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By definition, an orphan is a child who has lost both parents. often through death or abandonment. The term, however, can have broader meanings, suggesting a child or children who are in some way neglected, with parents or extended family either unable or unwilling to care for them. Some children grew up in orphanages, while others were adopted, and still others were placed with unrelated families, sometimes in "apprenticeship" arrangements in which the child provide work in exchange for support until he or she came of age -- typically, the child had little or no say in this arrangement.

Orphan children present challenges when doing genealogy; for a variety of reasons, secrecy abounded. In many cases, a child's biological parents may be unknown, or the records of orphanages or other institutions may be sealed, as was the case for children who were adopted. Today, more and more records are becoming available, and with the relatively recent movement toward open adoption and people demanding the right to know their biological history, the pressure is on to open up these sealed records. In the case where orphan children were placed with extended family, the genealogy may be easier where at least some of the family is known.

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