In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Adoption and Fostering in Australia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Adoption
  • Foster Care
  • Inter-country Adoption
  • Stolen Generations
  • Online Audio Materials

Childhood Studies History of Adoption and Fostering in Australia
Shurlee Swain
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0102


Known initially as boarding-out, foster care was the preferred method of care for neglected children in the second half of the 19th century, spreading from its beginnings in South Australia in 1866. The model selected was a variant of that advocated in the United Kingdom by women such as Florence Davenport-Hill in which children were placed in respectable working-class homes supervised by voluntary ladies committees. The degree to which the system was controlled by women varied, but by the early years of the 20th century control was centralized in the variously named state children’s departments. Although boarding-out was also implemented by some nongovernment child rescue organizations, many large institutions remained. These institutions assumed an increasing importance from the late 1920s when the system went into decline. Foster care was revived in the postwar period, and again from the 1970s, and it remains the primary form of out-of-home care, catering for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. Informal adoption has a longer history. From the earliest days of white settlement the term was used to describe various arrangements in which children, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, were placed outside their families. State children’s departments described placements without payment as adoption. There was also a thriving private market primarily catering for children born to single mothers. The first adoption legislation was passed in Western Australia in 1896, but the remaining states did not act until the 1920s, introducing the beginnings of the closed adoption that reached its peak in the period 1940–1975. New baby adoption dropped dramatically from the mid-1970s, with the greater tolerance of and support for single mothers. A strong adoption reform movement saw secrecy provisions reversed and persuaded professionals to rethink their practice. The demand for children then focused on inter-country adoption, which continues to be the major source in Australia today.

General Overviews

State children’s departments were established in almost all Australian states prior to federation, and under the national constitution child welfare continues to be a state responsibility. The history of foster care and adoption is mostly to be found in the history of these children’s departments and, hence, it tends to be constrained within state boundaries rather than seeking to provide a national coverage. None of these works addresses foster care or adoption directly. Rather, they are discussed within the wider context of the child welfare systems of which they were a part. The earliest of these histories were produced by participants in the systems. Mackellar 2010 (originally published in 1907) can better be described as a primary source, written to impress a national and international audience with a detailed explanation of the practice and rationale of the State Children’s Relief Board, which was responsible for child welfare in New South Wales, the most populous state. Davey 1956 writes in a similar tradition, building on the earlier claims of Spence 2012 (cited under Foster Care) for the superiority of the South Australian system. Jaggs 1986 is a later work in the same tradition, drawing on practitioner knowledge to explain the evolution of the Victorian child welfare system. The rise of the new social history brought child welfare within the range of academic historians although the state boundaries continued to limit their scope. Dickey 1977 and Ramsland 1986 deal with New South Wales, although with a surprising focus on institutional care given the dominance of boarding-out in that state. Hetherington 2002, writing from Western Australia, moves beyond the documentation of child welfare systems to take on concerns framed by more recent debates, namely, the differences in the care offered to Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and the accusations that children were exploited while in care. The two remaining works, both of which attempt a national coverage, are similarly shaped by contemporary historical debates. Van Krieken 1991 analyzes child welfare through the lens of social control, and Swain and Howe 1995 examines the way in which such systems shaped the experience of single mothers.

  • Davey, Constance. Children and Their Law-makers: A Socio-historical Survey of the Growth and Development from 1836 to 1950 of South Australian Law Relating to Children. Adelaide: Griffin, 1956.

    An early study of the development of the South Australian child welfare scheme, which positions this jurisdiction as leading the other Australian colonies, particularly in relation to the introduction of noninstitutional forms of care.

  • Dickey, Brian. “Care for Deprived, Neglected and Delinquent Children in New South Wales, 1901–1915.” Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 63.3 (December 1977): 167–183.

    A general history of child welfare in New South Wales in the early years of statehood, a time when boarding-out was the primary form of care for neglected children, although substantial institutional care survived.

  • Hetherington, Penelope. Settlers, Servants and Slaves: Aboriginal and European Children in Nineteenth-Century Western Australia. Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2002.

    A history of child welfare in Western Australia seen through the lens of child labor, which argues that as it became unacceptable to exploit poor white children for their labor, Indigenous children took their place.

  • Jaggs, Donella. Neglected and Criminal: Foundations of Child Welfare Legislation in Victoria. Melbourne: Philip Institute of Technology, 1986.

    A general history of child welfare in the colony and later state of Victoria, which includes discussion of the introduction of both boarding-out and adoption. The focus is on the legislation that underwrote these developments.

  • Mackellar, Charles. The Child, the Law and the State. Charleston, SC: Nabu, 2010.

    Originally published in 1907. A general reflection on child welfare in early-20th-century New South Wales, written by one of the most influential chairmen of the State Children’s Relief Board. Explains the rationale for, and the contemporary functioning of, boarding-out in the state at that time.

  • Ramsland, John. Children of the Back Lanes: Destitute and Neglected Children in Colonial New South Wales. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1986.

    A general history of child welfare in colonial New South Wales, which in the latter chapters canvasses the debates that led to the introduction of boarding-out in the colony in the 1880s and describes its early operation.

  • Swain, Shurlee, and Renate Howe. Single Mothers and Their Children: Disposal, Punishment and Survival in Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    An examination of the plight of single mothers in Australia from 1850 to 1975. The latter chapters examine boarding-out as one of the alternatives available to mothers unable to care for their infants because they needed to work. They also review the introduction of adoption as a more permanent way of providing for ex-nuptial children.

  • van Krieken, Robert. Children and the State: Social Control and the Formation of Australian Child Welfare. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991.

    Although the focus of this book is on testing the validity of the social control thesis as an explanation for the development of child welfare in Australia, the dominance of boarding-out in the last quarter of the 19th century is also examined.

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