In the 1920s, the 'care' of State Children in Western Australia was governed by legislation first passed in 1907, the State Children Act. At the start of the 1920s, the state's child welfare system was still under development. The system had been condemned in 1919 in a government inquiry, criticising 'Departmental accommodation, the size and facilities of the Children's Court and the Government Receiving Depot' (Proud, 2014). During this period, all children committed under the State Children Act 1907 were sent to the Government Receiving Depot before being boarded out (placed in foster care), or placed in an 'orphanage' or industrial school (reformatory). By the end of the 1920s, economic depression was causing great hardship for many families, and straining the state's welfare system. In 1920 the State's population was 331,323 and it grew to 426,637 by the close of the decade.
In the 1920s, it was government policy that parents should pay maintenance for the upkeep of their children if they were in state 'care' and part of the Department's role was to recover from parents the money it spent on the 'care' of State Children.
The Annual Reports of the Department in the 1920s show that there were many people who wished to avoid having to put children into 'care', preferring to keep them at home, even when they were struggling. The following quotes, using the language of the day, give a sense of the Department's attitudes at this time: 'Many of the natural mothers are very much attached to their children and the Departmental Officers consider that it is a wise policy to encourage them to cling to them' (1920); 'Encouragement is given to single mothers to retain their infants, and many cases have occurred where help in this direction has been fully justified' (1922); 'The Dept has assisted a number of single women in affiliation proceedings in the Children's Court, and secured orders on their behalf' (1923).
The Department's Annual Report for 1926 mentions its policy to review regularly the cases of children placed in industrial schools, to ensure children who are of an age where 'they should be commencing to earn a living' are not 'detained' too long, but are 'released on parole' or transferred. Annual Report, 1926.
Fostering State Children (known as 'boarding out' during this period) was enabled under the 1907 State Children Act. Service providers were known as State Parents or Foster Parents. State Parents were subsidised by the state. They were distinct from licensed foster mothers (licensed under s.100 - later ss.109, 110 - State Children Act) who were not paid by the state, but directly by the child's family. Annual Report, 1920.
The 1929 Annual Report stated that the Department had 'no difficulty in placing suitable children in good homes'. The characteristics of a good home and foster parent were described as follows:
Certain qualifications must be possessed by any women desirous of acting as foster parent. These include kindly and sympathetic disposition and a love of children, etc. The income of the person must be such as to warrant a child being properly maintained with the aid of the Government subsidy. We do not care to place children in homes where there is insufficiency of other income apart from the subsidy paid Annual Report, 1929.
The means of checking up on children in foster care was described by the Department in 1927: 'The homes of foster parents in addition to being visited by our lady Inspectors are also visited by members of the Boarding-out Committees where such exist, who report periodically to the Department on a special form provided for the purpose'. The membership of these committees was detailed in the Department's Annual Reports. The 'lady inspectors' were required to visit and report on every home where children under the age of 6 were to be placed in foster care Annual Report, 1927.
In 1928, the Annual Report described the Department's system for inspecting foster homes: 'The homes of foster parents are visited periodically, about four times a year, and more frequently if necessary. The infants are visited at short intervals. These visits are made by the lady inspectors of the Department…who are all trained nurses'. Reports were submitted by these inspectors to the Government Medical Officer and the Dental Hospital. Reports from Boarding-out Committees were forwarded to the Department Annual Report, 1928.
As early as 1925, the Department's processes for State Children included 'case conferences', where 'several officers' considered the 'future of a particular child'. The Annual Report for 1925 reported on this method's 'excellent results'. It also noted that case conferences 'should be entrusted to trained officers with experience in this phase of our work', as 'great judgement is necessary, as mistakes must be avoided'. (At this time, however, there was no formal training required of Departmental Officers Annual Report, 1925.
The 1928 Annual Report commented on education and training which was available to children and young people in 'care'. Practices were described as being 'similar to that of the State Schools and, with the exception of the Roman Catholic institutions, the teachers are supplied or approved by the Education Department.' The Annual Report goes on to say that: 'Any children showing special ability are encouraged to study and, when possible, good situations are obtained for them. It is difficult to obtain a sufficient wage to enable a boy or girl to pay their board while qualifying for a trade' Annual Report, 1928.
Throughout the 1920s, the Department made provision for children who were deemed to be 'backward' or 'mentally deficient'. In 1922, the Department entered into an arrangement with the Salvation Army, to take over the care of 'educable cases' at a special per capita rate (Proud, 2004). The appointment of a Government Psychologist in 1926 was expected to increase the number of residents in institutions for 'backward' children.
In 1927, to be consistent with changes in three other Australian States, legislation was being put before Parliament to change the name of the State Children Department to the 'Child Welfare Department', and this became law in 1928. The principal legislation then became known as the Child Welfare Act.
Proud (2004) describes the long term impact as the 1920s closed with the onset of economic depression:
The Great Depression caused enormous social distress. The welfare system was poorly equipped to deal with the large number of unemployed men and their families, and the State could only offer minimal relief in the way of cash, food or food vouchers and relief works. The system's failings led to the development, post-World War II, of our present social security system.
Sources used to compile this entry: Annual report of the State Children Department, State Children's Department, [Perth, W.A.], 1908-1927. 1920, 1922, 1923, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929.; Chate, A.H; Graham, Bruce; Oakley, Glenda, Date it!: a Western Australian chronology to 1929, Friends of the Battye Library (Inc.), Northbridge, Western Australia, 1991; Department for Community Development, History of the Department to 2004, Proud, Noelene and Klucznick, Brett (2003); and Lee, Audrey and Crake, Mark (2004), 2004.
Prepared by: Debra Rosser and Cate O'Neill
Created: 7 December 2011, Last modified: 29 January 2015