• Concept

Boarding out in Victoria: government reform of child welfare


Boarding out was the term commonly used to describe foster care in the nineteenth century. In Victoria in 1874 an amendment to the Neglected and Criminal Children Act introduced boarding out as a way of placing children under state guardianship. The government hoped that boarding out would entirely replace the need for institutional ‘care’, except for the children in reformatory schools. Boarding out never entirely replaced institutional ‘care’ but for several decades the clear majority of children under state guardianship were in foster care. During the 1930s it became very difficult to find enough foster homes to accommodate all eligible state wards, and by 1940 the majority of state wards were in institutional placements.

From the moment the government opened the doors of its industrial schools, conditions were less than satisfactory. Children of all ages suffered the effect of overcrowding and contagious disease. In these conditions it was incredibly difficult to keep babies alive, especially since many had come into government guardianship in very poor health. The government system was also forced to cope with larger numbers than had been expected, and building enough schools to keep up with the growing demand seemed like a costly project.

People in Britain and Australia during the late 1860s and 1870s, people in Britain and Australia were starting to worry that large institutions did not adequately prepare children for life as respectable working-class citizens. British social reformers Florence and Rosamond Hill played leading role in campaigning for boarding out to replace institutional ‘care’, especially for young children. The Hill sisters thought that institutions could be good training grounds for children approaching working age, but also that good working-class homes could properly prepare children for their working lives.

Replacing industrial schools with a boarding out programme seemed like an excellent path forward to the Victorian government. It was a move that was in keeping with leading views about child welfare of the time, and also offered a less expensive model of providing for children under state guardianship. Even accounting for the payments that foster mothers received for each child boarded to them, boarding out was less expensive than acquiring new buildings and employing staff to run industrial schools. The 1874 amendment to the Neglected and Criminal Children Act formally introduce boarding out to the government child welfare system. The payments were based on the assumption that foster children should provide a small boost to the income of the foster family, accounting for the cost of providing for the children as well as the value of their labour. As children got older the payments were reduced because they were expected to be working within the household.

The Victorian government intended the boarding out system to entirely replace the industrial schools, and imagined that the only government-run facility would be a small institution to hold children awaiting placement. The Inspector of Industrial and Reformatory Schools in 1875, George Duncan, pointed out that not all children were well suited to foster care.

A difficulty … has been brought under notice by one of the Committees and has also come under my own observation, viz., the unsettling effect on foster-parents produced by the removal of children to their natural guardians when the latter apply for their discharge. There is no help for this while it is the rule to board out children irrespective of the character and circumstances of their parents. There will always be a proportion of the latter suitable and willing to be again entrusted with their children, and no difficulty should be thrown in the way of their getting them under their own care. As I pointed out in a letter dealing with this subject … the rule should be not to board out the children of parents living in the colony, and known to be of good character, although impoverished in circumstances. It was, however, decided to board out all, and I much fear that the result will be prejudicial to the working of the scheme.

Nevertheless the government persisted with its plan. Gradually the industrial schools were closed and replaced with a receiving home at Royal Park which was colloquially known as ‘The Depot’. In 1883 the last non-Catholic voluntary-run industrial schools closed, so that the only industrial schools remaining were Catholic ones. Some Catholic children were still placed in foster care, but the Catholic Church favoured institutional ‘care’ for children, arguing that this ensured their proper religious education.

In 1873 there were 600 Victorian children sent to foster homes, even though the legislation which made this legal was not passed until 1874. By the end of 1875 there were 899 children boarded out and 1,502 still in the schools. By 1878 slightly over half of the children under state guardianship were boarded out, and by the end of 1881 there were 1,802 children boarded out and only 426 remaining in the schools. This trend, of boarding out numbers dwarfing those of children in government or government-assisted schools, persisted through the 1920s, though from the 1890s many of the children registered as in foster care were actually boarded with their own mothers until the Children’s Maintenance Act 1919 made separate provisions for this.

During the 1930s the percentage of state wards in institutions increased, and by the end of World War Two the balance had sharply shifted away from foster care, the majority of state wards then being held in institutions. This was not because the government adopted a preference for institutional ‘care’ but because the supply of wiling foster parents dried up. There were a number of factors which appear to have combined to cause this shortage. The rate of payment for foster children had steadily decreased as compared to the cost of living over the course of the twentieth century, so that being a foster parent lost its financial appeal, something which hit particularly hard during the Great Depression of the 1930s. During World War Two the government blamed shortages of foster parents on the necessity of women undertaking paid work, however the hope that applications for foster children would again rise after the war did not eventuate. Legal adoption was introduced in Victoria in 1928, and was a popular form of family-making for people who could not have their own children by the 1940s. This removed from the pool of potential foster parents many of those people seeking to use foster care as an alternate method of family formation.

Foster care has remained a component of Victoria’s child welfare system since its introduction in 1874, however from the 1940s to the 1970s it was not the most commonly used form of ‘care’ for state wards.

Contact Find & Connect

Save page