By Dr Sharron Lane

  • This article examines the work of several Superintendents who together had some success in changing Victoria’s stagnant child welfare system in the early 1960s.
  • It features the work of Alfred Spencer Colliver and the Kildonan Children’s Home which he transformed in the space of just five years.
  • More than just changing Kildonan, together with several other inexperienced, but well educated and idealistic peers, Colliver challenged the ‘business as usual’ attitudes which had developed in the sector.
  • In presenting this paper the author hopes to challenge policy makers to question this era of the ‘expert’ and to ask what ‘crazy brave’ idealists could bring to policy analysis so sectors could be changed.

This article reflects on reforms made to Victoria’s child welfare system in the 1960s. By examining key aspects of the development of the family group method of care it asks: ‘What benefits can be gained by placing inexperienced but educated idealists in charge of policy development?’ Much of the evidence for the success of this process can be seen in the organisation which at the time was known as Kildonan Children’s Home in the work of its leader Alfred Spencer Colliver. Kildonan was a Presbyterian-managed congregate care home which had its foundations in the child rescue work of Selina Sutherland in the 1880s. By the time Colliver accepted his role as the first male Superintendent, the Kildonan home was located in the suburb of Burwood in Melbourne’s east. This paper argues that there is a place for the inexperienced, educated idealist who is ‘‘crazy brave’’ and willing to push a stagnant sector to change.

Alfred Spencer Colliver in 1961

Alfred Spencer Colliver became a legend in the mythology of Kildonan UnitingCare (now part of the wider Uniting organisation). He and several other male colleagues have been remembered as changing the Victorian child welfare system in the early 1960s. In many ways it was a remarkable period of transformation. As late as the 1950s many children who were managed by the state system were placed in large congregate care homes run by various private homes managed by religious denominations. Many of these organisations had a history and methods that ran back well into the middle of the nineteenth century. Kildonan Children’s Home was no exception. It housed about 75 children at the time from the ages of three to teenage girls, the boys having departed to a sister organisation, Kilmany Park when they turned 11 years old.

Colliver came to the organisation from the education system. He had taught at a prestigious private school. He had also been involved as a volunteer in various youth organisations through his commitment to his local church. He had no formal experience of the child welfare system. It was probably his faith background that in part determined his single-minded belief in the importance of the nuclear family as the centre and locus for the successful raising of children. This faith, along with his subsequent social work training undertaken at Melbourne University, provided Colliver with the courage to lead Kildonan away from the congregate care method to the ideal of the suburban family group home.

In the Annual Report of 1961 Colliver set out his manifesto for changing Kildonan. He listed four priorities for change, all of which revolved around an unwavering belief in the family. His first statement was simply that ‘Children belong in Families’. He argued that every effort should have been made to keep children ‘in their homes’. His second statement called for support for struggling families stating ‘Children Belong in Their Own Families’. According to Colliver more experienced social workers were needed to provide preventative services. His third and fourth proposals suggested that if such intervention failed then a substitute family must be provided. ‘Children Belong in Voluntary Foster Families’ and finally if no family is forthcoming then ‘Children Belong in Family Group Homes’. These substitute families, he argued would be able to replicate the nurturing environment of the nuclear family.

Other research at the time, such as the Curtis Report which criticised Britain’s child welfare systems after the Second World War and the well-known work of John Bowlby had also made recommendations about the move from the dormitory style of care children received in state managed systems to methods with a greater family focus. Colliver and several other Superintendents of Victoria’s privately managed children’s homes were unusual as they were prepared to make the case that all the children managed by their organisations should be placed into such arrangements. As an idealist Colliver was to argue that the children at Kildonan deserved what he considered to be the best practice model of care.

The family had long been seen in most quarters as a good model to improve the outcomes for children in the local child welfare system. The Victorian government itself had begun to use two smaller, more intimate ‘cottage family’ units as early as the middle of the 1950s. These were located at the government receiving home where children were first placed under the government’s authority. The Royal Park facility simply redesigned one building to create two separate units each with eight children in care and one ‘cottage mother’ in charge. While they had some success in improving the behaviour of children placed into these units, their purpose was pragmatic and temporary – the government simply wished to make children suitable to be moved out into foster care.

For Colliver and his colleagues, however, the nuclear family; mother, father and children was the aspirational and therapeutic model of care. Colliver bought the house next door to the Kildonan site in 1958. With the support of the government’s Children’s Welfare Department he piloted a family group home. John Janicke who ran the Melbourne Orphanage followed a similar path to Colliver. He had already begun to pilot several homes. Given their unwavering belief in this method it is not surprising that as with the government’s earlier trials, children’s behaviour was quickly judged to have improved, allowing these men to press for further adaptations to the organisations they managed.

While Janicke met some resistance to his plan to sell the large congregate care home to make way for small suburban based group homes, Colliver was on the charm offensive. Having taken more than a year to learn about the home and the sector, Colliver was able to convince both the committees who had governed the work since its inception, to give him authority to change Kildonan’s methods and its emphasis drastically. He did this by systematically attending most meetings and explaining his thoughts about what was appropriate and how he thought Kildonan could change. In being so open about his plans he took the leadership with him. In part this was because of his own unwavering belief. Colliver was revealing his idealism. A functioning, nuclear family, he believed, even a larger than average and artificially formed one, could create therapeutic change.

He was assisted in his course by the government who wished to purchase a new site for their receiving home to enable them to redesignate the Royal Park site for different purposes. Initially Colliver and the committees had been proposing to redesign the Kildonan’s buildings into smaller family units similar to those at Royal Park. The government’s offer provided Colliver with the opportunity to fully embrace the suburban mixed gender and age family group home method. He never questioned the wisdom of this course of action after piloting the program so successfully next door. In December 1960, Colliver successfully convinced the entire Presbyterian assembly to sell the Kildonan property they had owned since 1937 to the government.

Colliver had to create an entirely new organisation. He needed seven homes to be purchased and ready in the space of six months; he already had two in operation, one being the successful pilot home. These new homes had to be found in suburbs surrounding Box Hill, where he planned to locate the administration centre, which was to be combined with a small receiving home and short term care facility. This was just the start. All the homes had to be large as they were intended to have eight children from the home in each as well as any children the cottage parents had. He had no cottage parents, no facility to train any new staff, no policies in place and such a short time frame in which to accomplish what was a mammoth feat. Colliver so believed in this method he fully embraced the change without countenancing any planning for failure of any kind. This was indeed ‘crazy brave’.

Colliver achieved his goals. By the middle of 1961 all the homes had been purchased and the large site in Burwood had been handed over to the government. There were inevitably some setbacks. The children’s lives were disrupted. They had been used to the large home where they mixed with a range of peers. Now they only had a few children of mixed ages and genders placed with them with new staff in a different and foreign environment. Not all the children settled. Some resisted the transformation and challenged the cottage parents’ new authority. Others got ill, but overall Colliver achieved his aims.

Melbourne Orphanage Brighton
Melbourne Orphanage (Photo from State Library of Victoria)

He was not alone. Several other child welfare providers began to move to either suburban based homes, or they renovated existing sites as Colliver himself had initially planned. John Janicke eventually managed in a staggered way to sell Melbourne Orphanage’s congregate care site and move all children into smaller homes. Sister Agatha Rogers, with financial assistance from the government, did the same with the Catholic Saint Catherine’s Home. Others, such as the Reverend Neil Molloy from Saint John’s Boys Home in Canterbury redesigned their facilities while also purchasing extra homes off site. All these privately managed organisations together became an example for other providers to follow.

Other organisations were much slower to change. The work of the ‘crazy brave’ idealists, however, placed pressure on those who were more reluctant to modify their methods. Many of these homes, such as Sutherland Homes, were still run by committees, or in the case of Catholic institutions, by groups who lacked the visionary spark of Colliver and his fellow pioneers. Meanwhile, Kildonan and the other organisations regularly opened their doors for the public and media to inspect the new family group method. Colliver used the media and the general public to call for change having given his fellow providers what he considered to be the model of best practice.

Colliver continued to use his networks to call for change too. In 1955 after the government enacted its Children’s Welfare Act 1954, it had set up an advisory group to recommend improvements for the system to the Chief Secretary who still managed child welfare in Victoria. Arthur Rylah who was Chief Secretary while Colliver was developing Kildonan, had great respect for Colliver. He asked him to join the newly named Family Group Advisory Council in July 1961, just as he completed his major changes to Kildonan. Others on the committee joined him in continuing to pressure both the government and other private providers to change their procedures and move to a family focused model of care.

Despite these calls from Colliver and his peers the government began to resist the call for all children to be placed in similar arrangements. While the government had been committed to a form of foster care, which began as a boarding-out system in the early 1870s, its reasons for this commitment were essentially financial. It did not pay families much to care for its wards of state. Not all children in the government system could be found foster families and since the late nineteenth century the government had relied on placing children into privately managed homes.

The government paid the homes a similar amount to foster families. Group homes were an entirely different matter. Purchasing new large homes, or renovating older ones for this method of care was expensive. The cost of maintaining the children in these homes was much higher than either congregate care or foster placement. Pragmatic as ever, the government soon began to realise that the cost of these new systems was much higher than the cost of congregate care. It slowed the process of change by resisting calls for more private homes to move to this new system.

There were other setbacks too. The cost of running the homes day to day weighed on the finances of these private providers. While their large congregate care homes were visible to a generous public, the new homes were not. Many volunteers had provided their time to assist the systems in the large homes but, apart from taking children in holiday placements these opportunities to assist the new homes were also limited. Without the buy-in of connection, these privately managed homes found it much more difficult to garnish funds to support their new endeavours.

The costs of running these new homes were also much higher, as the government had quickly come to appreciate. Colliver was so committed to the therapeutic model of care that he set up the homes to be managed by social workers.  Thanks to Colliver and those who believed as he did, the social work profession was making major inroads into child welfare. By the middle of the 1960s Colliver and his colleagues were lobbying the government for more financial support for the homes. They were only partly successful. Changes had to be made.

In response to these ongoing financial pressures, Colliver amalgamated his social work department with the Methodist one in order to save costs. The homes were still managed by social workers who also case-managed both the children and their families. The costs of this unwavering commitment was that two of the group homes were wound back so they could be sold to provide much needed funds. Rather than compromising his position, Colliver still believed his model of care was viable.

The sector became a combination of old and new practices. The stark difference between the day to day lives of a child in one of Colliver’s group homes versus the treatment of a child in an overcrowded congregate care home would inevitably lead to the modernisation of child welfare in the 1970s. While it was not an easy or straight forward transition, it was eventually achieved.

Colliver and his associates stand as an example of how change can be facilitated when a ‘crazy brave’ individual is given the authority to dream big. The government’s approach to child welfare of encouraging private providers and ‘lightly regulating’ them created space for idealists like Colliver to create new models of care. Colliver and his colleagues had not been discouraged by the barriers to change that existed in the sector. They had not been in the sector long enough to become experts in child welfare. They were converts to the system and like most new converts had a zeal to see it improved.

Colliver and his associates brought with them a willingness to listen and learn. They had fresh eyes. While the outcomes were not perfect, idealists like Colliver transformed a backward-looking and stagnant sector in the space of about five years. Together, Colliver and his colleagues led the way forward, not just in Victoria, but across Australia and overseas. That is something today’s policy makers should reflect upon.


Bowlby, John, and Margery Fry. Child Care and the Growth of Love. Melbourne: Pelican Books, 1953

Care of Children Committee (1946) Report of the Care of Children Committee

(Chairman: Myra Curtis) Cmd. 6922 London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office

Jaggs, Donella. Asylum to Action: Family Action 1851-1991, a History of Services and

Policy Development for Families in Times of Vulnerability. Oakleigh East: Family Action, 1991.

Lane, Sharron. The Significance of Individual Contributions to the History of Kildonan UnitingCare. PhD Thesis, Australian Catholic University, 2018.

Dr. Sharron Lane
Dr. Sharron Lane

Dr. Sharron Lane’s PhD, completed in August 2018, was titled The Significance of Individual Contributions to the History of Kildonan UnitingCare. She has subsequently worked at ACU teaching Indigeneous History. She has a background in social research supporting a variety of community programs.