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Children’s homes and fostering

by Kerryn Pollock

Children whose parents have died, and those whose parents are unwilling or unable to look after them, depend on the goodwill of institutions or carers. Opinions about how to look after these children have changed over time.

Church institutions and charitable aid

Orphanages and other forms of out-of-home care were not just for children whose parents had died. They also took in children who could not be properly cared for by their parents, were neglected or abused, had behavioural problems or had committed crimes.

Church and benevolent orphanages

Some of New Zealand’s earliest welfare organisations were orphanages run by churches and benevolent groups. The Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic order, ran an orphanage in Auckland from the early 1850s. The Canterbury Orphan Asylum, an Anglican children’s home, was opened in 1862; the Parnell Orphan Home (Anglican) opened in Auckland in 1866. The Otago Benevolent Institution (which also housed elderly poor) opened in Dunedin in 1866.

Fatherless and motherless

Children living in orphanages and other institutions were often not ‘full orphans’ – without both parents. Of the 55 children supported by the Canterbury Provincial Council in orphanages and foster homes in 1871, 10 were full orphans, 11 were motherless, 23 were fatherless (through death or desertion) and 10 had living parents who could not support them (mainly because they were sick); one child had two living parents who were both missing.

The number of church-run orphanages (or children’s homes as they were later called) increased significantly in the early 20th century. By the mid-1920s there were 85 private – mainly church-run – institutions housing over 4,000 children. Churches were the main providers of institutional childcare at a time when government policy favoured foster care. Churches wanted to shore up membership at a time of declining attendance. They believed institutions were the easiest and best way of instilling moral and spiritual values in children. They were also often left money through bequests which had to be spent on institutions.

Churches continued to run children’s homes until the late 20th century, though many homes closed in the decades before this as more emphasis was placed by churches on foster care and family-based support.

Charitable aid

Charitable aid was an early form of government support for orphaned, destitute or neglected children, and families who were struggling to provide for their children. It took the form of money and payments in kind made on a discretionary basis to individuals, families and orphanages.

In 1885 a national system of charitable aid was instituted. Aid was distributed by district boards mainly funded by local rates and central government subsidies. Boards paid for destitute children in government- and church-run institutional and foster care, and provided aid for children living with their own families. They generally did not run institutions, though there were some exceptions. The Lyttelton Orphanage was run by the North Canterbury board, and the Southland board housed children with elderly men in a benevolent asylum until 1926.

Charitable aid boards became less involved in the care of children from the 1920s. Children were directly supported by the state through the Education Department, or lived in church homes. They continued to give aid for children who were living with their families.

Government institutions

Courts had the power to send children to residential institutions or foster homes. These children were known as state wards. Families could also be supervised by welfare officers through home visits and interviews.

In the 21st century the courts could make a range of orders regarding the care of children, ranging from child protection orders (when children are at risk of abuse or neglect) to parenting orders, which determine who will provide day-to-day care of a child. This can involve removing children from the care of their parents and putting them into the custody of other people, such as grandparents. Children who have run away from home, or who have been charged with criminal offences, may also come under the care of the state.

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 residential 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. Some of the children defined as delinquent were engaged in truancy or the theft of coins left in milk bottles. A minority were violent or had burgled homes.

Probation homes provided short-term institutional care for boys before supervision within the family home. Training schools focused on preparing 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 in 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 or abused. Girls were often sent to the homes for supposed sexual misconduct. Some were in fact victims of sexual abuse, including incest. They included girls who had run away from home to escape abuse.

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 in 1943. It transpired that her mother had forced 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 a disproportionately high number were Māori.

Children entering these institutions were often stripped of their clothing, scrubbed clean, deloused and given institutional clothing. Sometimes the girls were inspected for venereal disease.

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 rapidly 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 meet the needs of the many Māori for whom they were responsible led to the closure of most 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.

Residential homes for children and young people, 21st century

Although residential institutions are no longer seen as appropriate for most children needing care outside the family home, there are still state and charitable homes for children and adolescents in the 21st century. They are known as residential homes or residences. Children living in these homes continue to do everyday things like go to school, play sport and enjoy leisure activities in the wider community.

Government residences

Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children runs four care and protection residences for children aged 12 to 16 requiring short-term care and protection while arrangements are made for them to receive care in a family home. These residences are in South Auckland, Lower Hutt, Christchurch and Dunedin. Younger children are cared for by foster families. In 2017 less than 1% of children in out-of-home placements lived in these residences. Most children in care are with family members, in foster care, in a Oranga Tamariki family home or in other supported accommodation.

The residences cater for children and young people who cannot be placed in foster care (sometimes for behavioural reasons), who commit low-level criminal offences or who participate in harmful activities like drug-taking.

Care as needed 

Each of the four Oranga Tamariki care and protection residences has a school, which all resident children and young people have to attend. Medical care and mental health services are available. 

Oranga Tamariki also runs four youth-justice residences with 136 beds in total for young people aged 14 to 16 who have been charged with an offence, are on remand or have been given a youth justice residence sentence by the Youth Court. These are in Auckland, Rotorua, Palmerston North and Christchurch. In 2017 there were 889 admissions to youth justice residences, down from 1,010 in 2015.

Charitable social services

Charitable organisations run residential homes for children with the help of government funding and public donations. The Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘chumley’) Children’s Centre in Governors Bay near Lyttelton provides short-term care for up to 28 children aged 3 to 12. It was purpose-built as a children’s home by wealthy farmer Heber Cholmondeley and opened in 1925. The original historic house was damaged in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake and had to be demolished. A new children's home opened in July 2015 on the same site following a fundraising campaign that raised $4 million. 

Revolving stay 

In 2017–18, 494 children from 298 families were cared for at the Chomondeley Children’s Centre. It provided 4,465 nights of care. 

The Dingwall Trust has run a home for children up to 17 years old in Papatoetoe since 1930. Like Cholmondeley, it was built at the behest of an individual, David Dingwall.

The Hohepa Trust in Hawke’s Bay has family-style homes and schooling for children with intellectual disabilities.

Foster care and family homes

Children 16 and under in foster care live in the private homes of individuals, couples and families because Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children or the courts have decided that they are at risk of neglect or abuse in their own homes. Foster parents can choose whether to take in children referred to them. They are paid an allowance to cover the costs of the children in their care. This includes money for board and food, but also clothing, pocket money, and birthday and Christmas presents.

Baby farmers 

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 grew 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 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 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 in 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 members was considered only if this was not possible.

This approach was followed in the 21st century. Ensuring children were not moved from home to home was seen as important. Child, Youth and Family Services (CYF) – the agency responsible for the care of children until April 2017 – had a pool of foster families and also worked with charitable organisations and professional agencies with their own foster families. 

In the year to July 2017 there were 4,716 children and young people in out-of-home care and protection placements – 53% were with family or whānau members and 29% lived with non-family foster parents. Eighteen per cent of children in out-of-home care were in other residential arrangements such as foster homes or residential facilities provided by approved non-governmental organisations, state-funded family homes, residential homes and other supported accommodation. Foster parents (both family or non-family members) received allowances to cover costs rather than salaries.

In 2016–17, 541 children and young people were in out-of-home placements with non-governmental organisations contracted to CYF (now Oranga Tamariki) to provide foster and residential care. Only 29 children or adolescents were in state-run care and protection residences.

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 Oranga Tamariki). 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 – ‘difficult’ cases, or the disabled. Children requiring short-term emergency accommodation were also housed in family homes, as were a small number of children assessed as at risk and in need of care and protection. In June 2015 there were 133 children living in these homes – 3% of total CYF placements.

    • Ruth Hill, ‘The lost generation’, Sunday Star Times 17/12/2006, p.C2. Back

Experiences of institutional and foster care

Mixed experiences

Institutions and foster homes provided many children with a safe haven. Though they could not receive the individual care and attention an ideal family home would have provided, these places could give them a sense of stability and security. Studies of children in foster care in the mid-1980s found that most surveyed were happy with their situation. Residential homes were a safe place for many children who could not be cared for elsewhere.

No goodbyes 

Children were often not told what was happening to them when they were taken to orphanages. ‘Andy’ was orphaned in 1909 when he was four. He was taken by his grandmother to an orphanage because she was not able to care for him herself. In later life he recalled the day he arrived: ‘when he was taken to the orphanage, he clearly remembers the matron telling him that his grandmother had just gone away to get a blanket. He sat in the gutter sobbing uncontrollably for his mother while he waited for Grandma, but she never did come back.’1

But life in institutions was austere. Accounts of early and mid-20th century homes show that food was plain and lacked variety, and clothing was basic. Children had a heavy workload of chores and schooling. Some were visited by family and most went on outings during the weekend. Occasionally, some stayed with families they did not know to get a taste of family life.

Stories of neglect and abuse sit alongside the good experiences. They have been told for a long time. A royal commission of inquiry into the Roman Catholic St Mary’s Orphanage at Stoke in 1900 found that the boys were badly thrashed with pieces of supplejack, or beaten by staff. Some were locked in cells by themselves for days or even months.

Children had few chances to complain about poor or abusive treatment. Most kept quiet until they were adults. An inquiry into the treatment of Auckland children in state care by a civil rights group in 1978 brought the issue out into the open for the first time. This, along with a critical Human Rights Commission report in 1982, contributed to the decision to close most residential homes.

Fending for themselves 

A study of 136 young women in residential care undertaken for the Department of Social Welfare and published in 1987 found that 71% had been sexually abused, half of them while in institutional or foster care. It was the first time this issue had been quantified. Some social workers were devastated to learn young women in their care had been abused: ‘I’ll never forget what awful, awful things had happened in our care … Leaving horrible homes only to find themselves in another abusive situation … What can you do when you leave a young person in a home? You simply cannot be there for them.’2

Government redress

People who have been neglected or abused in state care can make a formal complaint (which may involve applying for a financial settlement) to the Ministry for Social Development (MSD). Claimants can also take their case directly to court. Religious orders which ran orphanages have also made compensation payments to settle historic abuse claims.

Between 2006 and February 2018 MSD had settled 1,644 claims of abuse by people who had been in state care, and had 1,024 claims in progress. Most of those claims related to events between the 1950s and the late 1980s. In the period 2006 to March 2017 MSD paid over $23 million to claimants. It also contributed nearly $3 million to the legal aid costs of those making claims.

Fifty-four per cent of historic claims made in 2016 resulted in payments of between $10,001 and $30,000. Few payments were over $30,000. A Confidential Listening and Assistance Service was also set up to listen to and record the stories of those who had experienced abuse in state care. Assistance is offered to those who have been abused and all discussions with people in the programme are confidential. 

Parents and caregivers

State care of children was a relief for some birth parents and a source of heartache for others. It provided a lifeline for struggling families but could also split them apart for good. After 1989 parents were more involved in the decision-making process through family group conferences. Some have regular contact with children in care. However some critics have argued that Child, Youth and Family Services (CYF) was often too quick to remove some children from their parents. Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children, which replaced CYF in 2017, works with families and whānau when children are at risk to support parents or organise care from other family members. Occasionally children are still taken into the care of people they do not know, especially in emergency situations.

Foster parents found that fostering could be wonderful, challenging and traumatic. Some could not cope with ‘difficult’ children (which occasionally led to abuse) and others grieved when beloved foster children left their care. 

Government inquiry

During the 2010s pressure mounted for a thorough investigation of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults in state care. The Human Rights Commission launched the Never Again/ E Kore Anō campaign in February 2017 calling for a wide ranging independent inquiry into the abuse of children and adults in state care. The Indigenous Rights Commissioner highlighted the over-representation of Māori children in different forms of state care. In 2017, 61% of children in state care were Māori. Many people argued that there was a need to learn about how certain children ended up in state care, the intergenerational impacts consequences of out of home care and its impacts on individuals and family and whānau. While the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service recorded individual stories, trends in these stories were not identified. 

In February 2018 the government announced a royal commission of inquiry into the historical abuse of people in state care, including children, adults, those in compulsory psychiatric care and people with disabilities in care. Former governor general, Sir Anand Satyanand, was appointed to chair the commission. Draft terms of reference were the focus for public submissions in early 2018.

The inquiry includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect in child welfare institutions, borstals or psychiatric hospitals as well as institutions contracted by the state to provide care for children, young people and those with disability. It will include abuse in schools.

In November 2018 the government extended the scope of the inquiry to include abuse in faith-based institutions. This followed analysis of over 400 submissions on the draft terms of reference. The commission's first interim report, due in 2020, will focus on abuse in state care. A later report will look at abuse in faith-based care. The final report is due in January 2023.

The commission will look at the processes for complaint and claims for compensation but will not respond to individual claims. It will make recommendations about the complaints and compensation process to MSD. 

The time period to be investigated is 1950–1999 but commissioners can use their discretion to consider care outside this period. The terms of reference include the central place of the Treaty of Waitangi, a specific focus on the over-representation of Māori and Pacific people in state care, and the vulnerability of people with disability. Nearly $79 million has been allocated to the commission. This includes $15 million for counselling and related support for survivors of abuse in institutional care. Four commissioners have been appointed to assist Sir Anand Satyanand with this inquiry. 

    • Peggy Crawford, Only an orphan: first-hand accounts of life in children’s institutions. Lower Hutt: MJC Publishing, 1995, p.15. Back
    • Quoted in Bronwyn Dalley, Family matters: child welfare in twentieth-century New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1998, p.332. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Children’s homes and fostering', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 21 Dec 2018