‘It haunts you’: a foundling tells how the questions never go away

<span>Liz Deutsch, now 58, was discovered in a basket in a hedge in Birmingham when she was six weeks old.</span><span>Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian</span>
Liz Deutsch, now 58, was discovered in a basket in a hedge in Birmingham when she was six weeks old.Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Dog walkers found Liz Deutsch, just six weeks old, in a basket in a hedge in Birmingham. It was a beautiful wicker basket, she learned a long time afterwards, and her clothes were hand-knitted. An ivory brooch had been left with her as a memento. “It couldn’t have been more romantic,” she says, wryly.

She was found in good health – the police report at the time noted she was a “beautifully looked-after baby”. Deutsch was named Elizabeth Richmond, after the road where she was discovered and the hospital to which she was taken. The parents who left her never came forward and she was put into care.

Deutsch, now 58 and a professor of nursing, is a foundling, the word used to describe babies who are abandoned by their parents in places where they are likely to be discovered – typically phone boxes, public toilets, parks, hospitals – and are brought up by others, through adoption or the care system.

“I have never let being a foundling define me,” she says. “I’d say to myself: ‘It’s all in the past.’” She has succeeded in life, against the odds, and part of her drive to make her way was to resist too much reflection on who her parents were. The questions never went away, however. “I was trying to live in the present. But it haunts you.”

Eight years ago she had a letter to her birth mother published in the Guardian. “I wonder if I look like you? Are some of my weird ways yours too? What’s nature or nurture – who knows?” she wrote. She said her husband often joked “where did you come from?” and she’d respond: “If only I knew!”

Amazingly, Deutsch may be about to find out thanks to a combination of DNA matching and painstaking genealogical investigation. Her story is featured next week on ITV’s Long Lost Family: Born Without Trace. She cannot give too much away now, but what she found out affected her profoundly. “I was gobsmacked,” she says.

Foundling stories retain a potent grip on the public imagination, such as this week when extraordinary details surfaced about the case of Baby Elsa, who was less than an hour old when she was discovered in an east London park in January. She had been left in a bag, wrapped in just a towel, her umbilical cord still attached.

Elsa’s parents have not been identified. But it emerged that DNA tests had revealed she had two older siblings, named Roman and Harry. Almost unbelievably, they had also been abandoned as newborns in similar circumstances, in the same east London neighbourhood, over a seven-year period.

Until recently, the chances of a foundling being able to answer the burning questions “where do I come from?” and “why did my parents leave me?” were slight, unless parents or family made contact. That is beginning to change because of DNA technology and the growth of DNA databases.

Ariel Bruce, an independent social worker and consultant who specialises in family tracing, has with her team successfully traced the genetic families of 25 adult foundlings over the past six years. As a result, eight birth parents have agreed to have contact with their adult foundling, some resulting in lasting relationships.

In many cases the traced parents had died, but contact with siblings or half-siblings can often be hugely revealing about the circumstances of the abandonment, says Bruce. Foundlings can learn of parental violence or family breakdown, poverty, homelessness, of lives lived in oppressive social and religious environments.

Deutsch says it is likely there were limited social, medical and financial options available to a young mother like hers in 1960s Birmingham, for whom caring for a baby became for whatever reason unendurable. She thinks of the shame and censure she may have faced, and tries to understand that.

She also reflects on the loving care her mother put into preparing her foundling basket. Her mother left her to be found, she reckons. Public attitudes towards foundling mothers can be harsh but Deutsch advises to never make assumptions: “I have never lost empathy for my mother. I think less ‘poor me’ and more ‘poor her’.”

Friends tell Deutsch they love the format of Long Lost Family. The dramatic and emotional revelations, the satisfying narrative arc from tragedy to tear-jerking happy ending, and the artfully constructed sense of closure that comes at the end of each programme.

Deutsch was delighted take part but suspects not every foundling will welcome what lies buried in their family history. After the cameras left she needed time to reflect and “decompress” on what she now knew. “I don’t know how I feel about it. I’m not happy or sad. It’s complex,” she says.

  • Long Lost Family: Born Without Trace is on Monday to Wednesday at 9pm on ITV1 and ITVX.