Tasmania’s Neglected Children’s Department was established in 1896, as a result of public anxiety engendered by the presence of numerous children in the streets during 1890s Depression. The Department employed foster mothers to look after the children who were defined as neglected and committed to its care. Extensive files of the children were kept, providing a unique opportunity to study the relationship between the state and the working class, in early twentieth century Tasmania. They demonstrate that foster mothers exercised agency in their negotiations with the Department and in so doing were contributors to the development of policy. Their actions challenge the implicit assumption of much welfare historiography that policy was driven solely by an elite.