THE STIPENDIARY Magistrate of the South Australian Juvenile Court was perplexed. ‘Almost without exception …’ he wrote of the children who came before his court, ‘… they are products of disrupting experience, neglect, lack of adequate supervision and direction and absence of parental affection.’
It was the 1950s and he was aware that in their loneliness, these children repeatedly absconded or turned to crime, and as a result were eventually sent to reformatories. He knew that once there, they were the children who never received visits from personal friends or relatives. He was adamant that the court’s attempt to administer justice was thwarted when social injustice had already taken a hold on so many children. If they were to have any opportunities in life, then someone needed to promote their wellbeing and their prospects.
That magistrate was William A. (Bill) Scales, who, in an act of extraordinary foresight with his wife Betty, established the Society of Sponsors (SOS) in 1960. Launched at the Adelaide Town Hall on 22 April, by Lord Mayor L.M.S. Hargrave, SOS opened for business with a list of 40 children and donations totalling £1378.
Every year up to 40 sponsors were selected and approved to regularly visit a child, or occasionally to take the child into their home for a break from institutional care. Over the years, some sponsors eventually fostered or adopted the child they had been allocated.
But as with every new venture, SOS was fraught with difficulties. Sickness and epidemics frequently swept through the children’s homes and prevented contact with sponsors.
Sometimes, relationships between children and sponsors broke down, leading to disappointed sponsors and a sense of rejection for children. Indeed, in 1965 the superintendent of one home reported to the Society, ‘On the occasions that I have the pleasure of addressing a gathering of sponsors I say, Please do not ask me for a “nice little boy” as I am fresh out of angels.’ He urged sponsors to appreciate that even though they would not be offered a child with very special needs, what they did for these children was vastly more challenging than enjoying the company of a ‘nice little boy’.
Occasionally, children would transfer to foster care. This was cause for celebration because it meant they now had a family, even though their sponsors would miss them. On other occasions, children who did not have a sponsor found it difficult to understand why nobody visited them.
Notwithstanding the difficulties, superintendents of the homes wrote about this as a sacred trust and regularly reported on the difference that sponsorship made to the lives of children. They said these children were better at social interaction and communication and were more confident. Sponsors became an everyday part of their lives, even to the point of small girls using the term when playing with their dolls.
In the 1960s and 70s, deinstitutionalisation meant that children were moved from large institutions to foster care and small cottage homes. That’s when SOS shifted its focus to children who were still in the care of their parents or other relatives. Some say this was the genesis of the organisation’s current emphasis on linking kids with sponsors to prevent trouble, rather than attempting to repair the damage after it happened.
These were, and still are, the children of parents who struggle with overwhelming social, health and economic difficulties. Sometimes they teeter on the edge of family breakdown or the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Bill Scales presided over the society for nine years until April 1969, when cancer claimed his life at 61. At that time, the SOS managing committee had 20 members. There were 131 sponsors, 32 of them appointed that year. By then it was accepted that school holiday visits were as beneficial to some children as the more frequent weekend visits. Hence, a role had emerged for sponsors from country regions.
It could be argued that during Bill’s presidency, Betty Scales was the wind beneath his wings. Since the society’s inception, Betty had been the honorary secretary. She also recruited, advised and supported sponsor families and arranged and hosted numerous fundraising and sponsor functions. She even performed social work duties until the society appointed a professional, Mr C.J. Walker, in 1969. And the year after Bill’s death, Betty stepped into the role of president, where she served for eight years.
Waiting on the sidelines was a tall, handsome young lawyer, Philip Scales, a committee member and the couple’s younger child. When his mother retired in 1977, Philip was elected society president. At that time SOS had $2500 in a deposit stock and $411 in the bank. That year, more than 200 children spent school holidays with sponsor families and 81 new sponsors were recruited. And that was the year the organisation decided to form closer links with the pre-school sector, to reach more children during their formative years.
Philip inherited his parents’ well-honed sense of social justice. He saw the operations of SOS on a daily basis until he left home to marry Bibby in 1968. His own work as a family lawyer provided acute insight into the perils of divorce for the children of some marriages when fault needed to be proven. And his role as a criminal lawyer, and in later years as a member of the Parole Board, provided first-hand knowledge of the value of SOS as a crime prevention program.
Under Philip’s presidency, the Time for Kids budget from fundraising and minimal government funding rose to $600,000. He led changes of name from ‘SOS’, to ‘SOS for Children’, announced in 1997 in the presence of the Patron, Dame Roma Mitchell, former State Governor and Supreme Court judge – and then in 2004 to ‘Time for Kids’. Over the years the organisation moved its operations from private homes to professional premises.
Philip remained president of the organisation until 2011. Ben Scales, Philip’s son and the grandson of our founders, was elected into the role of president at that time.
Management, staff and the Board of Time for Kids have displayed exemplary abilities at pulling rabbits out of hats. It has always been a focus to ensure children receive the best services without compromising cost efficiencies. Each year, TFK volunteers provide more than 50,000 hours of their time to children for no monetary reward or compensation. But the situation remains as it was in 1960: there are still far more children than volunteer families.
Since its inception, Time for Kids has linked more than 5000 children with families prepared to give them a break.
It was 50 years ago, at the SOS inaugural AGM, that Bill Scales said, ‘Time and again a child appears in court who I feel only needs a sponsor to help him overcome his problems.’ That thought gave birth to a program that remains unique to this day. It enables ordinary people to make an extraordinary difference to a kid from a struggling family by tipping the scales of social justice just a little in their favour.
Adapted from ‘It’s about time: giving kids a break‘ by Bunty Parsons and Di Maguire