'Fearful slaughter of the innocents'
Before organised crèches or day-care centres, single mothers – and some married women, too – paid other people to look after their children. This could be a temporary arrangement while a woman was out at work, or it could end up being permanent as women simply paid others to take their children off their hands – a form of unofficial adoption. The practice came under intense public scrutiny in the late 19th century. High-profile British and Australian court cases in the 1880s introduced New Zealanders to the sinister practices of baby farmers: paid caregivers who neglected children in their care, concealed their deaths or deliberately murdered the infants.
New Zealand newspapers soon reported suspected cases of baby farming. There was usually more smoke than fire. An 1889 police survey in Christchurch revealed more honest caregivers than baby farmers. Interest was aroused though, and New Zealanders began to discover baby farmers in their midst. 'I have no hesitation in saying that the evil of "Baby-Farming" exists in this Colony to a large extent,' reported Arthur Hume, the Commissioner of Police in 1893. He claimed to know of 20 baby farms in Christchurch alone.
In an attempt to stamp out this 'fearful slaughter of the innocents', the state regulated the system of paid childcare. Under the Infant Life Protection Act, passed in 1893, all homes that received payment for looking after infants under the age of two for more than three consecutive days had to be licensed as foster homes and were subject to police inspection. Three years later, the system was tightened further in response to one of the most dramatic criminal trials in New Zealand history.