‘Baby Farming’ and the Care of Children

What is meant by the term ‘baby farming’ and why was there such a strong reaction against it in mid-19th Century New Zealand?

People have always cared for each other’s children to some degree, usually within extended family groups. But in the 1800s, Victorian morality and economic hardship resulted in an increasing number of unwanted children being placed outside their families, either temporarily or permanently.

At that time, it was almost impossible for a young unmarried woman to care alone for a child, due to a combination of poverty and bigotry or false morality. Some women were obliged to make their newborn ‘disappear’; others managed to make part-time care arrangements while they worked. While many infants were adequately cared for, some were tragically neglected by their caretakers, even murdered for fiscal gain.

The infant mortality rate was universally high in the 19th Century, even in intact, well-to-do families. Multiple factors contributed: malnutrition, lack of understanding of transmission of illnesses, poverty and lack of nutrition, lack of hygiene, no vaccines, few effective medical treatments.

Breast fed infants had the best chance of survival. For those infants banished to institutional care, the mortality rate rose to above 90%.

Women who provided a service by caring for infants and children in their homes might best be compared with present day foster parents. It was the latter part of the 20th Century before it was thought ‘safe’ to recompense foster parents for caring for children, for fear the payment of money would risk exploitation or harm of children.

What type of ‘carer’ was Minnie Dean and what motivated her to take children into her home? You be the judge.