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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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A History of Child and Youth Care

Brian Gannon and Kathy Beukes


From time immemorial, some children have had to be cared for by people other than their biological parents for a variety of reasons. The child in need of care is not a new social phenomenon. Throughout history, the problem has existed of what to do with children whose parents have died, been lost in wars and disasters, or otherwise become unable to care for them. This has been a problem especially in social systems where families enjoyed little support or back-up from the extended family or the community. In tribal societies, for example, the death or inability of parents to care for their children, led to others in the tribe fulfilling this role without any dramatic change in the life of status of the children concerned.

But in other societies, the needs of “the poor and the fatherless” have demanded forms of alternative care such as child minding, foster care and adoption, and over the past few centuries, several forms of residential care in institutions such as children’s homes, places of safety, boarding schools, schools for children with special needs such as physical handicaps, and industrial and reform schools.

We must look back on the history of substitute child care from within the following points of view:

  1. Society’s changing values and attitudes towards the child, which in turn shaped and reshaped child care philosophies;
  2. The laws by which societies applied these values and attitudes,
  3. Provisions made to meet the needs of the child, in the form of financial help, facilities for residential care and special education – and the various people and professionals in child-rearing roles such as child-minders, child care workers, and foster or adoptive parents.

As we will see, institutions for children originated in northern hemisphere countries at times of urbanisation and industrialisation. Initially these were not “child care” institutions but dormitories for child labourers in factories, mills and mines, and poorhouses for lost and abandoned children and vagrants. It is interesting to trace the equivalent developments in other countries (wars, epidemics, urbanisation, population shifts) which occasioned the establishment of institutions.

Medieval and Renaissance Times

During the Middle Ages when the infant death-rate was very high, child neglect was common, most often arising out of ignorance of the child’s needs. Harsh treatment of children became even more severe at age seven, for it was believed that childhood ceased at that age. There is little evidence of organised care for poor and deprived children, and where this did happen it tended to be in ‘hospitals’ (places of hospitality) and for short periods only. Children were recognised for their economic worth and many were exploited for their labour; child stealing for this purpose was not uncommon.

Just as the Church's institutions were instrumental in the development of health care and education, so they were important in work with poor, neglected and handicapped children. The baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi, for example, was in 1703 ordained a priest and started working as a music teacher at the Ospidale della Piéta (hospital – place of hospitality for indigent girls) in Venice.

The Period of Industrialisation

From the mid-1700’s onwards, in many northern hemisphere countries, more and more people were obliged to leave the rural areas and move into towns and cities, where they survived by working in various industries. It was this move, away from the settled, extended families in country areas to the harsh life in the cities, which resulted in families and children experiencing great difficulties. It can be said that institutional living for children (essentially a city phenomenon) had its origins in such periods of industrialisation and urbanisation.
Town authorities handed poor children over to mill owners and later to mines. A working day could extend over 20 hours for a child, and discipline was often brutal. 1793 legislation in England provided for punishment for masters who ill-treated apprentices, but few children knew this or had the courage or opportunity to invoke the law. Most chose to run away and they swelled the crowds of vagrants and beggars. Children were apprenticed at the age of seven. Even in intact families children aged three and four had to work, while older children worked fifteen hours a day.

By 1739 Thomas Coram had established the famous Founding Hospital after becoming aware of so many abandoned children. This hospital developed a form of foster care. In the workhouses the death rate amongst children was almost one hundred percent by the age of six. Charles Dickens wrote about the appalling conditions that prevailed in such institutions, and he was influential in pricking the conscience of the nation.

Legislation for children

In 1802 England we see an interesting document: Sir Robert Peel’s Act for the Preservation of the Health and Morals of Apprentices. The Act contained clauses to improve working and living conditions for apprentices. For example, girls and boys were to have separate dormitories and not more than two children were to share a bed. Hours of work were not to exceed twelve a day, excluding meals, and provision was to be made for the religious instruction of the children. Factory visitors were to be appointed each year with the right to enter and inspect factories. Unfortunately, these provisions were again not strongly enforced and the regulations were evaded in many of the worst mills. The conditions for children working in mines were far worse than those in factories. The children who worked as chimney sweeps were almost invariably unwanted children – the smaller, the more suitable.

However, there were exceptions, and some factories offered extremely compassionate conditions to children, and these serve as precursors of good child care. One example of this was the Quarry Bank Mill run by the Gregg family, and no doubt many workhouses were run by such caring people , especially those which prepared children for careers and crafts.

No authority in the eighteenth century had the duty of providing care and protection for difficult children in “moral danger” and those who begged or roamed the streets in a neglected condition and eventually appeared before the magistrates for offences, even at the age of eight or nine, were sentenced to death, imprisoned with criminals, or transported to the penal settlements such as Australia.

There were people who worked towards better legislation for children. In 1852 Mary Carpenter said: “A child will never behave well in prison from any moral sense. I have in point of fact found that those who behave best in prison are really more likely to do badly when they come out.” In 1852 she opened her own reformatory known as Kingswood.

The latter part of the nineteenth century

The last decades of the 19th Century showed a new understanding of the nature of childhood, and the philanthropic movement of that century developed new ways of caring for children who were destitute or homeless.

By 1851 there was legislation in Britain providing for reform schools and industrial schools, the latter concentrating on prevention. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) was formed in 1884. In 1891 an Act of the English Parliament prohibited the full-time employment of children under the age of eleven years. The story of Dr Thomas John Barnado illustrates this new way of thinking, and the sign over the door of the home which he established read “No destitute child ever refused admission”.

The Twentieth Century

Ellen Key wrote of the twentieth century as being “The Century of the Child” and it is true that this century has been one which recognised children as children, and has seen the most important developments in child psychology, child welfare and education. Many writers have added to our knowledge of child development. In the UK in 1946 the Curtis Report made strong recommendations regarding the training of residential workers. Legislation at that time emphasised the importance of the biological family and the effort needed to restore the child to his family.

The United States of America

In the US too, many children had lived in almshouses, workhouses and jails together with adults, but by the first quarter of the nineteenth century nearly all states had legislation authorising the courts to remove neglected or ill-treated children from their parents and commit them to some place of care. By the mid-1800’s there was a move to smaller, family-style ‘cottages’ staffed by houseparents.

The White House Conference on child welfare issues, held every ten years, started in 1909 and during this century has given impetus to all movements concerned with the welfare of children and their families, including the child care movement. One consequence of the 1909 White House Conference on children was the foundation of the Child Welfare League of America.

The concept of “milieu treatment” has strongly influenced child care work. August Aichhorn, Bruno Bettelheim and Fritz Redl, through the middle years of the 20th century, developed ideas of using the total ‘life space’ of the child to promote emotional health and effect change.

Bruno Bettelheim believed in the institution’s unique potential for rehabilitating seriously disturbed youngsters, and in his work demonstrated the value of consistent, round-the-clock impact on those in care. Respect for the individual and involvement in the person’s entire life space, including the events of daily living such as rules and routines, games and activities, problems and struggles, could have a therapeutic impact on the young person.

What the contribution of Bettelheim represents for the seriously disturbed child, Fritz Redl’s work represents for the delinquent child. A psychologist and psychoanalyst who was strongly influenced by Freud and Aichhorn, Redl was keenly interested in the interplay between the individual and the group, and in the group’s potential for changing troubled behaviour. His writings span fifty years and cover the field of child mental health, special education, group dynamics and milieu treatment for behaviour-disordered children. He co-authored two books on the Pioneer House project with David Wineman. These stand as classics in the literature of milieu treatment, Children Who Hate and Controls from Within, published in a single volume as The Aggressive Child in 1951.

His conception of the ‘life space interview’ has remained vital in child care practice until today. This refers to a set of action-based interview methods which were designed to help child care workers deal with real-life problems of children, when and where they occurred. By ‘life space’ is meant the total physical, social, psychological and cultural ‘space’ surrounding the individual at any given point in time. The focus (and usually the place) of the interview was the child’s own natural milieu and dealt mostly with specific behavioural incidents. Redl used his child care workers as ‘therapists on the hoof’ as he called them, and specific techniques were developed to help them.

The Modern Period

This takes the history of child care into the present and might be called the ‘deinstitutionalisation’ phase. This means that the worst aspects of institutional or statutory care, such as over-hasty removal, unnecessary separation and isolation, and the effects of stigmatising and depersonalising youngsters, are consciously avoided. Attention is increasingly focussed on maintaining the links between the helping service (be it children’s home, boarding school, foster family or place of safety) and the families and communities from which the children come, ensuring that they are helped to reintegrate into their natural human and social environments. A major theme in this period has been the professionalisation of Child and Youth Care workers, who seek better knowledge and skills for their work, and greater acknowledgement and status in helping teams.

South Africa

Organised welfare in South Africa has been a feature of the second half of the Nineteenth century and the Twentieth century. Prior to that, such responsibility rested with the family, the school or the church. The most common system of care during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries was the placing out of needy persons, including children, with families, who received monthly compensation from the Dutch East India Company – the roots of foster care in South Africa. It seems that this form of care was adequate, since the Company did not establish any institution to cater for the poor, as had already existed in Batavia since 1639.
The first welfare legislation containing provisions for the care of children in need of care the ‘Meesters and Diensboden Wet’ (Masters and Servants Act) promulgated in 1856 in the Cape Parliament. In terms of this Act a magistrate could assign a neglected child to the care of a family member or any other suitable person. No provision for institutional care was made in this Act. This was first done in an Act passed in 1819, in the ‘Verbeterinrichtingen Wet’ (Reformatories Act), which provided for institutions for juvenile offenders only.
It took more than fifteen years before legislation was passed in the Orange Free State (1893), Cape Colony (1895), Natal (1901) and the Transvaal (1903) which provided more comprehensively for the care of the neglected child.

Institutional care appeared as a form of care for neglected children in South Africa only in the first part of the nineteenth century. Churches took the lead in this, establishing in 1814 the ‘Suid Afrikaanse Weeshuis’ (The South African Orphanage), and fifty years later, St George’s Home, both in Cape Town.

Such events as the discovery of diamonds and gold (with the resulting population shifts and urbanisation), the Anglo-Boer War, and the 1918 influenza epidemic (in which 140 000 South Africans died) contributed to conditions of poverty and neglect of children. In consequence, more voluntary organisations were formed, one of which was the first South African Child Welfare Society in 1908 in Cape Town, followed by one in Johannesburg in 1909.

Shortly after political Unification in 1910, in 1913, the ‘Wet ter Bescherming van Kinderen’ (The Children’s Protection Act) was passed. To promote co-ordination and liaison between the rapidly increasing child welfare societies, the first Child Welfare Congress was held in 1911. Subsequent congresses led to the establishment in 1924 of the National Council for Child Welfare, to co-ordinate and advance the goals of the child welfare movement, of which residential child care was part.

Further notable legislation affecting the care of children was the 1937 Children’s Act, later replaced by the 1960 Act. The latter contained specific provisions directed at residential care, providing for the registration and classification of children’s homes and the subsidisation of such services. Provision was also made for places of safety, industrial schools and children’s homes from state funds.

In 1951 a Conference on Children’s Homes, organised by the then Social Welfare Department, was held in Kimberley. One of the conference resolutions centred on the training of child care workers. The first formal training (1968) was a two-year correspondence course for children’s homes assistants through the Technical College.

During the years of the apartheid policy, Child and Youth Care suffered considerable problems and setbacks. Like Education and other government services, the field of welfare became divided between a number of state departments according to the various race classifications. Each department had its own policy and paid its own level of subsidy for foster children and children in care, based upon whatever budget was allocated to it by Parliament. This, in turn, made for different levels of services for different race groups. Although children’s legislation purported to apply to all children, it was applied differentially – glaringly, for example, in the way in which the criteria for finding a child in need of care were interpreted. 1981 state department figures show the following numbers in children’s homes: White: 5115; Coloured: 1113; Black: 834; Asian: 349.

But the policy of apartheid impacted on child care at a number of other levels. For example, the homelands policy, together with the ‘influx control’ legislation which prevented ‘black’ people moving to towns in ‘white’ areas, left huge tracts of South Africa without adequate health and welfare services. One witnessed such anomalies as a city health department requiring extremely high standards of accommodation, plumbing and kitchen equipment for children’s homes, while in areas of the Eastern Cape fully one-third of all babies born died of malnutrition before their first birthday.

There were more serious obstacles imposed by what was called ‘grand’ (as against ‘petty’) apartheid. The government would not allow the building of institutions for black children outside of the ‘homelands’. The result was that no institutions for black children were built during this period, for the homelands did not have the resources, and the need for formal child care services existed as much in the urban areas. By the 1980s there were only five black private children’s homes in South Africa, while there were 80 for white, 5 for Indian and 24 for coloured children.

The very first recommendation of the first Biennial Conference of the National Association of Child Care Workers (Cape Town, 1971) drew attention to the differing standards of care possible between children’s homes: “This Conference does not accept that there should be differences in standards of care as are implied by the differences in subsidies paid for the various race groups.”


At the end of the 1960’s, the first Association of Child Care Workers was founded in the Western Cape, with others following later in the Transvaal, Natal and the Eastern Cape. The National Association of Child Care Workers (NACCW) was formed from these local associations in 1975. The NACCW operates from a National Office, but has regional organisations in most provinces.

Since its inception the NACCW has consistently addressed, among other issues, the training and the professional ethics and development of child care workers, and has introduced a number of courses for various levels of practice. The Association publishes books and a monthly journal. Biennial conferences organised by the NACCW have furthered the philosophy and knowledge of child care.


The state of residential child care was recently summed up by Thom Garfat, the keynote speaker at the NACCW Conference held in 1987: He found the organisation of the NACCW advanced when compared with organisations in North America, since NACCW employed professional persons to work towards the objectives of the Association. He nevertheless remarked on the extremely limited roles thus far given to child care workers in South Africa where most child care programmes operated under the traditional ‘houseparent’ model, focussing on a very limited view of the child and his life experience in the world around him. He saw child care staff generally as custodial, parenting figures rather than as part of the treatment team.

A milestone in the child care movement was the 1980 de Meyer Committee of Inquiry into Certain Aspects of Child Care. Part 2 of the report contains a number of recommendations regarding facilities at children’s homes, staff and their training, and the care and treatment of children. 1987 saw the introduction in practice of the 1983 Child Care Act. This Act encouraged permanency planning, i.e. the prompt and decisive return of the child in care to a family setting, and referred to the ‘unfitness’ of parents to care for a child, rather than the ‘child in need of care’.

Post 1994, the Child and Youth Care service has come under radical review, with the establishment of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Young People at Risk.

From: Beukes, K. and Gannon, B. (1996) An Orientation to Child and Youth Care (Second Edition, revised 1999). Cape Town: National Association of Child Care Workers

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