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Protecting the innocent: Tasmania's neglected children, their parents and state care, 1890-1918

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Evans, CP (1999) Protecting the innocent: Tasmania's neglected children, their parents and state care, 1890-1918. PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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PDF (Front matter)
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PDF (Pt 1: Reformers, Public Servants and Changing Concepts of Neglect in Childhood)
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PDF (Pt 2: State Children and their Reconstituted Families)
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PDF (Pt 3: State Wards, their Natural Parents and the Neglected Children's Department)
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PDF (Conclusions, Appendices, Graphs & Bibliography)
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Abstract

In turn of the century Tasmania (as in most of the western world), middleclass
representations of childhood meant that, increasingly, children were
seen, not as a source of labour for their parents, but as dependents; innocent,
vulnerable creatures who required protection, guidance and nurture.
Neglect was a failure of these conditions caused by the actual or moral
absence of parents. This thesis traces changes in understandings of
childhood neglect between 1890 and 1918, through a history of Tasmania's
Neglected Children's Department. It was set up in 1896 by the Neglected
Children and Youthful Offenders Act and abolished in 1918 by the
Children's Charter which established the Children of the State Department.
The thesis asks why, given the apparently good intentions behind the
legislation, the Neglected Children's Department had difficulties enforcing
adequate psychological and physical protection of its wards. Most of the
primary material was taken from the case files of the Department. They
provide a rich source of the experiences and attitudes of state children, their
natural parents, state appointed carers and officials of the Department.
Representations of childhood neglect, once translated into legislation, had
benefits for some poor children, especially if they were orphaned or deserted
by their parents. However, the emphasis on children's innocence and need
for protection could deny them the tools of self-protection; a firm sense of
self, public visibility, the right to be heard, to live with their families, to earn
a living and to some legal safeguards; for example, habeas corpus. The
situation was exacerbated because, like any category of people which lack
socio-economic and political status, children could be perceived as a threat
to society, so that their control was also an important issue. Since child
welfare policy was framed to protect society against children, as well as to
offer children protection, their best interests were not always considered.
Moreover, there was an emphasis on control that could lead to physical or
sexual abuse from unscrupulous or incompetent guardians. A further
conundrum was that then, as now, children, especially young ones,
genuinely needed protection and guidance; untrammelled selfdetermination
could undermine their protection too.This tension between adult protection of children and their right to selfdetermination
can be negotiated differently depending on the cultural,
social and economic contexts of the historical moment. In 1890s Tasmania,
the proposed enfranchisement of women and the working class, as well as
an economic depression, which resulted in social instability, created anxiety
amongst the elites about the future locus of power. The presence of
numerous children in the streets -mischievous, cheeky, hungry and grubbyembodied
this concern. The children's moral vulnerability, especially that of
the girls, as well as their capacity to create public disorder, led to a campaign
for legislation that would offer them more protection from the state, and
society protection from them, at the expense of their rights to selfdetermination.
It resulted in the Neglected Children and Youthful
Offenders Act which empowered the state to remove children, designated as
neglected, from their homes. and place them with carers of its own choosing
for moral training. The way in which neglect was construed meant that
some children, who would have been better off with their parents, were
removed, while others, who needed state intervention, were not.
Although the Neglected Children and Youthful Offenders Act was only
supposed to remove children from parents who were considered morally
unfit, the usual reason for child neglect was poverty, the result of the
conditions of male and female casual employment. This was a factor which
Departmental officials were forced to acknowledge and it led to attempts to
commit financially impoverished children as uncontrollable, since that was
a category of neglect. Although parents often acquiesced in these
arrangements, because they had no other way of providing for their
children, they still resented the state's interference in their lives, and many
tried to find ways of maintaining contact. Most children remained interested
in their parents and expressed a desire to be with them, an indictment of the
belief, held by social reformers and public servants, that they were better off
without them.
Although the Neglected Children and Youthful Offenders Act intruded on
the rights of poor children, it offered them possibilities too. Since it could
intervene between parents and children, the rights of children who were
mistreated were potentially strengthened. However, few children were
committed for abuse because, since it was not a category of neglect, the
Department focused less on it, so that an opportunity to provide protection
to children, who might have welcomed it, was lost. This can be linked to the widespread concern that poor children be controlled and the commonly
held belief that this entailed beatings, even though, accidentally or not, they
sometimes resulted in physical injuries.
Despite the constraints on them, state wards exercised some agency over
their lives. A number survived by becoming polite, co-operative and hard
working. Others protested, consciously or not, by telling lies, stealing,
breaking crockery, doing their chores slowly, absconding, giving cheek, being
"troublesome and bad tempered", or if girls, seeing boys without
permission, thus endangering the Department's aim of producing
respectful, industrious, abstemious and sexually modest adults. While such
protest might be stress related, it was often strategic, and children sometimes
gained concessions. Verbal or physical abuse by carers was the cause of many
children's protest but Departmental officials' construction of it as
disobedience, meant that punishment, rather than removal from the home,
often followed. However, by 1918, there was a growing realisation, partly as a
result of their protests, that state wards were mistreated, and some measures
in the Children's Charter were designed to prevent it.
In particular, the legislators placed greater restrictions on the carers of state
wards and made provisions for more frequent inspections. Under the
Children's Charter, violence to children became a category of neglect and the
tone of the legislation suggested that their control should become more
subtle. However, even though concessions were made to children's rights to
to be heard, protection by adults remained the dominant mode, despite
some dangers. The new Act could not legislate for kindly treatment
especially since, even with its language of nurture and gentle guidance, it
was still predominantly concerned with control, which entailed risks to state
children. Their rights to public visibility, to be with their families, or
maintain contact with them, and so retain something of their original
identities, were not restored.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information:

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Date Deposited: 25 Jun 2012 06:46
Last Modified: 11 Mar 2016 05:54
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