been abandoned. That is almost double the 400 children abandoned in Italy a year ago, and up from 114 children abandoned in Greece in 2003. We again tend of course to get judgemental and moralistic about such acts, and maybe we should to an extent; we need to identify with a baby’s need to be cared for and looked after lovingly and we know just what bad effects we see when this does not occur. We also know that the outcomes for such kids are often very bad. Actual abandonment of course is just the tip of the iceberg, as when parents are under huge stress, financial and otherwise, their capacity to offer empathic, attuned and loving parenting diminished and there are clear links between living in stressful and deprived poverty stricken  environments and quality of parenting eg [1]. For example, in the last year the NSPCC has seen a  huge rise in child neglect cases.

We know from evolutionary and other research that infanticide and abandoning children has not been uncommon in human history. We are in fact similar to other species who evolved to raise their young in supportive group contexts with lots of help around, in our case in small hunter gatherer groups where children were cared for primarily by a main carer, normally the mother, but also by many others in the group [2].  Maternal commitment to newborns has often depended on a mother’s non-conscious assessment of their resources and social support systems.  Mothers can have a limited number of children in a lifetime and it is clear that in our evolutionary history it was not uncommon to make a choice to not raise a child now, for example when the father has been killed or there is no food; it is often better to wait till circumstances are better.

There is abundant historical evidence detailing the history of abandonment of infants, such as in European foundling homes, and the frequency of human infanticide in history is a challenge to the assumption that maternal or parental instinct is universal [3]. In most primate species parents, particularly mothers, have to take tough decisions about whether to invest the huge amount of time, energy, sheer calores and devotion that bringing up a child requires. The primatologist and evolutionary anthropologist Frances Blaffer Hrdy  [3] reports many examples of primate and human females sacrificing their own offspring.  Coroner reports for 5 years in 19th Century England listed 3900 deaths, mostly newborns, and over 1100 at inquest were deemed to be murder. This is a difficult area, as our values define such acts as immoral. Yet Hrdy is convinced that infanticide has been a common and even adaptive behaviour. In hunter gatherer societies where conditions might only support one birth every three or four years, infants born too quickly were often killed, as were one of twins. An !Kung San mother has only one child at a time as they have to be carried everywhere they go. In such cultures there was only breast milk and it required many thousands of calories to raise a child till 3 years old. If a mother then became pregnant they would often know they could not successfully raise both children, there simply was not enough food, and stark choices had to be made. This is something that is commonly seen in the anthropological literature. Hrdy writes ‘many millions of infant deaths can be attributed directly or indirectly to maternal tactics to mitigate the high cost of rearing them’ (p297), and this has varied from leaving them in foundling homes to other forms of disinvestment.

In one foundling hospital in 15th century Florence about 90 babies a year on average were abandoned, but in the year of famine 961 babies were left. Survival rates are rarely good in such homes. In Russia over 1000 were admitted in 1767 and 91% failed to survive the year. Scheper-Hughes  [4] studied Brazilian shanty towns with high infant mortality,  disease and dire economic conditions, and observed mothers distancing themselves from babies who were unlikely to survive. Mothers described some babies as ‘strong’ and others as lacking the will to live. The latter were often allowed to die in a way that might seem cruel to western eyes. Timing is often crucial; human and other primate mothers can abandon a child when the circumstances are wrong, and yet can lovingly and devotedly care for another child born in more propitious times. Younger mothers in poor circumstances are more likely to abandon offspring, maybe feeling confident that they will have other chances, whilst older mothers abandon less [5]. At a time of rising poverty and a massive increase in inequality we can only expect things to get worse. Indeed the link between inequality and all manner of shocking results has often been made [6] and is reinforced by th results in this study published in the New Statesman

Once a mother has committed to her infant this commitment is much more likely to remain, hence the need for investment in good support services. Such phenomena partly explain why infants seek out faces and gaze from the first moments of life, to elicit the positive responses that aid survival. Human adults tend to go gooey-eyed over babies, and indeed we now know that different brain areas light up when seeing faces of babies to seeing adult faces and these areas are linked to reward circuits [7]. As they get older, human infants become adept at working out who might be able to provide care and support. The human infant’s propensity to ‘babble’, or in other words to start to communicate with other adults, occurs primarily in species who raise their young in groups, generally called cooperative breeding species. For example pygmy marmosets babble at just the age that alternative carers (often called alloparents) come on the scene, presumably because such vocalization helps to maintain contact with important adults. Babies are born primed to elicit care and adults are primed to respond to such need, but only when they are not too stressed, tense and full of worry, rage or depression.


Of course poverty, deprived or violent environments and rising inequality do not explain everything. Some are less affected than others by stressful experiences and are more able to ride the storm or come through unscathed. There are also intergenerational issues. It is hard to be a good parent when as a child one has had little good parenting oneself. Yet poverty and rising inequality and other pressures seem to be taking their toll. If we are to be judgemental I think we should be so about what  is happening in society at the moment. Social services are seeing increasing numbers of referrals, and parents need support and help more than ever. Yet this is a time when services are being cut to the bone, just as austerity measures and the economic situation are biting deeper, making it harder and harder to be an attuned  loving parent. Some evolutionary theorists  [8] have even argued that the propensity for post-natal depression, with its particular hormonal release, is nature’s way of allowing a mother to step back from her bonding with this particular infant at this particular time. There might be good reasons to invest in children only when resources or support systems are better or when there is less danger. This idea is a very challenging one for people working with parents and children and is not an excuse for what we see happening. However we also can be making a point about the kind of society we want to live in and the kind of values we think it should espouse.


[1]        G. S. Ashiabi and K. K. O’Neal, ‘Children’s Health Status: Examining the Associations among Income Poverty, Material Hardship, and Parental Factors’, Plos One, vol. 2, no. 9, 2007.

[2]        S. B. Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding: The Origins of Understanding, 1st ed. Harvard University Press, 2009.

[3]        S. B. Hrdy, Mother nature: Natural selection and the female of the species. London: Chatto & Windus, 1999.

[4]        N. Scheper-Hughes, Death without weeping: The violence of everyday life in Brazil. California: University of California Press, 1992.

[5]        M. I. Wilson, M. Daly, and S. J. Weghorst, ‘Household composition and the risk of child abuse and neglect’, Journal of Biosocial Science, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 333–340, 2008.

[6]        R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen Lane, 2009.

[7]        M. L. Kringelbach, A. Lehtonen, S. Squire, A. G. Harvey, M. G. Craske, I. E. Holliday, A. L. Green, T. Z. Aziz, P. C. Hansen, P. L. Cornelissen, and A. Stein, ‘A Specific and Rapid Neural Signature for Parental Instinct’, PLoS ONE, vol. 3, no. 2, p. e1664, Feb. 2008.

[8]        E. H. Hagen, ‘The functions of postpartum depression’, Evolution and Human Behavior, vol. 20, no. 5, pp. 325–359, 1999.

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