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A short history of Australian child welfare

29 August 2008

A research project within the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences delves right back to the First Fleet to seek lessons for today's policy makers.

Associate Professor Max Liddell's study of child welfare models dates back to 1788, when colonial powers needed to find care for children who arrived orphaned after losing one or both parents on the voyage over, or who had been transported, most often for petty crime.

At a time when settlers already struggled to scrape together a living on the harsh Australian soil, the powers responded somewhat illogically with a foster care-style system known as 'boarding out'. Within years, the practical flaws of this solution were replaced with the new, institutional model of sending children to Norfolk Island. It was the start of a telling cycle of fluctuations between residential and foster care that continues to this day.

"A lot of the things we're doing, we've done in some form or other before… We haven't yet learnt to think outside the square about the range of possibilities," says
Associate Professor Liddell from the Department of Social Work.

Since 2000, he has studied the fads and errors of Australian child welfare in the hope of drawing lessons for policy makers today. So far, he has unearthed detailed information covers the past 40 years in Victoria and up until the start of the 1900s in New South Wales and Western Australia.

He finds most of his material in old parliamentary papers, including those documenting the rigorous government inquiries of the 1800s. Conveniently, most of these materials are located in the Monash Law Library.

But many gaps remain to be filled for the book that he plans to write on the topic.

Early records are scant, with case notes describing parentage in language as crude as "father's a drunk; mother's a whore". Predating Freud and modern psychology, there is of course no reference to emotional wellbeing.

The lack of detail is also due to the different motivations behind child welfare regulations. During the early 1800s, police often presided over interventions under a model that was concerned less with the wellbeing of the minor, and more with controlling delinquency (a loose concept characterised by anything from underage thieving to selling flowers and matches on the street).

Associate Professor Liddell pins the shortcomings of child welfare systems in more recent decades on a reckless disregard for surrounding socio-economic pressures.

He witnessed this personally for the first time in the 1970s, while working at an orphanage in the Waverley area that was caught between its institutional origins and a newer arrangement of family-group homes.

"The houses were run by married couples, who usually had children of their own and were designed for around 14 children. So you'd have the house parents, maybe a couple of kids of their own, and 14 children in care. It had been many decades since the typical family was that big," he says.

"In the 1980s we had a shift back to foster care during a period when there were several recessions and people didn't want to be foster carers. We're trying to use foster care now when the population of kids in care has become more difficult and more prone to behavioural problems such as drug use. And we're using foster care when frequently more specialised responses are needed."

The lessons are simple: learn from the past and avoid the quick, cheap fix.

But the history of child welfare in Australia is not entirely bleak, and Associate Professor Liddell has discovered many solutions that are both inspiring and innovative.

And some that are even slightly bizarre, including the response of administrators during the early 1800s to growing religious diversity.
"If the child's religion wasn't known, institutions would assign a religion according to the percentages of Catholics and Protestants in the colony. So every seventh child would be dubbed a Catholic, and the others would be nominated as Protestants."

1788: Orphaned migrant children arrive with the First Fleet.
1795: First children's home established on Norfolk Island.
1802: First girl's home established in Sydney.
1817: First boy's home established.
1800s-1900s: Inquiries into child welfare in all the colonies.
1820s: Institution for indigenous children established in Sydney. Open for only a decade. Sporadic interventions follow amid an ongoing practice of centralising indigenous people on reserves and missions.
1860s-1870s: Child protection legislation introduced in various colonies.
1880s: Formal interventions into indigenous welfare begin.
1890s-1910: First children's courts established.
1900-1910: First Aboriginal Welfare Boards established.
1907, 1912, 1919: Legal decisions passed to establish basic Australian wage. Women paid a determined fraction of male wage, disadvantaging single mothers.
1920s: Adoption enshrined in legislation.
1930s: Swing towards residential accommodation, which lasts until the 1970s.
1980s: Swing towards foster care.
1980s-present: Short-term intervention appears as a model for child welfare.

Associate Professor Max Liddell in the Law Library at Monash Clayton

Associate Professor Max Liddell in the Law Library at Monash Clayton.