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Abandonment is a legal term describing the failure of a non-custodial parent to provide support to his or her children according to the terms approved by a court of law. In common use, abandonment refers to the desertion of a child by a parent.


Legal abandonment is an persistent issue that has received increasing attention since the 1970s. It refers to non-custodial parents who do not fulfill court-ordered financial responsibilities to their children, regardless of their involvement in their children's lives in other ways. Lack of such support is blamed for substantial poverty among single-parent families .

In 2002 it was estimated that up to 30 percent (19.8 million) of children in the United States, representing 11.9 million families, lived in single-parent households. While the number of single mothers has remained constant in recent years at 9.9 million, the number of single fathers has grown from 1.7 million in 1995 to 2 million in 2002, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2002, some 19.8 million children lived with one parent. Of these, 16.5 million lived with their mother and 3.3 million with their father.

Fewer than half of single-parent children under the age of 18 received any financial support from the non-custodial parent. The income of more than a third of these households fell below the poverty level. The term "deadbeat dads" is often used in discussions about abandonment because most of the parents involved are fathers.

An increasing divorce rate and a rise in the number of infants born to unmarried mothers were in large part responsible for forcing the abandonment issue into public consciousness in the 1970s. Typically during the twentieth century, mothers involved in divorce or unwed births were routinely given physical custody of children, while fathers were granted visitation rights and ordered to pay a certain amount of money to help care for the children's needs. Many men ignored this financial responsibility, forcing some women to get jobs or to seek government support.

States have always taken on the main responsibility for ensuring the welfare of abandoned children. Federal involvement came as early as 1935, when the Social Security Act established the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program, primarily to assist widows. Over subsequent years, federal provisions strengthened the states' mandate. During the early 1970s, when the government's financial burden grew as more and more women turned to welfare, the U.S. Congress began to call for even stronger child-support enforcement provisions.

Enforcement laws vary from state to state. Garnishing wages, attacking bank accounts, and foreclosing on real estate are all used to force payment to affected children. All state enforcement systems are automated, allowing more efficient monitoring of payment and better tracking of violating parents. Some states have begun to deny drivers' and professional licenses to known delinquent parents. For example, in California, licenses for real estate salespersons, brokers, and appraisers can be revoked, suspended, or denied to applicants who are delinquent in child support payments. "Wanted" posters and other forms of advertising are more unconventional methods used occasionally to locate such parents.

Most states give priority to finding parents whose children, lacking parental support, are receiving government assistance. Some families with independent incomes turn to lawyers or private collection agencies to find offenders and bring them to court for nonpayment. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, hundreds of agencies specializing in child support collection, some of them unscrupulous, have been formed to meet the demand forced by overburdened state agencies. They sometimes charge extremely high retainer or contingency fees, substantially reducing the size of the payment recovered by the family .

In the 1990s, the federal government adopted measures to further assist states in the support-collection effort. Military personnel files have become more available, and a program to confiscate federal tax refunds has contributed to keeping the issue in the spotlight. The 1992 Child Support Recovery Act allows courts to impose criminal penalties on parents who cross state lines to avoid child support payments.

Some support exists for consolidating child-support enforcement through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rather than the states. Proponents argue that only the IRS can efficiently confiscate deadbeat parents' income and return it to children. Opponents contend that the involvement of the federal bureaucracy would more likely add inefficiency to the enforcement process and only aggravate an already growing problem.

Abandonment can take on a broader form than just legal abandonment. The term is used to refer to the abandonment of a child by one or both parents, either through desertion, divorce, or death. Although death is not legally abandonment, many children experience feelings and fear of abandonment following the death of one or both parents.

Abandonment is about the loss of love and a loss of connectedness. To the abandoned adolescent, it involves feelings of betrayal, guilt, loneliness, and lack of self-esteem . Abandonment is a core fear in humans, and this fear is intensified in adolescents.

The abandonment of children is an extreme form of child neglect stemming from many causes. Some include family breakdown, irresponsible fatherhood or motherhood, premature motherhood, birth out of wedlock, or the death of one or both parents.

The problem is not new. In the nineteenth century, "ragamuffins" were a familiar part of London's urban scene, and parents in Paris abandoned their children at the rate of 20 percent of the live births in the city. In his 1987 book, Children of the Sun Morris West tells of the survival of street children in Naples in the 1950s. What is new, rather, is the growing scale of the problem. The United Nations estimates 60 million children and infants have been abandoned by their families and live on their own or in orphanages in the world. In the United States, more than 7,000 children are abandoned each year.

Infancy and toddlerhood

Children in this stage of development understand little, if anything, about abandonment. However, they are aware of the emotional climate of the family. For the remaining parent, it is important to cuddle and care for the infant or toddler warmly, frequently, and consistently. The parent-child relationship continues to be central to the child's sense of security and independence.


Preschoolers tend to have a limited and mistaken perception of abandonment. They are highly self-centered with a strict sense of right and wrong. So when bad things happen to them, they usually blame themselves by assuming they did something wrong. Children this age often interpret the departure of a parent as a personal rejection. Youngsters are likely to deny the reality of the abandonment and wish intently for the parent to return. They can also regress to behaviors such as thumb sucking , bed wetting, temper tantrums , and clinging to a favorite blanket or toy. They also fear abandonment by the other parent. They generally become afraid of the dark and of being alone.

School age

By the time children reach the early school years, ages six to nine, they can no longer deny the reality of the abandonment. They are extremely aware of the pervasive pain and sadness. Boys, especially, mourn the loss of their fathers, and their anger is frequently directed at their mothers. Crying, daydreaming, and problems with friends and in school are common abandonment behaviors in children of this age.

In the age group of nine to 12, adolescents usually react to abandonment with anger. They may also resent the additional household duties expected of them. There is also a significant disruption in the child's ability to learn. Anxiety , restlessness, inability to concentrate, and intrusive thoughts about the abandonment take a toll and can lead to a drop in school performance and difficulties with classmates.

Feelings of sadness, loneliness, guilt, lack of self worth, and self-blame are common in nine to 12-year-olds. They also tend to have concerns about family life, worry about finances, and feel they are a drain on the remaining parent's resources.

In children ages 13 to 18, the feelings are usually the same as with the younger groups except more pronounced. They become concerned about their own futures. Truancy is high, school performance is low, and they have a distorted view of themselves. In this population there is a high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse and aggressive behavior .

The teen may also withdraw from all relationships, including those with friends, family, and classmates, and become extremely dependent on the remaining parent. Teens may also react by becoming sexually promiscuous at an early age, sometimes to the point of addiction . Sometimes, however, the child makes valuable decisions about their own future and values.

Common problems

Problems to watch for include trouble sleeping, crying, aggression, deep anger and resentment, feelings of betrayal, difficulty concentrating, chronic fatigue, and problems with friends or at school.

Parental concerns

The remaining parent should be aware of the effects of the abandonment on the child and above all, reassure the child that the remaining parent will not abandon them.

When to call the doctor

Medical help may be needed if the abandoned child inflicts self-injury. Psychological counseling may also be needed to help the child understand and cope with the abandonment. This is especially true if any of the common reactions lasts for an unusual amount of time, intensifies over time, or if the child talks about or threatens suicide .


Contingencies Naturally occurring or artificially designated reinforcers or punishers that follow a behavior.

Deadbeat dad A father who has abandoned his child or children and does not pay child custody as required by a court.

Deadbeat parent A mother or father who has abandoned his or her child or children and does not pay child custody as required by a court.

Non-custodial parent A parent who does not have legal custody of a child.

Promiscuous Having many indiscriminate or casual sexual relationships.

Ragamuffins A term used in nineteenth-century London to describe neglected or abandoned children who lived on the streets.

Retainer A fee paid in advance to secure legal services.



Anderson, Susan. The Journey from Abandonment to Healing. New York: Berkley Books, 2000.

Lyster, Mimi E. Child Custody. Berkeley, CA: Nolo Press, 2003.

Peterson, Marion, and Diane Warner. Single Parenting for Dummies. New York: Wiley & Sons, 2003.

Teyber, Edward. Helping Children Cope with Divorce. New York: Jossey-Bass, 2001.


Anderson, Susan. "Recovering from Abandonment: Surviving Through the Five Stages that Accompany the Loss of Love." Share Guide (January-February 2002): 1416.

Fields-Meyer, Thomas. "Home Safe: New Laws Allow Women to Leave Newborns with AuthoritiesNo Questions AskedPossibly Saving their Lives. But Is Legal Abandonment a Good Thing?" People Weekly (March 17, 2003): 94+.

Pollack, William S. "Relational Psychoanalytic Treatment for Young Adult Males." Journal of Clinical Psychology (November 2003): 120513.

Wolchik, Sharlene A., et al. "Fear of Abandonment as a Mediator of the Relations Between Divorce Stressors and Mother-Child Relationship Quality and Children's Adjustment Problems." Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology (August 2002): 40118.


American Bar Association (ABA) Center on Children and the Law. 740 15th St., NW, Washington, DC 20005. Web site: <>.

Children's Rights Council. 6200 Editors Park Drive, Suite 103, Hyattsville, MD 20782. Web site: <>.


"Child Custody: An Overview." Legal Information Institute, 2004. Available online at <> (accessed October 9, 2004).

"Children, Youth, and Family Consortium." Family Relationships and Parenting. Nov. 21, 2003. Available online at <> (accessed October 9, 2004).

Ken R. Wells

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"Abandonment." Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy through Adolescence. . 20 Oct. 2016 <>.

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Child abandonment, mostly in the form of exposing newborn babies either in the wilderness or in public places where they could be noticed, is a widespread theme in religious and imaginative literature. Famous examples include Moses, who was rescued by Pharaoh's daughter, and many gods and heroes of classical mythology, from Zeus and Oedipus to the twins Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, who were found and suckled by a wolf. Similar stories have been reported from societies all over the world. The Yaudapu Enga of New Guinea, for instance, have a narrative tradition that includes supernatural beings who take abandoned children and rear them to live privileged lives. Such a pervasiveness in myths and folktales is, however, no proof that abandonment was widely practiced in real life. One may also wonder whether most deserted infants were actually rescued, as the happy ends of legendary tales would seem to suggest. These issues are the subject of intense debate among historians and other scholars.

The Kindness of Strangers

Until the mid-1980s historians and anthropologists broadly agreed that in most premodern societies, including ancient and medieval Europe, infanticide was an important means of population regulation. They also maintained that exposure, rather than outright killing, was the most common method of disposing of unwanted babies, thereby implying that abandonment was tantamount to infanticide. This view was challenged in 1988 by John Boswell in his influential book The Kindness of Strangers, which traces the history of child abandonment in Western Europe from late antiquity to the Renaissance. Boswell did not deny that in the ancient world abandonment was widespread. His analysis of a large body of literary, legal, and ecclesiastical sources confirmed that abandonment was not confined to deformed babies or infants born of incestuous and other forbidden relationships; legitimate children, too, were likely to be given up by parents who desired to limit family size. This led him to estimate that in the first three centuries c.e. urban Romans abandoned 20 to 40 percent of their children through exposure. According to Boswell, however, the same evidence also indicated that most of them were rescued. Since in the ancient world there were no institutional arrangements for abandoned children, they owed their survival to what Latin sources called aliena misericordia, or the "kindness of strangers" who found and raised the unwanted children. Although some foundlings doubtless became slaves, most of them were apparently granted the status of foster children. Childless couples, or parents who had lost some of their offspring, were especially keen to retrieve exposed babies and raise them.

Boswell's picture of child abandonment as an efficient and almost painless mechanism of redistribution, whereby families with a surplus of children surrendered some of them to parents who had too few or none at all, has been criticized on various grounds. It has been argued, in particular, that his contention that most exposed children did not die is too rosy, for survival clearly depended on a combination of lucky circumstances, such as being discovered before harm had been done and being placed with a woman who had fresh milk to give. Nevertheless, Boswell's point that child abandonment should not be conflated with infanticide, whatever its death toll, is supported by ethnographic studies that emphasize that in many cultures it makes a crucial difference that abandoning parents do not actually take the child's life and therefore give the baby a chance to survive. These studies also show that abandonment does not always end in death. Even in supposedly infanticidal societies such as the Netsilik Eskimo society, in which abandonment was frequent, the infant's crying was a message to other members of the group that they might save the infant and adopt it if they wished.

Indeed, in much of Europe as well as in many other societies, abandonment was actually regarded as an alternative to infanticide. This distinction is crucial to understanding Christian attitudes toward abandonment. Like Jews and Muslims, and in contrast to the Greeks and Romans, Christians believed that infanticide was murder and condemned it resolutely. On the other hand, abandonment was treated less harshly. Sharing the views of philosophers like Epictetus, Musonius, and the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, who had been the only ancient writers to object to abandonment, early Christian moralists initially had denounced child abandonment as equivalent to infanticide. From the fourth century on, however, early disapproval was replaced by an attitude of resignation and sympathy toward those who abandoned their children as a result of destitution or other misfortune. Whereas infanticide and abortion were strongly condemned throughout the Middle Ages, no councils or ecclesiastical authorities prohibited abandonment. A similar attitude prevailed in medieval Muslim society.

Public Intervention

From about 1000 to 1200 abandonment was less common than it had been previously, but in the thirteenth century it was again on the increase owing to the combined effects of demographic growth and adverse economic circumstances. It was in this period that foundling homes were created in a number of Italian cities, as part of a more general movement by civic institutions, both religious and secular, to handle social problems. Until the nineteenth century foundling homes were regarded as important manifestations of Christian piety. One major reason behind the establishment of these hospices devoted to the care of abandoned children was the fear that infants might be killed by unwed mothers who wanted to avoid social disapproval or by parents made desperate by poverty and hunger.

The appearance of foundling homes was a turning point in the history of child abandonment; the private "kindness of strangers" was superseded by public intervention. The Italian model spread rapidly to Portugal, Spain, and France, though not immediately to the rest of Europe. A new chapter in the history of the care of infants opened during the Enlightenment, when a second generation of foundling homes was established in many European cities, especially in the Catholic countries and in Russia. This institutional development paralleled a dramatic growth in the number of exposures, which in early nineteenth-century Europe reached a height of perhaps 150,000 per year. Such a massive increase was due partly to rising rates of illegitimate births, and partly to the growing tendency of impoverished parents to trust the care of at least some of their offspring to the foundling hospitals. In most parts of Europe admission was supposedly restricted to illegitimate children, but large numbers of unentitled children were smuggled into the hospitals through the "wheels," revolving cradles that were arranged so as to allow people approaching from the street to introduce infants without being seen from within the building. Tokens of various kinds were often left as potential signs of identification, and it was not unusual for abandoning parents to return to the hospital after a year or two to reclaim their children. However, the chances of finding them alive were slim, since it was rare for more than half the foundlings to survive the first year of life.

Although institutionalized abandonment made some inroads in northwestern Protestant Europe, by the early nineteenth century a striking contrast was clearly discernible between such countries as Prussia, England, Switzerland, and the United States, where newborns were seldom abandoned, and Russia and the Catholic countries of southern and central-eastern Europe, where mass abandonment was exerting a mounting pressure on foundling homes originally intended for a much lower number of children. During the course of the nineteenth century, the closure of the wheels began to be seen as the only way out of an increasingly unbearable situation. French hospitals were the first to make this move. By 1853 most wheels there had been shut, and in the second half of the century the French example was to be followed all over Europe.

The closure of the wheels resulted in a sudden and drastic decline of child abandonment, which helped to curb foundling mortality. In the last decades of the nineteenth century the abandonment of illegitimate children also began to fall, a change partly linked to the spread of contraception. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the classic form of child abandonment had virtually disappeared. The term abandonment is nowadays used to designate a different and much wider range of childhood experiences, including the few cases of infants and young children who are exposed, but also the predicaments of street children, victims of war, child prostitutes, children of refugee parents, and runaway children who actually abandon their parents and unhappy homes to escape from troubled environments.

See also: Foster Care; Homeless Children and Runaways in the United States; Orphanages.


Boswell, John. 1988. The Kindness of Strangers. The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Pantheon.

Fildes, Valerie. 1988. Wet Nursing. A History from Antiquity to the Present. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gil'adi, Avner. 1992. Children of Islam. Concepts of Childhood in Medieval Muslim Society. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1992. "Fitness Tradeoffs in the History and Evolution of Delegated Mothering with Special Reference to Wet-Nursing, Abandonment, and Infanticide." Ethnology and Sociobiology 13: 409442.

Kertzer, David I. 1993. Sacrificed for Honor. Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control. Boston: Beacon Press.

Panter-Brick, Catherine, and Malcolm T. Smith, eds. 2000. Abandoned Children. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Scrimshaw, Susan C. M. 1984. "Infanticide in Human Populations: Societal and Individual Concerns." In Infanticide. Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives, ed. Glenn Hausfater and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. New York: Aldine.

Tilly, Louise A., Rachel G. Fuchs, David I. Kertzer, et al. 1991. "Child Abandonment in European History: A Symposium." Journal of Family History 17: 123.

Pier Paolo Viazzo

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Strictly speaking, the notion of abandonment is not a psychoanalytic concept. It was initially applied in situations where very young children were deprived of care, education, and affective support, and were neglected by or separated prematurely from their maternal environment, with no reference to the causes of this deprivation. From a purely descriptive point of view, pediatricians and psychologists taking an interest in child development have long recognized the somatic and psychic effects of such states of deprivation.

The notion is nevertheless appropriately included in a dictionary of psychoanalysis, for two reasons. Firstly, the concept of abandonment is not applied solely to children, but also to adults who experience the feeling of abandonment, separation, or bereavement, whether real or imaginary. Secondly, certain psychoanalysts very quickly developed an interest in the mental disorders and disturbances observed in the emotional development of children subjected to such traumatic experiences, as well as the possible pathogenic role of the family environment. Abandonment raises the fundamental problem of object loss and renunciation of the love object, or the work of mourning. It also calls into question the metapsychological status of anxiety.

In a primary and passive sense, abandonment refers to the experience of a state that is imposed by loss or separation: being or feeling abandoned. In a secondary and active sense, the complement of the previous one, it applies to the psychic process that leads a person to deny the cathected object, separate from it, and abandon it.

Published in 1950, Germaine Guex's La Névrose d'abandon (Abandonment neurosis) contributed considerably to propagating the notions of the abandonment complex and the abandonment-type personality. Although now dated, this work nevertheless had the virtue of stressing the influence of disturbances and conflicts occurring during pre-oedipal phases of psychic development in the causation of certain forms of neurotic character disorders and depression, which Guex related to affective frustration experienced during childhood, essentially in relation to the mother. Subjects thus frustrated turn out to be both affectively insatiable and extremely dependent on others, so that every separation is a major crisis for them. Other more recent writers, particularly Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut, have studied narcissistic personality disorders and borderline states between neurosis and psychosis from a similar perspective. They stress the difficulties that arise when the analytic treatment of these patients reproduces their affective dependence in the transference, thus rendering the analysis interminable.

Among clinical work by child psychoanalysts we have to bear in mind Anna Freud's and Dorothy Burlingham's observations of young children who were separated from their families during World War II, as well as René Spitz's work on the severe consequences of hospitalism and anaclitic depression in infants. John Bowlby's study of children's mourning led to attachment theory, which is amply developed in a book that is both a comprehensive survey and a reference, although his views are sometimes closer to psychobiology and behaviorism than to psychoanalysis.

Abandonment is also at the root of a certain number of asocial or delinquent behaviors linked to educational deprivation and indicating a defect in the organization of the ego and the superego. On this subject Donald Winnicott referred to the "antisocial tendency" as an alarm signal that is sounded by distressed children. These problems had already attracted the attention of some of Freud's collaborators in the period between the two World Wars. In Austria in the 1920s August Aichhorn initiated an educational experience in the light of analytic practice and aimed at children who were victims of exclusion. His book Verwahrloste Jungend (1925) (Wayward Youth, 1935), prefaced by Freud, recounts this experiment, which still retains much of its pertinence.

Psychoanalysis must never underestimate the importance of objective reality either in theory or practice, but it owes it to itself to remain especially attentive to the manifestations of unconscious psychic reality, to the activity of the representations and fantasies that constitute it, and to its verbal and affective modes of expression in conscious life. From this point of view, abandonment or separation anxiety is an inevitable condition of existence that appears very early on in the course of psychic development and whose ongoing influence varies from one individual to the other, depending on the situations they encounter. In his second theory of anxiety, as outlined in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926d [1925]), Freud shows that for the ego, the emergence of this affect takes on the value of a danger signal, a danger that may be real or imaginary, but whose prototype is the threat of castration linked to the development of the Oedipus complex. Here the ego feels threatened with the loss of the love object or the loss of the love of the object.

According to Freud, this fundamental anxiety expresses the original state of distress (Hilflosigkeit, literally: helplessness) linked to the prematurity of an individual at the start of life, which renders him or her completely dependent on another for the satisfaction of both vital and affective needs. The resulting need to feel loved will never cease throughout life. This need seems to be more narcissistic than object related because through it is expressed a nostalgic desire that precedes any differentiated object relationship: the desire to recover, in a fantasied fusion with the mother, a state of internal well-being and complete satisfaction, protected from the outside world, free of all conflict, of all ambivalence and all splitting. For Melanie Klein, the internal feeling of loneliness is born out of the inevitable dissatisfaction of this aspiration for an impossible narcissistic completeness, one that takes the form of a definitively unattainable ideal. However, the feeling of being alone can also be a source of satisfaction for the child, marking the acquisition, through games for example, of a certain degree of autonomy in relation to the presence of the mother. Donald Winnicott stressed this capacity to be alone in the presence of the mother, which he considered to be a decisive stage in the evolution of the child.

Over and above the shock it produces, object loss initiates a process of intrapsychic work, which Freud identified as the work of mourning and which results, in the best cases, in renunciation of the lost object. But the success of this long and painful process is quite variable, depending on the individual, the degree of maturation of the psychical apparatus, and the solidity of the narcissistic organization. Bereavement or loss often leave indelible traces on the ego, a sense of being abandoned is only one of many aspects, since mourning is clinically multifaceted. In his 1915 essay, Mourning and Melancholia (1916-17g [1915]), Freud compares two responses, in order to better highlight their differences in relation to the loss of the object and the ambivalence of the ego with respect to it. In melancholia, the lost object is neither conscious nor real: it is a part of the ego, unconsciously identified with the lost object, which becomes the target for guilt feelings and self-accusing projections. "The shadow of the object fell upon the ego," wrote Freud (p. 249). But it must be added that all mourning, all loss, all separation, affects the ego at its narcissistic base: being separated from the object is also being deprived of a part of one's self (Rosolato, 1975).

Logically, we should differentiate more between the work of mourning (with the tragic dimension given by the death of the object), and the work of separation (which brings into play the presence, whether real or imaginary, of a third party separator and does not mobilize the same affects as mourning). Additionally, separation, with all the intrapsychic conflicts it gives rise to, is a normal process that leads to the individuation and autonomy of the child. It is the father, in this case, or the authority replacing him, who is the third party separator. Lastly, the problem of separation and abandonment is not merely a question of vicissitudes in the primary relation with the mother. Freud insisted on the crucial importance of the need to be protected by the father, and on the intensity of the feeling of nostalgia that is directed toward him in his absence. He considered the identification with the prehistoric father as a "direct and immediate identification" that "takes place earlier than any object-cathexis" (1923b, p. 31). Clinical experience of depression both in adults and children confirms the importance of the feeling of being abandoned by the father, and of the absence of the father in the mother's desire.

Jean-Claude Arfouilloux

See also: Aichhorn, August; Guex, Germaine; Helplessness; Hospitalism; Spitz, René Arpad.


Aichhorn, August. (1935). Wayward youth. New York: The Viking Press.

Bowlby, John. (1969). Attachment and loss. London: Hogarth.

Freud, Sigmund. (1916-17g [1915]). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.

(1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

(1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

Guex, Germaine. (1950). La Névrose d'abandon: le syndrome d'abandon. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Klein, Melanie. (1959). On the sense of loneliness. In her Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946-1963. New York: The Free Press.

Rosolato, Guy. (1975). L'axe narcissique des depressions. La Relation d'inconnu. Paris: Gallimard.

Further Reading

Pollock, George H. (1988). Notes on abandonment, loss, and vulnerability. Annual of Psychoanalysis, 16, 341-370.

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The surrender, relinquishment, disclaimer, or cession of property or of rights. Voluntary relinquishment of all right, title, claim, and possession, with the intention of not reclaiming it.

The giving up of a thing absolutely, without reference to any particular person or purpose. For example, vacating property with the intention of not returning, so that it may be appropriated by the next comer or finder. The voluntary relinquishment of possession of a thing by its owner with the intention of terminating ownership, but without vesting it in any other person. The relinquishing of all title, possession, or claim, or a virtual, intentional throwing away of property.

Term includes both the intention to abandon and the external act by which the intention is carried into effect. In determining whether someone has abandoned property or rights, the intention is the first and paramount object of inquiry, for there can be no abandonment without the intention to abandon.

Abandonment differs from surrender in that surrender requires an agreement, and also fromforfeiture, in that forfeiture may be against the intention of the party alleged to have forfeited.

In the case of children, abandonment is the willful forsaking or forgoing of parental duties. Desertion as a legal concept, is similar in this respect, although broader in scope, covering both real and constructive situations; abandonment is generally seen as involving a specific and tangible forsaking or forgoing.

Property That Can Be Abandoned

Various types of personal property—such as personal and household items—contracts, copyrights, inventions, and patents can be abandoned. Certain rights and interests in real property, such as easements and leases, may also be abandoned. Suppose a ranch owner, for example, gives a shepherd an easement to use a path on her property so that the sheep can get to a watering hole. The shepherd later sells his flock and moves out of the state, never intending to return. This conduct demonstrates that the shepherd has abandoned the easement, since he stopped using the path and intends never to use it again. Ownership of real property cannot be obtained because someone else abandoned it but may be gained through adverse possession.

Elements of Abandonment

Two things must occur for property to be abandoned: (1) an act by the owner that clearly shows that he or she has given up rights to the property; and (2) an intention that demonstrates that the owner has knowingly relinquished control over it.

Some clear action must be taken to indicate that the owner no longer wants his or her property. Any act is sufficient as long as the property is left free and open to anyone who comes along to claim it. Inaction—that is, failure to do something with the property or nonuse of it—is not enough to demonstrate that the owner has relinquished rights to the property, even if such nonuse has gone on for a number of years. A farmer's failure to cultivate his or her land or a quarry owner's failure to take stone from his or her quarry, for example, does not mean that either person has abandoned interest in the property.

A person's intention to abandon his or her property may be established by express language to that effect or it may be implied from the circumstances surrounding the owner's treatment of the property, such as leaving it unguarded in a place easily accessible to the public. The passage of time, although not an element of abandonment, may illustrate a person's intention to abandon his or her property.

Parental Abandonment of Children

Parental abandonment of children is different from other cases of abandonment in that it involves a person rather than property. Abandonment of children is a criminal cause of action under most state laws. In the civil context, it arises when a court decides to terminate the natural rights of the parent on the grounds of abandonment to allow adoption.

In a criminal context, abandonment of children is defined as actually abandoning a child, or failing to provide necessities of living to a child. In California, for example, a parent is guilty of abandonment if they fail to provide "necessary clothing, food, shelter or medical attendance, or other remedial care for their child." A parent is required to accept their minor child into their home, or provide alternative shelter. Parents in California are also punished for "desertion with intent to abandon." These laws are typical of most states.

In the late 1990s, the issue of baby abandonment in the United States came to a head as a result of several high profile cases. These cases prompted 38 states to pass so-called "safe haven laws." The laws decriminalize baby abandonment by allowing mothers to leave their unharmed babies at a designated "safe." location such as a hospital, fire station, or licensed child-placing agency. The laws include a time frame, beginning from the baby's birth, in which abandonment may take place; the time frame varies from state to state, ranging from 72 hours up to one year.

In a civil context, abandonment of a child is usually ruled on by a court to facilitate an adoption. State courts employ various guidelines to determine if a child has been abandoned. In an action for adoption on the ground of abandonment, the petitioner generally must establish conduct by the child's natural parent or parents that shows neglect or disregard of parental duties, obligations, or responsibilities. They must also show an intent by the child's parent or parents to permanently avoid parental duties, obligations, or responsibilities. Some jurisdictions require an actual intention of the parents to relinquish their rights to find abandonment, but most allow a finding of abandonment regardless of whether the parents intended to extinguish their rights to the child.

further readings

Brunette, Stephen A. 2001. Cause of Action for Adoption Without Consent of Parent on Ground of Abandonment. Causes of Action Series, 1st ser. Eagan, Minn.: West.

Magnusen, Debbie. 2001–02. "From Dumpster to Delivery Room: Does Legalizing Baby Abandonment Really Solve the Problem?" Journal of Juvenile Law 22.

Vassilian, Karen. 2001. "A Band-Aid or a Solution? Child Abandonment Laws in California." McGeorge Law Review (winter).



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1. Abandonment (See also Orphan.)

  1. Ariadne deserted by her lover Theseus at Naxos. [Gk. Myth.: Benét 48]
  2. Auburn agricultural village which loses inhabitants with onslaught of industry. [Br. Lit.: The Deserted Village in Traveller ]
  3. Cio-Cio-San deserted by family for renouncing her religion. [Ital. Opera: Puccini, Madama Butterfly, Westerman, 357]
  4. Hauser, Caspar foundling, in solitary confinement till sixteen, then thrown into the world, claimed as a royal scion, and assassinated. [Ger. Lit.: Wassermann Caspar Hauser in Benét, 446]
  5. Helmer, Nora deserts family to find whole woman identity. [Nor. Lit.: A Dolls House ]
  6. Henchard-Newson , Susan Michael Henchards deserted wife. [Br. Lit.: The Mayor of Casterbridge, Magill I, 571573]
  7. Mary Celeste brigantine found drifting with no hands aboard. [Br. Folklore: Leach, 683]
  8. Meeber, Carrie deserted by her first lover, she deserts her second. [Am. Lit.: Sister Carrie in Magill I, 895]
  9. Patna ship, carrying Moslem pilgrims, abandoned by captain and crew in a storm. [Br. Lit.: Joseph Conrad Lord Jim ]
  10. Perdita abandoned as an infant by the king, her father, secretly raised by a shepherd. [Br. Drama: Shakespeare The Winters Tale ]
  11. Philoctetes Greek hero abandoned for ten years by his comrades because of the smell of his wound. [Gk. Drama: Sophocles Philoctetes in Benét, 783]
  12. Santuzza deserted by Turiddu after yielding to his advances. [Ital. Opera: Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana, Westerman, 3387 339]
  13. Smike boy deserted and forgotten at Dotheboys Hall. [Br. Lit.: Nicholas Nickleby ]
  14. Snow White deserted in forest; found by seven dwarfs. [Ger. Fairy Tale: Grimm, 184]
  15. Tatiana gives her love to Onegin, who scorns it and leaves her. [Russ. Lit.: Eugene Onegin ]
  16. Thursday, Margaret left on church doorstep as baby. [Childrens Lit.: Margaret Thursday, Fisher, 199200]

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abandonment, in law, voluntary, intentional, and absolute relinquishment of rights or property without conveying them to any other person. Abandonment also means willfully leaving one's spouse or children, intending not to return (see desertion). In many states the abandonment of a child is a criminal offense.

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