Story: Children’s homes and fostering

Page 2. Government institutions

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Courts had the power to commit children to institutions and foster homes. These children were known as state wards. Families could also be supervised by welfare officers through home visits and interviews. In the early 2000s the courts could make a range of orders regarding the care of children, ranging from services orders (which ensure families get the services they need, such as counselling) to custody orders, which can remove children from the care of their parents.

Industrial schools

The first government-run institutions for children were industrial schools established under the Neglected and Criminal Children Act 1867. They were run by provincial governments, and then by the Justice Department, and came under the jurisdiction of the Education Department in 1880. Initially, neglected and criminal children were housed in the same institutions. By 1902 industrial schools took in neglected children only.

From the 1880s government policy favoured foster care over institutional care. Industrial schools were expensive to run and the belief that children were more appropriately cared for in a family setting was growing. As a result the schools also boarded children out with foster families or placed them in domestic service.

From 1916 industrial schools were closed or reorganised. The resident population of all schools (including reformatories for delinquent children and young people) fell from 1,000 in December 1916 to 500 two years later.

New residential institutions

Though foster care was growing in importance, new institutions were opened. Receiving homes housed babies and young children plus older children on a short-term basis before they were placed elsewhere. Girls and young boys were admitted. Probation homes provided short-term institutional care for boys before supervision within the family home. Training schools prepared both sexes for work and good citizenship. New longer-stay residential institutions were also opened – some were converted industrial schools.

There were 17 government institutions by 1948. Some were supposed to accommodate delinquent and criminal children, and young people who could not be boarded out, but they also housed those who were deprived, neglected and abused. Girls were often sent to the homes for supposed sexual misconduct. Some were in fact victims of sexual abuse, including incest.

Victims not vixens


Miria Dewey (not her real name) was sent to the Burwood Home in Canterbury for being out of control and consorting with American servicemen based in New Zealand in 1943. It transpired that her mother had prostituted her by forcing her to have sex with them in exchange for money.


Increase in institutions

Altogether, the number of state wards, and children and their families under supervision or in regular contact with social services, increased dramatically after the Second World War. This coincided with increases in recorded youth offending. There were 3,616 state wards (including those in foster care) in the late 1940s, and 5,515 in 1971–72. Though only a small number were in institutions (less than 10% between 1925 and the 1970s), some increases were out of proportion to growth in the juvenile population, which doubled between the 1940s and 1970s. There were 290 residents in receiving homes and training centres in 1947 and 718 in 1972.

There were 20 residential institutions in 1972. More short-term facilities were opened and by the early 1980s there were 26 institutions. Most residents were male and there was a disproportionately high number of Māori residents.

Māori children

Few Māori children came to the attention of welfare officers until the 1940s, when there was more oversight of Māori families. Most Māori children needing out-of-home care were fostered with Māori families. Though foster care remained important, the Māori population of residential institutions grew quickly from the 1960s.

Closure of institutions

Awareness that institutions were inappropriate homes for most children and young people grew. This, and the inability of staff and management to adequately tackle the needs of the institutions’ large Māori populations, led to the closure of government institutions from the mid-1980s. Keeping children in their own homes or with extended family, aided by social welfare support, became of even greater importance.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Children’s homes and fostering - Government institutions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 December 2018)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011