The State Children Act was very wide-ranging in its scope. It covered:
The State Children Act contains some provisions that a reader today would find astonishing. But in 1907, it was seen to be very modern and progressive. The State Librarian, JS Battye wrote in 1911 that the State Children Act was based on South Australian legislation and that it was 'doubtful whether any better pattern could have been selected.' The Western Mail said in 1908 that the Act was based on 'months of deliberation and study' with 'a very genuine desire on behalf of the Government to enter into the perplexing difficulties and dangers which surround child life, and more particularly unwanted, and therefore unprotected, child life.'
The extent of danger to which children were exposed had been brought to public attention in the Alice Mitchell baby farming case in early 1907 and this no doubt acted as a spur to reforms that were already in the pipeline.
The values of the day were firmly entrenched in the Act, as Battye described:
'It aims at providing for the waifs and strays who may properly be called the children of the State. Wherever possible it fastens responsibility on the parents, and does not sunder those natural ties. It cares for juvenile offenders, and seeks to prevent, so far as possible, the development of criminal inclinations in them. Those children who do wrong are charged in a separate Court from which all but those actually engaged in the case are excluded, and thus the demoralising effects of a public exhibition are avoided. page 504'
The State Children Act built a system of out of home care around two approaches: institutional care and boarding-out. In doing this, it retained the role that had been played by private (religious) institutions since the 1860s and moved beyond the inadequate safeguards of the Infant Life Protection provisions in the Health Act 1898 which had covered children placed in private homes. The Western Mail outlines the 1908 view of this dual-system:
' The fact has to be faced in dealing with unwanted and State children, that no system yet evolved is perfect, and the the two now known as tho institutional and the boarding-out system are both necessary to the well-being of children in their different spheres of activity. Both are responsible for failures as well as successes. Those people who have come into contact with any child that has suffered by being in an institution will naturally place more reliance in the system of boarding-out. while those who have known of cases of atrocious cruelty that have happened to a boarded-out child will lean favourably towards the institution where inspection is easier of attainment. Both systems must be judged.without prejudice.'
Clearly, inspection and regulation were important. An aspect of the Act which gained public approval was the appointment of voluntary inspectors. A consequence of the Mitchell baby-farming case had been the conviction of two Health Department inspectors, who failed to prevent or indeed inquire into multiple infant deaths. According to the Western Mail, the 'one danger that threatens paid inspection is that it can so easily become mechanical, whereas in the case of the work voluntarily performed for love it is lifted into an altogether different and often higher plane.' Certainly there was a belief at the time that voluntary inspectors had made a large contribution to the success of the South Australian legislation upon which the State Children Act was based.
The Regulations for the Act were gazetted on 27 March 1908.
10 October 2014
Cite this: http://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/wa/WE00407
First published by the Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, 2011
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