Story: Children’s homes and fostering

Page 4. Foster care and family homes

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Children 16 and under in foster care live in the private homes of individuals, couples and families because they cannot live in their own homes. Foster parents can choose whether they take in children referred to them. They are paid an allowance to cover the costs of the children in their care.

Baby farmers 

Some people (mainly women) who took in many children for money were referred to as ‘baby farmers’. The best known (and most infamous) was Southland woman Minnie Dean, who was executed after being convicted of the murder of children in her care. She became a figure in New Zealand folklore – her name was spoken aloud to scare children who misbehaved, and it was said that no plants would grow upon her grave.

Importance of foster care

Foster care has always been an option for children requiring out-of-home care. From the early days of European settlement women cared for children in need and received a government grant for their services. It was preferred by welfare officials over institutionalisation from the 1880s, especially for babies and younger children, though many were still placed in orphanages and industrial schools. Officials believed that care within a family context was a more wholesome, natural environment for children and better prepared them for life in the wider world. Foster care was also much cheaper.

By the late 1910s fostering was the most common option for children in state care. Between 1948 and 1971, 40–50% of children in state care were fostered.

Family ties

Running alongside the belief that foster care was best was the ultimate social policy goal of returning children to their parents where possible. This occurred at the discretion of welfare officials. From 1961 birth parents could obtain an annual review of the care situation of their children.


In traditional Māori communities it was common for children to be raised by relatives instead of their birth parents. This practice was called tamariki whāngai or atawhai. One well known whāngai was Mākereti (Maggie) Papakura (1873–1930), a Tūhourangi woman of mana, Rotorua hot-lakes guide and scholar. She was raised by her mother’s aunt and uncle until she was 10. 

Belief in the value of maintaining family bonds grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Social workers were aware of the value Māori and Pacific people placed on kinship ties. More emphasis was placed on keeping children within family groups. The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act 1989 put immediate family care first. Care within the wider family was the next best option and care by non-family considered only if this was not possible.

This approach was followed in the 2000s. Ensuring children were not moved from home to home was seen as important. Child, Youth and Family (CYF) had a pool of foster families and also worked with charitable organisations and professional agencies with their own foster families. In 2008 there were 4,522 children in care and protection placements – 44% were with family members and 34% lived with non-family foster parents. Foster parents continued to receive allowances to cover costs rather than salaries.

In 2010 there were 76 non-governmental organisations contracted to CYF to provide foster and residential care.

To pay or not to pay 

Paying foster parents a salary has been the subject of debate. In a 2006 newspaper article the chief executive of the New Zealand Family and Foster Care Federation said ‘we expect nurses and social workers to be paid a decent wage and still have compassionate hearts, so why not foster parents who work 24/7?’1 In contrast, the head of social services provider Open Homes Foundation Russell Martin said, ‘if you professionalise it, you lose that altruism.’ 

Family homes

Family homes are houses owned by the government but run by two adult caregivers (who are not employees of CYF). They can accommodate up to six children under 16 at one time. Caregivers are not paid but receive an allowance for the children in their care and live in the house rent free. Usually one of the caregivers works in paid employment outside the home. Caregivers cannot choose which children they care for. The first family home opened in 1954.

Family homes traditionally sat between private foster homes and institutions, and catered for children who were not suited for placement in either of these – they may have been ‘difficult’ cases, or disabled. Children requiring short term emergency accommodation were also housed in family homes. There were 79 family homes in 2010.

Family homes accommodate a small number of the children who come to the attention of CYF. In June 2008 there were 177 children living in these homes – 4% of total CYF placements.

  1. Ruth Hill, ‘The lost generation’, Sunday Star Times 17/12/2006, p.C2. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Children’s homes and fostering - Foster care and family homes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 12 December 2018)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011