South Australia was the first Australian colony to de-institutionalise children under government control in an attempt to break their cycle of poverty. In 1866 Caroline Emily Clark asked ‘cannot we scatter and lose these unfortunate children among our healthy and industrious population instead of fostering them in the hotbed of their own moral disease?’. She suggested that neglected children should be placed in ‘respectable poor families, under proper inspection’, the fostering families being paid a government subsidy for the child’s support (Dickey, p54). Boarding out was enshrined in South Australian law in the Destitute Person’s Relief Act 1866–67, which also established industrial and reformatory schools.

Pressure from increasing numbers of children in need of care led to legislative adjustment of the boarding-out system in 1872. Members of the Boarding Out Society offered to support and monitor this initiative by visiting and reporting on children in foster homes. Between 1872 and 1886 the society visited 4147 children, 1130 of whom were boarded out with subsidy, 1731 adopted children (generally under the age of 12) and 1286 children (usually between 12 and 16 years) who were licensed to work as domestic servants. The society, subsequently emulated in other Australian colonies, was absorbed by the State Children’s Council, established in 1886.

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Dickey, B, Rations, residences, resources: A history of social welfare in South Australia since 1836 (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1986)

Spence, CH, State children in Australia: A history of boarding out and its developments (Adelaide: The author, 1907)