‘This whole case is extraordinary’: survival of Baby Elsa and her siblings was a miracle

<span>The junction of the Greenway and High Street South in Newham, where Elsa was found in a shopping bag by a dog-walker.</span><span>Photograph: Yui Mok/PA</span>
The junction of the Greenway and High Street South in Newham, where Elsa was found in a shopping bag by a dog-walker.Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

It was a miracle Baby Elsa survived. Less than an hour old, her umbilical cord still attached, she was found abandoned on a scrap of parkland in January by a passing dog-walker. She was in a bag, wrapped in just a towel, despite sub-zero temperatures.

That she lived is rare enough. That she has two older siblings, who were also saved after being abandoned as newborns in similar circumstances, in the same neighbourhood of east London, makes this case possibly unique.

“This whole case is extraordinary,” said Prof Lorraine Sherr of University College London, who has studied the phenomenon of abandoned babies. “I have never come across anything like it.”

Elsa’s parents remain unknown, despite appeals by the police. But BBC and PA Media reporters, after gaining special permission from a family court judge, have been able to reveal that DNA tests show that she has a brother, Harry, found in 2017, and a sister, Roman, found in 2019. All three have since been renamed.

On the face of it, all three were left to die. Some babies are abandoned indoors in public places – in hospitals, or shopping centre toilets – where there is a high chance they will be found. Others, like Elsa and her siblings, are left in parks or fields, where the chances of discovery and survival are much lower.

Child abandonment was once a blight on society – when the Foundling hospital was built by Thomas Coram in the 18th century, about 1,000 babies a year were abandoned in London alone, the victims of parental poverty and oppressive social mores. But it is now vanishingly rare.

Access to contraception, changing societal attitudes to babies born out of wedlock, and the rise of the welfare state have caused the change.

A 2009 study by Sherr and colleagues, based on press reports from 1998-2005, estimated about 16 recently born babies were abandoned in the UK each year, the majority newborn.

Very little is known about what drives parents to abandon their babies. According to the 2009 study, fewer than a third (28%) of such mothers were found or came forward (no fathers have been found independently of the mother), and so much of what we understand about parental motivation is speculative.

“If I was to take a guess, I would say in this case there is likely to have been a mental health issue,” said Sherr.

Other factors may be in play: drugs, destitution, family or legal issues. It appears Elsa – and her siblings – were not on the radar of maternity health or social services, suggesting low social visibility.

For the same reasons, little is known about the effect of abandonment on the mother, although studies of adoption may give a clue as to the likely negative psychological impact. For Elsa’s mother, coping not only with the loss of three children but the burden of a terrible secret, the pressures will be intense.

About a third of abandoned newborn babies are found dead, according to Sherr’s study. For those who survive, there is the pain and uncertainty of coming to terms with being left by their parents. The long-term effects on parents and children remain under-researched.

Toyin Odumala was 11 when she was told by her adoptive parents that she had been found by dog-walkers outside a block of flats in south-east London in July 2001. She was wrapped in a denim jacket, with her umbilical cord still attached.

Speaking to the BBC earlier this year, she said: “I just felt like, why was I abandoned? Why did this happen to me? I just always blame myself, like, am I not enough?”

She eventually made written contact with her mother, who had later come forward, although she was unsure at the time whether she wanted to meet her.

Fairytales, myths and stories have drawn on the drama of abandonment, from Moses in the Bible to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

These often end positively, with heartwarming emotional reunifications. In reality, says Sherr, abandonment results in few happy endings.