The Infant Protection Act of 1904 (27/1904) was also known as 'An Act to make further and better provision for the protection, maintenance, education and care of infants; and to provide for the inspection, supervision, and control of places established or used for their reception and care.' It was intended to reduce infant mortality amongst 'illegitimate' children by supervising 'nursing homes' and institutions where single mothers placed their babies so they could work. The Act also made it easier for single mothers to claim maintenance from the child's father. This Act was amended by the Neglected Children and Juvenile Offenders Act 1905 and was repealed in 1923 by the Child Welfare Act.
The Infant Protection Act of 1904 was a law developed after the 1903 Royal Commission into the Decline of the Birth Rate. That inquiry had been led by Dr Charles Mackellar and other medical specialists who were interested in reducing the high rate of infant mortality in Sydney and preventing unlicensed child care and fostering, which was popularly called 'baby-farming'. The Commissioners had recognised that unmarried mothers turned to unlicensed carers as they had to work, yet babies who were not breastfed were vulnerable to gastroenteritis and 'summer fever', which was essentially poisoning from milk that was off or adulterated.
Mackellar was passionate about reducing infant mortality in Sydney and had chaired important inquiries into the city's low birth rate, high rate of infant deaths and the risk of 'baby-farming', or unlicensed fostering of tiny babies. Mackellar knew the babies of single mothers were vulnerable, as single mothers usually had to work, so placed their young babies with unlicensed foster mothers. Proper formulas did not exist, and milk supplies were unreliable and unsafe so any baby that was not being breastfed by its mother was at risk of gastroenteritis and other illnesses. In addition, babies were often given unsuitable foods and medicines.
In 1904 Mackellar became the head of the State Children's Relief Board so introduced this law to make sure the care of babies was at a reasonable standard. During his tenure (1904-1914) he opened several State Children's Relief Board homes that were designed to keep unmarried mothers and babies together during the critical first months. Mackellar was adamant that breastfeeding was best for the health of the child, and said the strong bonds created between mother and baby during this period would help the mother, as well as motivate her to do the best for her baby's welfare during its infancy. Mackellar hoped to help mothers keep their babies after weaning, but if that could not happen, the babies had at least reached the age where they would survive being boarded out.
This Act also contained important provisions to help single mothers claim support from their child's father.
1904 - 1923 Infant Protection Act 1904
1923 - 1939 Child Welfare Act 1923
1939 - 1987 Child Welfare Act 1939
1965 - 2003 Adoption of Children Act 1965
1987 - 2010 Children (Care and Protection) Act 1987
1998 - Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998
2000 - Adoption Act 2000
Sources used to compile this entry: Report of the State Children's Relief Board, W.A. Gullick, Government Printer, Sydney, 1894-1920. Also available at https://www.opengov.nsw.gov.au/main; Parry, Naomi, 'Such a longing': black and white children in welfare in New South Wales and Tasmania, 1880-1940, Department of History, University of New South Wales, 2007, 361 pp, http://hdl.handle.net/1959.4/40786.
Prepared by: Naomi Parry
Created: 21 February 2011, Last modified: 10 June 2021