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Under this title are comprised all institutions which take charge of infants whose parents or guardians are unable or unwilling to care for them. At the present time many foundling asylums give shelter to orphans, but originally their activity was confined almost entirely to the rescue and care of foundlings in the strict sense, that is, infants who had been deliberately abandoned by their natural protectors. The practice of exposing to the risk of death by the elements or by starvation those infants whom they were unwilling to rear was very common among parents in the ancient pagan nations. Very general, too, was the more direct method of infanticide. Both methods had the sanction of law and public opinion. Lycurgus and the Decemviri decreed that deformed children should be killed in the interests of healthy citizenship. Aristotle advocated the enactment of laws which would prescribe the exposure of deformed infants and also of all infants in excess of a socially useful number, and which would make the practice of abortion compulsory whenever it was required by the public welfare. In his opinion these measures should find a place in the ideal state, and in every existing community where they were not already approved by the laws and customs (Politics, vii, 16). Even Pliny and Seneca thought it wise sometimes to allow deformed and superfluous infants to perish. In the city of Rome two places were formally set aside for the exposure of infants who were unwelcome to their parents. The proportion of abandoned children that was rescued was very small, and the purposes for which they were rescued were cruelly selfish. Under Roman law they were slaves.
The prevalence of these inhuman practices in Greek and Roman society is undoubtedly explained to a great extent by the pagan theory that neither the fœtus nor the newly born child was in the full sense a human being, as well as by the view that the individual existed for the sake of the State. Against both these beliefs Christianity laid down the doctrine that the human offspring is intrinsically sacred, and not a mere means to any end whatever. Hence we find that the first noteworthy condemnation of the practice of infant exposure, and the first systematic measures of rescue, came from Christian writers, priests, and bishops. Among the earliest of these were Lactantius, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Cyprian. Influenced by the Christian teaching and practice, the Emperors Gratian and Valentinian decreed that infanticide should be punished by death, while Justinian relieved foundlings of the disability of slavery and placed them under the patronage of the bishops and prefects. The work of rescue was at first performed by individuals as, in France, by the deaconesses and the rescued infants were adopted into Christian families. A marble basin was placed at the church door in which unfortunate or inhuman parents could place their infants, with the assurance that the latter would be cared for by the Church. Although mention is made of a foundling asylum at Trier in the seventh century, the first one of which there is any authentic record was established in Milan by the archpriest Datheus in 787. In 1070 one was founded at Montpellier. Innocent III caused one to be erected in 1198 at Rome in connexion with the hospital of the Holy Ghost. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries witnessed a great increase of foundling asylums, especially in Italy. Prominent among these were the institutions at Einbeck (1200), Florence (1316), Nuremberg (1331), Paris (1362), and Vienna (1380). During the Middle Ages most of the foundling asylums were provided with a revolving crib (tour, ruota, Drehladen) which was fitted into the wall in such a way that one half of it was always on the outside of the building. In this the infant could be placed, and then brought into the building by turning the crib. This device completely shielded the person who abandoned the child, but it also multiplied unnecessarily the number of children abandoned. Hence it has been almost universally abolished, even in Italy.
Foundling asylums did not, however, become general throughout Europe. In many places infants were still deposited at the doors of the churches, and thence taken in charge by the church authorities with a view to their adoption by families. In France the means of caring for foundlings had become quite inadequate during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The original foundling asylum of Paris seems to have been no longer in existence at this period; for the only institution of this nature that we hear of is the "Maison de la Couche", in charge of a widow and two servants. So badly was it managed that it had won the nickname of "Maison de la Mort". Through the all-embracing pity of Saint Vincent de Paul the place came under the direction of the Ladies of Charity, and through his influence the king and the nobles subscribed an annual sum of 40,000 francs to carry on the work of child saving. As a result there was a great increase in the number of foundling asylums in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
At present the care of foundlings varies considerably in different countries. Methods in France have undergone many changes since the middle of the eighteenth century. Under the government of the Revolution all foundlings were treated as wards of the nation, and for a time subsidies were paid to the mothers of illegitimate children. In 1811 this legislation was repealed, and the care of foundlings was transferred from the central authorities to the departments. At the same time it was decreed that every foundling asylum should be provided with a revolving crib. The consequence was that the number of abandoned children greatly increased, and the crib had to be abolished. By the law of 1874 every child under two years of age which is taken care of for hire outside the home of its parents becomes an object of public guardianship. Nevertheless, the actual work and expense of caring for foundlings are to a large extent undertaken by religious communities and private associations, both in asylums and in families. In Germany the asylum method seems never to have been as common as in Italy and in France. Today that country has no foundling asylum in the strict sense of the term. The prevailing practice is to place the infant temporarily in an institution, usually an orphan asylum, and then to give it into the charge of a family. Both the public authorities and the religious communities follow this system. Since the days of Joseph II, foundling asylums have been rather general in Austria. When the mother engages herself to serve in the hospital for four months as a nurse, the child will be taken in and kept permanently, that is, until it reaches the age of ten or, in some asylums, of six years. In case the mother does not reclaim it at the end of this period, it is turned over to the magistracy of her legal residence. When the child is not taken subject to this condition, it is placed in a family as soon as a suitable one can be found. The asylum in Vienna is the largest in the world, having under its care either within or without its doors more than 30,000 children every year. Of the seventy odd thousand infants received during ten years only 902 were legitimate.
In proportion to its population, Italy exceeds all other countries in the number of institutions which are exclusively devoted to the care of foundlings. The number in 1898 was 113, and the number of children cared for 100,418. Most of these, however, were placed out in families, although the famous asylum of Florence (founded 1316) sheltered more than six thousand five hundred in the year 1899. The revolving crib has all but disappeared, owing to the conviction of competent authorities that it increased both illegitimacy and child-abandonment. In 1888 the province of Rovigo introduced a system according to which all mothers who acknowledge their infants are supported for one and one-half years. Experience has shown that this method is more favourable to the child and less expensive to the community. It has been extended to other provinces, was approved by the charity congress of Turin in 1899, and has been embodied in a bill introduced in the Italian Parliament. Russia has two very large foundling asylums, which were established by Catherine II. In 1899 the one at St. Petersburg cared for 33,366 children, while the Moscow institution had charge of 39,033. The policy of the latter is to induce the mother, if possible, to nurse her child, and to pay her for this service. If she does not appear, the infant is kept only a few weeks; it is then placed in the family of some peasant. In England the care of foundlings is in the hands of the Poor Law Guardians, religious and private associations, and the managers of the London Foundling Hospital. Those who are under the care of the guardians are sometimes kept in the general workhouse, and sometimes boarded out in families. The Catholic authorities place foundlings both in the private family and in the orphan asylum. The London Foundling Hospital (established 1739) seems to be the only institution of any considerable size which is devoted exclusively to this class of unfortunates. Scotland has never had a foundling asylum, but utilizes the workhouse and the system of boarding-out. These methods and the care of foundlings in orphan asylums by religious communities are the prevailing ones in Ireland.
About the only public institutions available for the care of foundlings in the United States are the county almshouses, or poorhouses. In most of the large cities there are foundling asylums under the management of individuals, private associations, or religious bodies and communities. In 1907 the Catholic infant asylum of Chicago had 676 inmates; that of Boston, 858; that of Milwaukee, 408; that of San Francisco, 480. In most places, however, foundlings are received in the Catholic orphan asylums, and are not separately classified in any official publication. The same practice obtains in many orphan asylums under the control of private persons and non-Catholic societies. The volume of the United States census (1904) on benevolent institutions gives the number of orphanages and children's homes, public, private, and religious, as 1075, and the number of inmates as 92,887. The majority of these children are of course not foundlings but orphans. On the other hand, the foundlings in these institutions undoubtedly form only a minority of the whole number in the country; for there is a considerable number in poorhouses, and a still larger number in families. Thus, the State of Massachusetts places all the foundlings committed to it in families under public supervision. Hence it is impossible to give even approximately the total number of foundlings in the country.
The ideal method of caring for foundlings is still as much a disputed question as most of the other problems of practical charity. One phase of the general question has, however, received a fairly definite answer. Experience and a due regard for the respective interests of the infant, the parent, the community, and good morals have led to the conclusion that in every case a reasonable amount of effort should be made to discover the parents and to compel them to assist as far as possible in caring for the child. The other method, which had its most thorough exemplification in the revolving crib, tends, indeed, to diminish infanticide, but it also increases illegitimacy, and by depriving the infant of its natural protector produces at least as high a rate of mortality as the inquisition system. Moreover, it throws upon public and private charity a burden that in many cases could be borne by the parents. Hence the present tendency is everywhere towards the method which aims to give the child the benefit of a mother's care and to keep alive in parents a proper sense of their responsibility.
A question more variously answered is, whether the maintenance of foundling asylums is wise. Those who take a stand for the negative point to the very high death-rate in these places (sometimes more than 90 per cent), to the smaller expense of the family system, and to the obvious fact that the family is the natural home for young children. Most of the Protestant countries and communities prefer the method of placing the foundling in a family. The positive arguments in its favour are unanswerable, but against them must be set the fact that it is not always possible to find suitable families who are willing to care for foundlings. Experience shows that sufficient homes of the right kind cannot now be found for all orphan children who have arrived at an age which renders them more attractive as well as more useful than utterly helpless infants. It would seem, therefore, that institutions are necessary which will shelter foundlings for a number of years. Nevertheless, the foundling asylum should endeavour to ascertain the identity of the parents, to induce the mothers to act as nurses to their infants in the institution, and to keep alive the natural bond between child and parent.
HENDERSON, Modern Methods of Charity (New York, 1904); DEVINE, Principles of Relief (New York, 1905); The St. Vincent de Paul Quarterly (New York); Proceedings of the National Conferences of Charities and Correction (Indianapolis, 1874-1908); BROGLIE, St. Vincent de Paul, tr. PARTRIDGE (London, 1899); RATZINGER, Armenpflege (Freiburg, 1884); EPSTEIN, Studien zur Frage, Findelanstalten (Prague, 1882); LALLEMAND, Histoire des enfants abandonnés et délaissés (Paris, 1885); RATZINGER in Kirchenlex., s.v. Findelhäuser; BERNARD in La grande encyclopédie, s.v. Enfants Trouvés.
APA citation. (1909). Foundling Asylums. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06159a.htm
MLA citation. "Foundling Asylums." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06159a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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