An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence - HTML preview

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Wards Of The State

In a little book which the State Children's Council requested me to write as a memorial of the great work of Miss C. E. Clark on her retirement at the age of 80, I have given an account of the movement from the beginning down to 1907, which had its origin in South Australia under the leadership of Miss Clark. When I was on my way cut from England, Miss Clark wrote a letter to The Register, suggesting that the destitute, neglected, or orphaned children should be removed from the Destitute Asylum and placed in natural homes with respectable people; but the great wave which came over England about that time for building industrial schools and reformatories affected South Australia also, and the idea was that, though the children should be removed from the older inmates, it should be to an institution. Land was bought and plans were drawn up for an industrial school at Magill, five miles from Adelaide, when Miss Clark came to me and asked me to help her to take a different course. She enlisted Mrs. (afterwards Lady) Colton and Mrs. (afterwards Lady) Davenport in the cause, and we arranged for a deputation to the Minister; Howard Clark, Neville Blyth, and Mr. C. B. Young joined us. We offered to find country homes and provide lady visitors, but our request was simply scouted. As we did not offer to bear any of the cost it would be absurd to give us any share in the administration. Children would only be given homes for the sake of the money paid, and Oliver Twist's was held up as the sort of apprenticeship likely to be secured for pauper children. So we had to play the waiting game. The school built to accommodate 230 children was on four floors, though there was 40 acres of good land. It was so popular that, though only 130 went in at first, in two years it was so full that there was talk of adding a wing. This was our opportunity, and the same men and women went on another deputation, and this time we prevailed, and were allowed to place out the overflow as an experiment; and not only the Boarding-out Committee, but the official heads of the Destitute Department, were surprised and delighted with the good homes we secured for 5/ a week, and with the improvement in health, in intelligence, and in happiness that resulted from putting children into natural homes. What distinguishes work for children in Australia from what is done elsewhere is that it is national, and not philanthropic. The State is in loco-parentis, and sees that what the child needs are a home and a mother--that, if the home and the mother are good, the child shall he kept there; but that vigilant inspection is needed, voluntary or official--better to have both. Gradually the Magill School was emptied, and the children were scattered. Up to the age of 13 the home was subsidized, but when by the education law the child was free from school attendance, and went to service, the supervision continued until the age of 18 was reached. For nearly 14 years, from 1872 to 1886, the Boarding-out Society pursued its modest labours as auxiliary to the Destitute Board. Our volunteer visitors reported in duplicate--one copy for the official board, and one for the unofficial committee. When the method was inaugurated, Mr. T. S. Reed. Chairman of the Board, was completely won over. We had nothing to do with the reformatories. except that our visitors went to see those placed out at service in their neighbourhood.

Our success attracted attention elsewhere. The late Dr. Andrew Garran, who was on The Register when I went to England, had moved to Sydney in my absence, and was on the staff of The Sydney Morning Herald. When Miss Clark went to England in 1877, after her mother`s death, Dr. Garran wrote to me for some account of our methods. and of their success, physical, moral, and financial. Dr. Garran came out with Mr. G. F. Angas and the Australian Constitution in 1851 in search of health and work, both of which he found here. The first pages of my four volumes of newspaper cuttings are filled with two long articles, "The Children of the State," and this started the movement in New South Wales, led by Mrs. Garran, nee Sabine, and Mrs. Jefferis wife of the leading Congregational minister, moved from Adelaide to Sydney. Professor Henry Pearson asked me a year or two later to give similar information to The Melbourne Age. Subsequently I wrote on this subject, by request, to Queensland, New Zealand, and I think also Tasmania, where we were imitated first, but where there are still to be found children of the State in institutions. In Victoria and New South Wales a vigorous policy emptied these buildings, which were used for other public purposes, and the children were dispersed. The innovation which at first was scouted as utopian, next suspected as leading to neglect, or even unkindness--for people would only take these children for what they could make out of them--was found to be so beneficial that nobody in Australia would like to return to the barrack home or the barrack school. If the inspection had been from the first merely official, public opinion would have been suspicious and sceptical, but when ladies saw the children in these homes, and watched how the dull faces brightened, and the languid limbs became alert after a few weeks of ordinary life--when the cheeks became rosier, and the eyes had new light in them; when they saw that the foster parents took pride in their progress at school, and made them handy about the house, as they could never be at an institution, where everything is done at the sound of a bell or the stroke of a clock-these ladies testified to what they knew, and the public believed in them. In other English-speaking countries boarding-out in families is sometimes permitted; but here, under the Southern Cross, it is the law of the land that children shall not be brought up in institutions, but in homes: that the child whose parent is the State shall have as good schooling as the child who has parents and guardians; that every child shall have, not the discipline of routine and redtape, but free and cheerful environment of ordinary life, preferably in the country--going to school with other young fellow citizens, going to church with the family in which he is placed, having the ordinary ditties, the ordinary difficulties, the ordinary pleasures of common life; but guarded from injustice, neglect, and cruelty by effective and kindly supervision. This movement, originated in South Australia, and with all its far-reaching developments and expansions, is due to the initiative of one woman of whom the State is justly proud--Miss Caroline Emily Clark.

Even while we were only a Boarding-out Committee, it was found necessary to have one paid inspector; but there was great dissatisfaction with the Boys' Reformatory which had been located in an old leaky hulk, where the boys could learn neither seamanship nor anything else--and with some other details of the management of the destitute poor, and a commission with the Chief Justice as Chairman, was appointed to make enquiries and suggest reforms. The result was the separation of the young from the old absolutely; and a new body, the State Children's Council, of 12 men and women of nearly equal proportions, had authority over the reformatories, as well as what was called the industrial school, which was to be reduced to a mere receiving home, and all the children placed out, either on subsidy or at service. Most of the old committee were appointed; but, to my great joy, Dr. Edward C. Stirling and Mr. James Smith, the most enlightened man on the Destitute Board, were among the new members. We had a paid stall, with a most able secretary--Mr. J. B. Whiting.

Dr. Stirling was unanimously voted in as President, and we felt we began our new duties under the most promising auspices. But, alas, in two years there was so much friction between the council and the Ministry that we all resigned in a body, except Mrs. Colton (who was in England) and Mrs. Farr. We were fighting the battle of the unpaid boards, and we were so strong in the public estimation that we might have won the victory. The Government had relieved children on the petition of parents, contrary to the strong recommendation of the council. Although the commission had declared that the reformatory boys should be removed at once from the hulk Fitzjames, they were still kept there, and the only offer of accommodation given was to share the Magill Industrial School with the reformatory girls. Now, this the council would not hear of, for we felt that the Government plans for separate entrances and separate staircases were absolutely futile and ridiculous for keeping apart these two dangerous classes in a single building. The Government gave way on the point of providing a separate building for the reformatory girls; and the committee, with the exception of Dr. Stirling and Mr. James Smith--our two strongest members--were reappointed. The official staff was increased by the appointment of clerks and inspectors, many of them women, who have always given every satisfaction, and who justify the claim made that women's work is conscientious and thorough.

More departments were gradually added to our sphere of action. The separate trial of juvenile delinquents was strongly advocated by the council. Miss Clark and Mr. C. H. Goode were particularly keen on the introduction of Children's Courts. In this reform South Australia led the world, and in the new Act of 1896, after six years of tentative work, it became compulsory to try offenders under 18 at the Children's Court in the city and suburbs, and in the Magistrate's room in the country. The methods of organization and control vary in the different States of the Commonwealth, but on one point the six are all agreed-- that dependent and delinquent children are a national asset and a national responsibility, and any forward step anywhere has every chance of being copied. The result of Children's Courts and probation has been that, while the population of the State has greatly increased, the committals to the Gaol and for penal servitude have steadily decreased, and the Boys' Reformatory has been reduced to one-third of the number in earlier days. There are, of course, many factors in all directions of social betterment, but the substitution of homes for institutions, and of probation carefully watched for summary punishment, are, in my opinion, the largest factors in, this State. The affection between children and their foster parents is often lifelong; and we see thousands who were taken from bad parents and evil environments taking their place in the industrial world, and filling it well. The movement in South Australia initiated by Miss Clark spread from State to State, and the happy thought of the President and Secretary of the Council that I should write an account of "Boarding-out and its Developments" as a memorial of her great work bore fruit in the legislation of the United Kingdom itself. A letter I received from Mr. Herbert Samuel, then Under-Secretary of State in the British Government, was gratifying, both to the council and to me:--"Home Office, Whitehall, S.W., August 5, 1907. Dear Madam--I have just read your little book on 'State Children in Australia;' and, although a stranger to you, would venture to write to thank you for the very valuable contribution you have made to the literature on the subject. The present Government in England are already engaged in promoting the more kindly and more effective methods of dealing with destitute, neglected, or delinquent children, which are already so widely adopted in South Australia. We are passing through Parliament this year a Bill to enable a system of probation officers, both paid and voluntary, to be established throughout the country, for dealing not indeed with child offenders alone, but with adult offenders also, who may be properly amenable to that treatment. And next year we propose to introduce a comprehensive Children's Bill, which has been entrusted to my charge, in which we hope to be able to include some of the reforms you have at heart. In the preparation of that Bill the experience of your colony and the account of it which you have published will be of no small assistance. Yours sincerely, Herbert Samuel."

Another department of our work for the protection of infant life, and this we took over from the Destitute Board, where some unique provisions had been initiated by Mr. James Smith. The Destitute Asylum was the last refuge of the old and incapacitated poor, but it never opened its doors to the able bodied. In the Union Workhouse in England room is always found for friendless and penniless to come there for confinement, who leave as soon as they are physically strong enough to take their burden--their little baby--in their arms and face the world again. In Adelaide these women were in 1868 divided into two classes, one for girls who had made their first slip--girls weak, but very rarely wicked--so as to separate them, from women who came for a second or third time, who were cared for with their infants in the general asylum. Mr. James Smith obtained in 1881 legislation to empower the Destitute Board to make every woman sign an agreement to remain with her infant, giving it the natural nourishment, for six months. This has saved many infant lives, and has encouraged maternal affection. The Destitute Board kept in its hands the issuing of licences, and appointed a lady to visit the babies till they were two years old, and did good work; but when that department was properly turned over to the State Children's Council there was even more vigilance exercised, and the death rate among these babies, often handicapped before birth, and always artificially fed after, was reduced to something less than the average of all babies. We have been fortunate in our chief inspectress of babies. Her character has uplifted the licensed foster mothers, and the two combined have raised the real mothers. It is surprising how few such babies are thrown on the State. The department does not pay any board or find any clothing for these infants. It, however, pays for supervision and pays for a lady doctor, so that there need he no excuse for not calling in medical assistance if it is felt to be needed. Occasionally a visitor from other States or from England is allowed as a great favour to see, not picked cases, but the ordinary run, of the homes of foster mothers, and the question, "Where and how do you get such women?" is asked. We have weeded out the inferiors, and our instructions with regard to feeding and care are so definite, and found to be so sound, that the women take a pride in the health and the beauty of the little ones; and besides they keep up the love of the real mother by the care they give them. A recent Act has raised the age of supervision of illegitimate babies from two to seven years, and this has necessitated the appointment of an additional inspectress. In South Australia baby farming has been extinguished. and in the other States legislation on similar lines has been won, and they are in process of gradually weeding out bad and doubtful foster mothers. And the foster fathers are often as fond of the babies as their wives--and as softhearted. "Did you see that the poor girl had on broken boots this weather?" said he. "Yes, it's a Pity; but we are poor folks ourselves--we can't help it," said she. "Let her off the 6/ for a fortnight, so as she can get a pair of sound boots for her feet, we'll worry through without it." And they did. The extreme solicitude of the State Children's Department, as carried out by its zealous officers, for the life and the wellbeing of their babies serves them in Public extenuation, and the children are often so pretty and engaging that they win love all round. A grown-up son in the home was very fond of little Lily. "Mother will you get Lily a cream coat. such as I see other babies wearing, and I will pay for it."

A most pathetic story I can tell of a girl respectably connected in the country, who had been cast off in disgrace, and came to town to take a place, committing her infant to a good foster mother. When he was old enough to move about, and was just trying to walk, the mother was taken dangerously ill to the Adelaide Hospital. The foster mother thought the girl's father should be sent for, and wrote to him giving her own address, but not disclosing her connection with the patient. The father of the girl came, and was told that he had better be accompanied by his informant, who could prepare the sick woman for the interview. The little boy was running about, and the old man took him on his knee while the woman got ready to go out. "You must come with us, Sonny," said she. "I can't leave you alone in the house." "A very fine little chap. Your youngest, I suppose. I can see he is a great pet." "No," said the woman slowly, "he is not my son, he is your grandson." "Good God, my grandson," Then, clasping the little fellow to his heart, he said, "I'll never part with him!" The mother recovered, and was taken home with her child and forgiven. Such is often the work of the good foster mother. In all the successes of the irresponsible committee and of the responsible State Children's Council the greatest factor has been the character of the good women who have been mothers to the little ones. The fears that only self-interest could induce them to take on the neglected and uncontrollable children were not borne out by experience, and in the ease of these babies not really illegitimate--it is the parents who deserve that title, no infant can--the mother's instinct came out very strong. At a conference of workers among dependent children, held in Adelaide in May, 1909, when all six States were represented, a Western Australian representative said that the average family home was not so good for its natural circle that it could be depended on for strangers; but our answer was that, both for the children of the State and for the babies who were not State children, we insisted on something better than the average home, and through our inspection we sought to improve it still further. We have not reached perfection by any means. When we begin to think we have, we are sure to fall back. Another good office the State Children's Department fills is that of advice gratis. One of the most striking chapters in Gen. Booth's "Darkest England" dealt with the helplessness of the poor and the ignorant in the face of difficulties, of injustice, and of extortion. When I was in Chicago in 1893 I saw that the first university settlement, that of Hull House, presided over by Miss Jane Addams (St. Jane some of her friends call her) was the centre to is which the poor American, German, Italian, or other alien went for advice as well as practical help. A word in season was often of more value than dollars. To be told what to do or what not to do at a crisis when decision is so important may be salvation for the pocket or for the character.