History of child protection legislation

A report on the history of Australian legislation relating to the out-of-home care of children.

Authors: Shurlee Swain

This report was prepared by Professor Shurlee Swain for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Executive Summary: This paper surveys the legislation relating to the out-of-home care of children. It identifies four chronological but overlapping waves of legislation. The first, beginning in the 1860s, documents the ways in which different jurisdictions structured their child welfare system, initially influenced by concerns around vagrancy, but later revised in the light of the child rescue movement. The second, dating from the 1860s, focuses on regulating care providers, establishing systems of inspection and regulations covering punishment and employment. The third concerns the ways in which legislation constructed the children’s parents, initially seeking to deter them from ‘foisting their children on the state’ but, from the 1880s, introducing measures designed to keep families together. The fourth covers legislation designed to deal with children seen as requiring special provision: child migrants, Aboriginal children, infants, and children with disabilities. The paper concludes that child welfare provision in Australia is better described as a patchwork than a coordinated model. Poorly resourced and often slow to respond to international developments in the field, it left children exposed to a system which had more interest in economy and deterrence than in ensuring their rights and best interests.

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