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In my wanderings around Melbourne’s libraries I  have stumbled upon a slim volume with a long title: Child Care Staffs in Institutions: Report on Survey Undertaken for the Children’s Welfare Advisory Council To Determine the Need for Courses of Training. It is softcovered and 111 pages in length, including eight appendices of proposed trainings for mothercraft nurses and the staff of occupation centres. A list of some fifty odd institutions covered in the report heads the field: a mixture of government and religious based institutions, many run by Roman Catholic orders. The report was commissioned by the newly formed Children’s Welfare Advisory Council on 18 September 1956. Established simultaneously with the implementation of the 1954 Children’s Welfare Act the Council was intended to form a link between government and voluntary child care institutions: a way of getting religious and secular institutions on to the same page, maybe. Up until then the two groups had operated separately. Some were happy enough with the new arrangement. Others clearly were not: perhaps the level of co operation from these organisations – particularly Catholic run organisations – were indicative of resistance to the new order. The report was completed in 1957.The powers be thought the public should read it too, so it was  released the following year.

This report is a remarkable historical document – signalling a response to post-war developments in Britain where psychoanalytic clinicians began to articulate the needs of neglected and abandoned children in the light of their experiences with evacuated children. Britain’s 1946 Curtis Report, Children Without Homes, ( ‘Report of the Care of Children Committee’)  written by former University of Western Australia lecturer and then member of Anna Freud’s group, Ruth Thomas.

There had been problems getting it incorporated into British policies, a matter taken up in the House of Lords by Lord Iddesleigh who explained:

Many children were suffering quite unnecessarily because the adults responsible for their upbringing in the various homes and institutions were untrained. There was a most serious lack of trained child workers, and the Curtis Committee therefore established a sub-committee to investigate the whole matter of training. This committee reported, and its report was adopted by the main Committee. There are three recommendations in the Interim Report which appear to have a particular urgency. In the first place, there is the recommendation for the appointment of a Central Training Council of qualified persons representing various bodies engaged in the field of child care. The function of that Central Training Council was to survey the whole field of training, and to establish such facilities as they considered needful. 

Lord Iddesleigh, was worried about a lack of response to the Committee’s findings and that the report and the children would be  forgotten.

Criticisms made by the Curtis Report are very painful, and the revelations are shocking. It it one of the most distressing features of the local authorities’ administration of Poor Law children that very often they are kept in workhouses not for six weeks which I believe is the legal period-but for months and months and months. I do not think that I should be doing my duty if I do not read to your Lordships one brief description of the conditions that prevail in these workhouses. One paragraph in the Report says: “The smell in this room was dreadful. A premature baby lay in an opposite ward alone. This ward was very large and cold. The healthy children were housed in the ground floor corrugated hutment which had been once the old union casual ward The dayroom was large and bare and empty of all toys. The children fed, played and used their pots in this room. They ate from cracked enamel plates, using the same mug for milk and soup. They slept in another corrugated hutment in old broken black iron cots some of which had their sides tied up with cord. The mattresses were fouled and stained. On inquiry there did not appear to be any available stocks of clothes to draw on and it was said by one of the assistant nurses that ‘everything was at the laundry and did not come back.’ The children wore ankle length calico or flannelette frocks and petticoats and had no knickers. Their clothes were not clean. Most of them had lost their shoes; those who possessed shoes had either taken them off to play with or were wearing them tied to their feet with dirty string. Their faces were clean; their bodies in some cases were unwashed and stained.”

This was one of the worst cases, Lord Iddesleigh acknowledged… but coupled with Britain’s history of providing barrack type accommodation for children, his description underlined the depth of the problem. Trained people, he reckoned -(he believed this to be work for women) – would do much to move the situation beyond  what it then was.

It is a very frightening thought, my Lords, the extent to which the happiness of deprived children is confined to not very competent little clerks and minor officials, who are often over-worked, who are not specialists in their subject, and whose horizon is bounded by very petty departmental considerations.(Lord Iddesleigh, 12 December 1946, Session 1946-47,House of Lords Hansard,George VI year 11,853,Fifth Series, Volume 144, cc.882-908).

A decade later, in Victoria, Australia,  David Merritt took up the main thrust of the report as he developed his research project. He argued that the  main danger of institutional life was ‘lack of interest in the child as an individual’, and the tendency to ‘remote and impersonal relations’. The children ‘continually feel the lack of affection’, he continued. It was ‘in striking and painful contrast to the behaviour of a normal child of the same age in his parents’ home’.

Merritt echoes earlier commentary on destitute and state children. In 1909, South Australian writer and activist, Catherine Helen Spence, had made similar observations during the first interstate congress of workers amongst State Children. Her work, in turn, drew upon the work of Florence Davenport Hill whose writings on children living in orphanages and workhouses eventually published in her 1889 book Children of the State  – influenced the direction of government policy in New South Wales and South Australia.  Challenging contemporary eugenicist views of poverty and illegitimacy, Spence argued that that the quality of environmental provision was far more influential for the development of children into contributing members of society than genetic inheritance. She asserted that children who were boarded out, rather than institutionalised, generally fared better than institutionalised children, in the long term, as a result of the bond formed with their foster parents.  At the same congress, a delegate from the New South Wales State Children Relief Board also warned of the detrimental effect of institutionalisation on the individual development of the child.

Recognition of the value of boarding out, and of sustaining the bond between parent and child as much as possible, found endorsement in John Bowlby’s Attachment theory. Perhaps its research base, for Bowlby had assembled his evidence, enabled observations such as Spence’s and anecdotes such as Davenport Hill’s, to be elevated into something more scientific. The effects of maternal deprivation were spelt out afresh. Quoting from Bowlby’s Child Care and the Growth of Love ( Penguin, 1953), Merritt recorded,

The direct studies are the most numerous. They make it plain that, when deprived of maternal care, the child’s development is almost always retarded – physically, intellectually, and socially – and that symptoms of physical and mental illness may appear. Such evidence is disquieting, but sceptics may question whether the check is permanent and whether the symptoms of illness may not be easily overcome. The retrospective and follow-up studies make it clear that such optimism is not always justified and that some children are gravely damaged for life. This is a sombre conclusion, which must now be regarded as established. (Bowlby, 1953, pp.19-20, quoted in Merritt, 1956, p.14).

There was an additional warning: that the effects of deprivation arising from separation in the early years conceivably led to the formation of psychopathy and delinquency. Bowlby’s work had had its origins in clinical work at the London Child Guidance clinic. He had exchanged ideas with D.W Winnicott. It was taking time, but the swing away from views of delinquency as a result of genetic inferiority, to acceptance of notions child development contingent on parental availability and consistency, continued to gain ground steadily during the first half of the twentieth century.

What was required of institutional staff, Merritt concluded, was possession of the ‘qualities and abilities necessary to encourage normal development of each of the children in their care’. Drawing from the Care of Children Committee  Merritt listed the essential features of out of home care: (Note: Forgive the use of the masculine pronoun –  convention in 1956)

(i) Affection and personal interest; understanding of defects; care for his future; respect for his personality and regard for his self esteem.

(ii) Stability; the feeling that he can expect to remain with those who will continue to care for him until he goes out into the world on his own feet.

(iii)Opportunity of making the best of his ability and aptitudes, whatever they may be, as such opportunity is made available to the child in the normal home.

(iv)A share in the common life of a small group of people in a homely environment.

It would be interesting to see the working documents and correspondence that were part of the formation of this report; to turn the pages of the files, to note what was typed copy, what was not; to see what was said in the margin notes and asides, to observe the stuff of a busy day in public service. Who were the clergy who refused to participate, who decided that Merritt’s questionnaires were irrelevant  to their work? And who were the child care staff that became frightened that his questions masked criticism. Can we have  a sense of their ages? their years of experience? and indeed, of those who were kind and who were not? These questions belong to deeper documentary research than I can do here. We can only explore, with Merritt, some of the conditions he found in the institutions he visited and form our own questions.

David Merritt visited seventy-one institutions, each on two occasions. He interviewed staff and provided them with questionaires. He observed  the daily life of children living within the institutions: voluntary and statutory childrens homes, migration homes, babies homes, voluntary and juvenile schools, babies homes and homes for special categories of children: intellectually disabled, deaf and children suffering from spasticity. Accommodation ranged from a training farm accommodating six boys, but with but three resident at the time, up to a statutory institution with a capacity for 250 but actually accommodating 260. The most common type of accommodation was the dormitory style -with mass dining rooms. The largest dormitory was one for 50 boys. Merritt provided statistics and graphs. Of 3,204 state children in 1956 the majority -1500 – were boarded out in Children’s Homes. Only 449 were boarded out in foster homes with 129 placed without payment in foster homes. About 107 children were living in ‘Juvenile schools – having come before the courts -104 were placed in special schools in conjunction with the ‘Mental Hygiene’ department, 304 were living with relatives and the rest variously in live-in employment, hospitals, or were livingin institutions while they were treated for psychological problems.Material provision was high – fresh rooms, plenty of toys but inconsistent care.It appeared that a high proportion of children were ‘educationally retarded’, Merritt said. It was not clear whether this was a consequence of parental neglect or institutionalisation or a result of the frustrations encountered at school.

Merritt seems to have seen himself to be  faced with the problem of reconciling a system which lacked a framework for understanding the emotional, attachment needs of children and adults, with emerging ideas about the  needs of children in out of home care. At times Merritt was critical of the staff – his progressive views conflicting with the old school practicality.’Some staff members saw no problem at all – children were either “dull” or “bright” and that was that. Others were inclined to attribute poor school results to such things as ‘difficulty concentrating, sheer laziness or bad heredity’. He commented” ‘It would be true to say that a number of persons I interviewed failed to show an awareness of the needs of children in this area’.

There was failure to recognise or understand emotional disturbance in children. Merritt’s frustration is palpable when he writes of one person in charge of 100 children or more who claimed there were no emotionally disturbed children amongst them. Closer analysis revealed children from broken homes, that about 50 were wards of the state, some were illegitimate and others ‘she regarded as mentally retarded’. He continued”

When asked about the children’s behaviour she described temper tantrums, bed wetting, stuttering, wilful destructiveness, sulkiness and pilfering amongst the types of behaviour she encountered. That none of these children were emotionally disturbed and consequently had a special need for affection and understanding appears highly unlikely to say the least.

While not all institutions and staff groups were lacking in such understanding there was room for more concern for the emotional and environmental provision for children in care, Merritt concluded after his visits. In many instances  ignorance of the nature and stature of children’s’ needs, inadequate numbers of staff contributed to the malaise – a fact  noted by the British Care of Children Committee. There was a need to modify the organisational structure of such institutions, to train staff, to work to bring the situation in Victoria up to those standards practised in other parts of the world.

Despite resistance by some staff to scrutiny and training there was acceptance and a desire for change. There had been agitation in the press – about institutional conditions and about the lack of training amongst their staff. There were perceptions of abuse, that child welfare practices were not right.  In september 1952 Melbourne’s Argus newspaper had reported extensively on two fourteen year old girls had been incarcerated in the large Bluestone building Pentridge Gaol – a place for the worst criminals and the location of many executions.  That the rival Sydney press gloated that such an event as gaoling young teenage girls would not occur in its state rubbed salt into the wound.

By 1954 a new Children’s Act had been passed by parliament. Merritt’s report, drawing on the understandings provided by psychoanalytic theories and clinicians, promised much – and, at least professional training for staff. It was the beginning of a revolution.