History of institutions providing out-of-home residential care for children

This is the 2nd of Prof Shurlee Swain’s three research papers for the Royal Commission

It can be downloaded here

This will prove to be the most fascinating of the Swain papers for those who are new to this area. It explains the many different types of institutions offering out-of-home ‘care’ for children in Australia from 1788 until the de-institutionalisation movement of the 1980s.

The paper shows that from the outset the colonies were determined not to replicate the British Poor Laws – the wealthy would resent the costs. Instead, the most populous colonies of New South Wales and Victoria adopted the British model of voluntary organisations run by a committee elected by subscribers, who were entitled to a set number of ‘tickets’ which allowed them to recommend children as ‘fit objects for relief’.

The Australian welfare system developed as a “mixed economy”. Governments dealt with churches, charities and community organisations to provide services considered necessary for children whose parents were unable to provide for them.

Swain then weaves her way deftly through the complex labyrinth of institutional types that formed part of this ‘system’. I have changed the order of Swain’s presentation to reflect my own interests. The numbers are taken from the Find & Connect Website (which you can visit here).

Orphanages: 43 institutions – 6 Government, 24 Catholic, 6 Anglican and 7 non-denominational

Orphanages or orphan asylums were prominent in Australian cities and towns from the early 19th through to the mid-20th centuries. Their often impressive buildings were a symbol of civic pride, that a community honoured its obligations to children in need.

However, these institutions were selective in defining children in need: “…the children of the deserving poor, removing them from the stigma attached to lesser institutions, while training them to provide for themselves in the future.” (p. 7)

“Once they reached school leaving age, children who had no family to return to were ‘apprenticed out’ – most commonly, boys as farm labourers and girls as domestic servants” (p. 7)

Industrial Schools and Reformatories: for ‘neglected’ and ‘criminal’ children

These were among the “lesser institutions” referred to above.

Industrial schools: 32 institutions run by Government, Catholic, Salvation Army, Anglican and non-denominational agencies

These were for ‘neglected children’. If left untrained, such children were seen as a future risk to society. They would fall into the indolence, moral degradation or even criminality. To avoid this risk the children would be trained to be industrious, to see the value of work and prepared to support themselves in the future.

In Victoria, industrial schools were central to providing for state children (or wards of state as they later were labelled). The government dominated the field, although industrial schools were also developed within some existing Catholic orphanages.

Parents were required to to contribute to the maintenance of their children in industrial schools even though many of the children were deprived of contact with their parents.

“Overcrowded, poorly organised and riddled with disease, this system stumbled from crisis to crisis before being replaced by a boarding- out scheme from the 1870s.” (p. 8)

Although Swain does not address the issue of boarding-out (or foster care) in this paper, she reminds us that those forms of ‘care’ dominated most of the statutory and some of the voluntary provision from the 1870s before waning in the hard economic times of the 1930s. Foster care then made a comeback to pre-eminent status from the 1970s on.

Reformatories: 43 institutions began as reformatories, 28 for boys and 15 for girls. Run by mostly by Government, Catholics and Salvation Army

The earliest specialist institutions for ‘criminal children’, reformatories were designed “to remove offenders from the morally polluted environment of the prison.” (p. 20) Boys were perceived as being in danger of embarking on a criminal life, while girls were predominately admitted for ‘moral offences’ or the fear that they would ‘lapse into immorality’.

The name said it all: the belief was that, intercepted early enough and confronted by strong discipline and hard work (and in some places lashings of the Bible and prayers), young criminals could be reformed and transformed into honest workers.

Reformatories were often overcrowded and poorly staffed institutions, and consequently were sites of great violence. To maintain order, staff adopted prison routines, often more brutal and rigid than adult prisons.

Training Homes and Farm Training Schools – 7 Training Homes and 24 Farm Schools

Domestic training homes for older girls and farm training schools for older boys had some of the characteristics of the old industrial schools. They used the residents’ labour to maintain the institution and the type of training related to a narrow range of jobs in the labour market which they joined on their discharge.

Children’s Homes – latter-day orphanages – 224 organisations, 116 of which took children of both genders, 73 only boys and 35 exclusively girls

As time went by, many of the specialist institutions described above became more general children’s home. The term ‘home’ was an attempt to create distance from the ‘barracks-style’ institutions of the past and to imply a more familial environment. Former residents commonly capitalise ‘Home’ to make the point that they were not at all like a family home.

These institutions proliferated in the 20th century. Because the arrangements under which they could take custody of children were loosely controlled and supervision was inadequate, children were vulnerable to abuse. Swain concludes, “Even nominally denominational homes were often only loosely connected to church hierarchies, which contributed little to their ongoing costs. Non-denominational organisations often became the fiefdom of committed individuals accountable to nobody.” (p. 12)

Family Group Homes – at least 160 adopted this model

This model of ‘care’ emanated from post-war Britain. Family group homes, scattered throughout the suburbs and staffed by married couples, many of whom brought their own children, appeared closer to the family ideal. The family group home more closely equated to idea of family than the structure of most children’s homes because siblings could stay together, and the children could attend local schools and other community facilities.

In reality, the turnover of staff and children over time and issues of finances meant, in many cases, the facade of ‘family’ proved hard to maintain. It was evident that it was easier to make larger, more uniform groups of children than those in the surrounding neighbourhood. Moreover, as Swain points out, siblings were still required to leave individually as each came to the end of their schooling, creating vacancies which were quickly filled by other unrelated children.

While the best family group homes came close to recreating a domestic family home, the worst left children vulnerable with no-one to whom they could report abuse.

The Victorian Child Welfare Department was an early adopter of this type of ‘care’ but, “struggling with all but collapse of its foster care system, and a shortage of beds in the non-government homes on which it had come to rely, [it] returned to direct provision of care in 1956.” (p.13)

Indigenous-specific Institutions

Swain points out that, “Indigenous children have always been represented within government and non-government institutions but states with substantial surviving Indigenous populations also developed parallel Indigenous-specific systems which replicated many of the institutions in the mainstream system. Intrinsic to the development of such institutions was the separation of the children from home and community, usually with the aim of assimilation.” (p. 25)

The longevity of Indigenous-specific institutions suggest “a continued reliance on older models of care than in the non-Indigenous sector.” (p. 25)

Mission Homes, established in the early 19th century, are a case in point. Missions were designed to accommodate supposed orphans, but increasingly children were brought in from other communities and other children and their parents came to live on the mission. While children could still have contact with their parents and other members of their community, in practice, separation was increasingly enforced as adults were seen as an obstacle to their children’s ‘progress’.

In the second half of the 20th century the move towards Indigenous self-determination saw the return of Missions to local community control.

Other Out-of-home Care Provision

Swain gives a brief account of a variety of other arrangements which can only be listed here. Some are specialist services; others are little more than ad hoc warehouses

  • Emergency Accommodation
  • Reception Centres
  • Female Rescue Homes
  • Maternity Homes
  • Babies’ Homes
  • Mother and Baby Homes
  • Hostels
  • Youth Accommodation
  • Disability Institutions
  • Convalescent & Holiday Homes


Swain’s research reveals an extraordinarily complex and diverse mix of out-of-home ‘care’ of children in Australia.

Where government was not the direct provider, regulation, inspection and lines of responsibility were lax and confused even where governments funded church or charitable efforts.

Swain comments tellingly, “There was little to rein in the activities of individuals and organisations who believed that they had a calling to ‘care’ for children they perceived to be unwanted or otherwise in need. Relationships with church-led or other supervising authorities were similarly lax, with few prepared to question self-funding and well-meaning individuals or committees undertaking this work.” (p. 27)

Where did this leave the children?

In short: powerless, vulnerable and isolated. Cut off from family for whom the authorities had no respect and to whom they had no accountability, children were separated, placed and moved to suit the administration. Once inside the walls, they were at the mercy of the merciful and the merciless alike – with no-one to whom they could turn for support “as they navigated their way into adulthood.” (p. 27)


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