Social Welfare

Modern state social welfare services (as distinct from the commonwealth's broader social security provisions) originate from two welfare developments in colonial Tasmania: provision for children and the poor.

The first state institution for children, the King's Orphan Schools, later the Queen's Orphan Asylum, opened in Hobart in 1828, and by 1865 housed over 500 children. Because of the level of delinquency and waywardness of many young children there was a growing concern for the future generations of the colony. While philanthropy was not prepared to care for criminal children, there were those who wanted to give children, now seen to be the victims of a penal system, a chance to grow up as good citizens. Voluntary boards opened the Hobart Girls' Industrial School in 1864 and, following the passage of the Industrial Schools Act (1867), the Boys' Home and Industrial School in 1869, the Girls' Industrial School in Launceston in 1877, and St Joseph's Industrial School and Orphanage for girls, a Catholic institution, in Hobart in 1879. The Training Schools Act (1867) was the first attempt to segregate destitute from delinquent children. A Boys' Training School opened in Hobart in 1869 and moved to Deloraine in 1922 (the present Ashley Centre), and the Hobart Girls' Training School opened in 1881.

Institutionalised child welfare would always be a troublesome area for the authorities, concerned as they were with the constant accusations of child abuse and lack of proper care. In 1848 Lt-Governor Denison wrote of the lack of parental character in the Orphan Schools, and W Tarleton, first Administrator of Charitable Grants (1873-80), saw the state's duty as promoting the happiness and well-being of children in its care. These comments were indicators of a changing attitude. In 1871 a boarding-out system replaced mass institutionalisation of children. The Asylum was closed in 1879, and children who could not be boarded-out were sent to industrial schools. (See also Children's Homes.)

The British government saw care of the indigent as the sphere of private philanthropy, but the colony's penal status, Arthur's centralised policies and a lack of voluntary activity ensured that the state took up the major role. At first churches were too small to take on such commitments, and the public was generally indifferent, because of the attitude that poverty was largely self-inflicted and ex-convicts, a large part of the poor, were not worthy objects of charity. A few charitable families and individuals did undertake philanthropic work, and benevolent societies for the relief of the poor were established in Hobart (1832) and Launceston (1834), but they soon ran into financial difficulties, with the government reluctant to assist.

The government always provided some assistance to the poor, originally from government stores, but conditions were stringently applied. A formalised outdoor relief system, providing assistance outside institutions, started in 1862. Originally paid to the aged poor and abandoned children awaiting admission to institutions, it came to be seen as an alternative. While the state remained at the centre of social welfare provision, possibly more than in any other state, after self-government in 1856 there was a much more determined effort to involve the voluntary sector. Many altruistic individuals served on government boards which ran institutions like the Asylum, the Boarding-Out system and the Training Schools. Others established and managed industrial schools. From the 1880s homes such as the Sisters of the Good Shepherd's Magdalen Home, and the Salvation Army's Elim, undertook rescue work among women.

The government used the benevolent societies to administer outdoor relief, and the non-government sector remained dependent on the government for funding. Children's homes and training schools were subsidised by as much as 50 percent, which they assumed to be a right. Nevertheless local philanthropy had by now clearly established a role for itself in bringing matters of social concern to the government's attention and providing services to the most vulnerable.

The state department, variously known as the Social Services/Social Welfare/Community Welfare Department, began with the Office of the Administrator of Charitable Relief in 1873. The Charitable Grants Department administered legislation relating to the care of destitute children and the inspection and supervision of charitable institutions. A second Department for Neglected Children was created by the Youthful Offenders, Destitute and Neglected Children Act (1896), and its first three administrators were men of ability. Had it not been for them seizing what legislative opportunities were available, the development of welfare provisions might have faltered in the second half of the nineteenth century. Instead, by Federation Tasmania's social service provision was on a par with most other states.

In 1907 the state provided for the registration and licensing of nurseries (overnight and day care for children under five). In 1923 the Charitable Grants Department became an agency and, after absorbing the Children of the State Department, became in 1934 the Social Services Department, which provided a range of relief measures. The Children of the State Act (1918) (the Children's Charter) and the Infants' Welfare Act (1935) introduced closer supervision of children in poor circumstances, a probation system for young offenders and the removal of imprisonment for children under fourteen, and gave the power to magistrates to commit a child to an institution. These provisions were seen as unduly benevolent, but the Child Welfare Act (1960) was still more enlightened, embracing the principle that 'the child should not be treated as a criminal but as a child who has been misguided or misdirected'. In the first fifty years after Federation a steady stream of children entered state care, averaging 150 a year from 1920 to 1940. There were about 550 children of the state (or wards), many boarded out. With the arrival of 56 children in 1949, the Department took responsibility for child migrants.

Over this period there was a gradual increase in the number of non-government homes, to fifteen by 1950, and an increase in charitable agencies given to helping the poor. However, they continued to be heavily reliant on public support, now much more available. The state provided little financial support except to children's homes and others such as the Institute for the Blind and Deaf. The Department's own outdoor relief programme grew, providing for items such as funerals, firewood and spectacles, subject to a strict means test, as well as food and cash relief. From the late 1880s it sought to integrate relief and child welfare functions, with inspectors and nurses visiting those receiving help.

The 1960 Act covered both neglected and delinquent children. Theoretically each could be treated the same, with wardship (state guardianship until 18 years) the ultimate sanction. The Department generally provided institutional care for delinquent children, and a fostering service, while non-government agencies cared for neglected children. Through the 1960s the emphasis continued to be on care, control, discipline and training, though with advancing knowledge of childhood development, greater attention was given to the emotional needs. In 1966 the departmental policy accepted that the important emotional relationship between parent and child was to be disturbed only as a last resort. The Adoption Act (1960) emphasised the paramount interest of the child, while the Adoption Act (1988) opened up access to birth information on the basis of a person's right to know.

The new Department of Social Welfare contained the Child Welfare Division, which maintained its traditional responsibilities as well as childcare, adoption work and preventive work with families; and the Relief Division, which assisted pensioners and those not qualified to receive commonwealth benefits, including single mothers and deserted wives. Child welfare officers were appointed, and the service became increasingly professionalised as qualified social workers and other graduates took up positions. In the mid-1960s the Tasmanian Council of Social Services, an association of welfare organisations, was established to research social concerns and lobby the government on welfare issues.

The 1960 Act introduced a kind of 'benevolent despotism' with the director exercising extraordinary powers over children's welfare. The Department began to provide developmental and preventive services, alongside de-institutionalisation. By the mid-1980s no child welfare institution remained in the non-government sector and three of the four departmental training and correctional establishments had closed. It was recognised that institutional care of children was inappropriate, leading to labelling, segregation and reinforcement of deviant behaviour. Family group homes were established in both the government (providing temporary care) and non-government (longer-term care) sectors. Indicative of the changes, the number of state wards dropped from a high of 976 in 1975 to fewer than 300 by the 1990s. Concern began to be expressed that the 'welfare' approach could deny justice for the child in care. The counter approach was the 'justice' model or 'truth in sentencing' where the court order was as much a response to the offence as to the individual; children should bear responsibility for their behaviour. More changes came in the 1990s, with special provision for young offenders, and for neglected children, removing the stigma of wardship. The impact of new family welfare/juvenile justice legislation will only become evident over time.

In the area of broader social welfare, greater changes occurred. From the Whitlam era (1972-75) onwards the commonwealth continued to expand its social security particularly in family assistance and emergency relief. Although this freed the states from the traditional relief burden, new demands arrived with the commonwealth's interest in broader social policy. The Australian Assistance Plan (1973) encouraged local communities to provide a broader range of services. Although later abandoned, it empowered interest groups, consumers and local organisations and stimulated a demand that local needs be met.

Together the state and commonwealth governments responded, often in partnership with the non-government sector. Long-established organisations no longer received funds without public scrutiny. The new, monitored process was based on needs. The Grants Programme grew considerably: in 1975 aid was given to twelve organisations, and in 1985, 163. In 1990, funds were paid to community groups to provide accommodation services, disability services, childcare, family support, domestic violence and sexual assault services and neighbourhood centres. The feminist movement had a strong influence in setting these priorities. At the same time, community welfare, housing and disability services and health amalgamated in the 1990s, and provides client-focussed and integrated services, working with non-government agencies.

Social welfare services are now fully absorbed into the broader range of human services. Non-government agencies provide many services on contract, but the altruistic impulse still finds expression through committee membership, fundraising and support groups. The concept of Human Services has taken the stigma out of the old welfare approach and has placed vulnerable children, their families and other persons into the mainstream of government provision.

Further reading: R Reeve, 'The history of state social welfare', Social Welfare Department Manual, 1966; J Brown, "Poverty is not a crime", Hobart, 1972; R Wettenhall, A guide to Tasmanian government administration, Hobart, 1968; D Daniels & B Marris, 'The reform of state welfare services', unpublished paper in author's possession, 1985.

Dennis Daniels