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Searching for the First Chapter

Orphan homecoming: 140 years in the making.

“No one cares for you a smidge,” wrote Martin Charnin in his lyrics for the musical Annie, “when you’re in an orphanage.”

In early October, a child welfare agency called the New York Foundling proved this notion wrong when nearly 550 people showed up at its homecoming in Manhattan to celebrate the institution’s 140th anniversary.

The Foundling began with three Sisters of Charity, members of a Catholic congregation who had dedicated themselves to the care of the poor. They placed a wicker crib outside a brownstone on 12th Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village and accepted abandoned or orphaned infants, no questions asked.

By the late 1950s, the Foundling was running a hospital on East 68th Street with room for more than 300 young children. The building also had a ward for unwed pregnant women. The Sisters of Charity and scores of young nurses oversaw the work. The children born or deposited at the Foundling hospital were cared for until they were placed in adoptive or foster homes, usually by their third birthday.

The Foundling’s work ultimately shifted as needs changed into a community-based network of foster care and preventive services. But the Foundling’s earlier eras were well represented at the three-day homecoming by Sisters of Charity, former nurses and those who passed through as young children decades ago.

Several of the fostered and adopted children who came began searches later in life for information about their birth parents—information that often proves to be incomplete or inaccessible. Wendy Freund, a social worker who has overseen Foundling archives for 20 years, says she receives many calls for records from former Foundling children now age 50 or older who have never searched their past before. “They wait until there is something going on in their lives that isn’t sitting well with them,” she says, such as medical issues that might benefit from knowledge of a family history. “It’s generally not a relaxed person on the other end of the phone.”

At the homecoming former Foundling children and their caregivers often shared a desire to recover lost pieces of themselves. Here are some of their stories.

Charles Wilson lives in New York City.

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