Orphan, Foundling, Or Runaway?

George Muller, the British pastor famous for starting orphanages in the 19th century, would only allow “double” orphans into his facilities. He would not take “half” orphans, foundlings, children impoverished by divorce or abandonment, or runaways. While he is to be commended for the help he gave, it must be noted that none of the money he secured by prayer was allowed to be used to feed foundlings, half-orphans, or runaways. The great London preacher, Charles Spurgeon, had an Orphanage that would take double and single orphans (paternal), but no others.

A double-orphan is a child who has lost both parents by death. George Muller wrote, “It was proposed to receive only such children as had been bereft of both parents...” All children who entered his homes had to prove that their parents were married at the time of their birth, and that both were now dead. He strictly followed this policy throughout his ministry. A single or half-orphan is a child who has lost one parent. Widows often watched their children (paternal half-orphans) starve because they were unable to support them.

“Foundling” is only one of a category of names historically placed under the catchall heading: “illegitimate”. Generally an unwed mother would be unable to provide for the child and herself, so to survive she was faced with the decision to abandon her child. These mothers would often leave their newborns on church steps, or by mansion gates hoping someone would have pity and care for their child. I know it’s hard to believe, but foundlings generally died in the streets because there was no home for them, and adoption, as it is known today in the western world, has generally been illegal throughout most of history. Historically, and in much of the world today, runaways were usually children who had been cruelly beaten and/or regularly abused sexually in their homes to the point that their only way out was to run.

British almshouses (poorhouses) were more difficult to get into than either of the other institutions mentioned in the first paragraph. Spurgeon and Muller both lamented the cruel system of gathering signatures, securing votes, and the complex paper work necessary to place a child into an almshouse. Most almshouses were notoriously horrible places. 90% of the foundlings who went into almshouses died before reaching 10 years old. It took Thomas Coram, a wealthy retired shipbuilder who was shocked to see dead babies in the streets of London, years to get legal permission to open the first home for foundlings. Afterwords his legal charter was repeatedly debated, and at one point rescinded, because saving foundlings was considered a corrupting influence on society.

It seems strange to many modern Americans that children would be categorized in such a fashion, and that homes for destitute children would choose between homeless and impoverished children based on how they came to be in such a desperate condition. Yet prejudices against these children are still deeply woven into the darker fabric of our culture and history, but, to our credit, still not as boldly woven as in much of the rest of the world. In the modern world prejudices against homeless children who are not orphans remains entrenched and open. The children in Rivers of Mercy, a home we sponsor in Mexico City, are often called “recogidos” meaning: trash you pick up in the street and take home. Many church-goers will not allow their children to play or socialize with these rescued children.

Legal adoption has been a great source of help for orphaned and non-orphaned children. In the U.S. and Britain it served to remove the opportunity for prejudice by giving a child the name of their adoptive parent. England didn’t allow couples to legally adopt children until 1926. It only became legal in the U.S. in the latter half of the 19th century. Even then it took almost a century before adopted children could get new birth certificates without an “illegitimate” stamp.

In many eastern and middle-eastern nations children still suffer under these oppressive categories and laws. For example: adoption is illegal in Islamic states because it is prohibited by Islamic Law. Children are legally categorized as: latim (double-orphans) and Laqit (foundlings). In some more secularized Muslim states Latim can be adopted, but not laqit. Laqit also are given, by law, names which identify them as “illegitimate”, or they are not allowed to use certain “clean” names. These laws essentially brand them forever as laqit thus affecting their ability to marry, be educated, and find good employment. Under Islamic law it is also illegal to remove a child from his birth country, or allow him to be placed into the care of non-Muslims. Under these laws well-meaning western or Christian organizations are prohibited from changing the legal status of these children.

In most of the world there is still little remedy for children caught in this vortex of deep poverty, abuse, and prejudice. My view… and perhaps the view of many others is simple: children who are hurting and impoverished for any reason are just simply children... in need of help. Let’s help them! Oh... just so you'll know, I was once a foundling.

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