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The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia


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The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia

By: Dee Michell and Nell Musgrove

Video Interview

Dee Michell and Nell Musgrove discuss their book, The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia: Just Like a Family? with Frank Golding. You can watch here, or listen to the conversation as a podcast here. Other episodes of the SHCY podcast are available at our podcast website, or you can subscribe on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Dee Michell is a feminist theologian and social researcher based at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. Nell Musgrove is an Associate Professor of history at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. Frank Golding is faculty in the School of Education at Federation University Australia.

This review appeared in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 13, no. 3 (Fall 2020), 451-453.

The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia: Just Like a Family?

Nell Musgrove and Deirdre Michell

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Nell Musgrove and Deidre Michell are to be congratulated in undertaking the formidable task of exploring the evolution of foster care in Australia from 1788 till now. Their study highlights the experiences of children and young people who have been in care over this period. It also includes the stories of “care leavers,” adults who had once been in care systems—it is their voices that clearly resonate throughout the various chapters. The authors also use a wealth of data from archival material (including newspapers) and other research and academic studies to highlight many past and current issues and concerns that have, over time, afflicted foster care systems both here and internationally.

The stories they share of children and young people in care systems over 200 years are disturbing and highly moving. Both positive and negative aspects are revealed through the text, and several extreme cases (the non-accidental deaths of children) are highlighted. In most incidents, it is made clear that more should and could have done by authorities, agency staff, and the wider community to avoid these tragic consequences. It is also clearly indicated that now as in the past, unless the foster carers and agencies providing foster care are better resourced and supported, tragedies such as these will continue to occur.

The writers’ critical analyses of foster care systems focus predominantly on two Australian jurisdictions, Victoria and South Australia, referring to policies and practices in other Western countries, indicating their similarities and differences to Australian practices.

Various chapters address the issues and concerns of Indigenous children. This is extremely important in the Australian context due to their overrepresentation in care systems.

The study is wide-ranging and comprehensive in its coverage of foster care practices over 200 years. The treatment of birth families, placement of sibling groups in care, impact on children of foster carers, foster carer motivation and remuneration, and the ongoing trauma, grief, and further abuse experienced by children in care provide distressing insights into the complex and generally unknown world of foster care.

In chapter 6, entitled “Philosophies, Rhetoric and Practices,” the writers highlight the ongoing issue of stigma and shame experienced by children in foster care, through no fault of their own. Unwilling to discuss their situation of “being in care,” and aided and abetted by systems supposedly protecting their “privacy,” the wider community has little knowledge or understanding of children’s day-to-day experiences. Popular perceptions of foster care have also been affected by a lack of newspaper reporting. Over an extensive period of time (1865–1952), the writers found predominantly negative, rather than positive, stories of children in care in this media form. Similarly negative findings were found in the Victorian department records of children who had been in care.

The authors found a positive aspect around changing community perception of foster care, in the emergence of autobiographical stories by care leavers (see Chapter 8). These stories, they argue, play a profound healing role for care leavers, as well as providing knowledge to the wider community which hopefully contributes to lessening the stigma and shame attached to being in care.

The writers note that in more recent times, kinship (or relative) care has become the predominant and preferred form of home-based care for children needing it. While kinship care has its own issues and concerns, research indicates that it is a better option for children requiring care, particularly Indigenous children, where maintaining family connections and culture are paramount. This form of care is also perceived as less stigmatizing and children in kinship care are found to have better educational outcomes. While not overly optimistic about the future of fostering services available for children requiring care, the authors hope their study will initiate “a critical conversation” about how the care system can be improved.

If there is any criticism to be leveled at this study, it is that some stories and sections are overly long, at times the text moves disjointedly between different periods, and in general, it is harrowing to read. The reviewer found little relevance in the fictional stories (compared to the autobiographical accounts) around fostering discussed in Chapter 8. Overall, a somewhat better balance may have been achieved by including additional positive stories of carers and children’s experiences of fostering. It will be difficult for readers to remain hopeful that improvements will be possible in the provision foster care. This is not to deny that the writers have made an original and significant contribution to the area, though—the study is well referenced and the text should be seen as essential reading for graduate and undergraduate students in social work and child welfare.

Corinne T. Field, University of Virginia

Dee MichellAbout Dee Michell

Dee Michell is a feminist theologian and social researcher based at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.  She was made a Ward of the South Australian State in 1960 and remained in foster care for 15 years. She worked as an administrator for a multi-national corporation before going to university in her 40s. From 2013-2016, Dee worked with Nell Musgrove on a 3-year Australian federal government funded project on the history of foster care in Australia (with Nell Musgrove,).  A book based on the findings, The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia. Just Like A Family?  was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.  

Dee is currently working on “Care Leaver Activism & Advocacy: From Deficit Models to Survivor Narratives” (https://www.morethanourchildhoods.org/).



Nell MusgroveAbout Nell Musgrove

Nell Musgrove is an Associate Professor of history at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne where she researches and teaches on the history of childhood, Australian history and the history of crime in Australia. She has written histories of the two major provisions for children separated from their families across the 19th and 20th centuries: institutions—The Scars Remain (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2013)—and foster care—The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia co-authored with Dee Michell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Her current major project, again in collaboration with Dee Michell, examines the long history of social stigmatising of children placed in institutions and foster care. It includes a study of how, why and how often 19th-century children who grew up in from government-run institutions and foster care had encounters with criminal justice systems in later life. The project also uses digital storytelling to capture the diverse ways in which generations of Care Leavers (people who grew up in out-of-home care) have survived, thrived and contributed to community (https://www.morethanourchildhoods.org/)


This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, which provides conversations about important contributions to the history of childhood and youth.