Children cannot spend years in care

Children cannot spend years in care waiting for someone to decide their future, and a new protection law should ensure that never happens, social workers insist.

The Maltese Association of Social Workers (MASW) is calling for a law that includes clear deadlines within which professionals will have to submit plans for children in out-of-home care.

“First and foremost, this law has to be about children and this means it needs to include permanency. Permanency for children means stability, security and having some form of structure in their lives.

“We cannot have children lost in out-of-home care. Children cannot spend years in care, waiting for someone to decide about their future… waiting for their parents to one day wake up and do something about their issues,” association chairman Joseph Antoncich told Times of Malta.

Earlier this month, the MASW set up a group of stakeholders – including Appoġġ social workers, representatives of children’s homes and foster carers – to give the Family Ministry feedback about the new Child Protection Bill.

A draft of the law had been submitted by President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, when she was family and social solidarity minister, in 2014, following consultation with all stakeholders, including children.

The Bill was put on hold and then amended, with experts in the meantime voicing concern about lack of consultation.

“First and foremost, this law has to be about children and this means it needs to include permanency”
Last April, the MASW was given a copy of a new draft and, at the beginning of May, the association brought together the stakeholders to provide the Family Ministry with feedback.

One of the social workers’ main concerns remains permanency, fearing that the longer children are made to wait, the greater the risk of trauma.

Rather than setting a blanket two-year deadline for out-of-home care to become permanent, deadlines should be set for a permanency plan. This plan would determine where children would be residing within a set timeframe.

“If a child’s parents have not made any progress on their issues, then let him or her move towards stability and move in with a family, whether it’s fostering, adoption or open adoption [remaining in touch with biological parents],” Mr Antoncich said, noting that while adoption was not ideal for everyone, it was not even mentioned in the new draft.

Meanwhile, the MASW is calling for more trust in professionals assigned to monitor each child in care, which includes psychologists, doctors, counsellors, social workers and psychiatrists.

As things stand, professionals meet every six months, draw up a review which they take to the advisory board, which then decides on issues such as travelling, therapy or contact with the biological parents, among others.

“This board doesn’t know the children as much as the professionals do, so why don’t we scrap the idea of a board altogether? Why don’t the professionals, who know these children, make such decisions,” he asked, adding that the law courts could be brought in for major decisions, such as returning the child to their biological family.

According to Mr Antoncich, a positive proposal in the new draft is that the court, rather than the ministry, would be issuing care orders. However, the “brilliant” ‘removal order’ included in the previous draft, which would have evicted the perpetrator from the house, has been scrapped from the new draft.

Children who experience domestic violence often question why they had to leave their home instead of the abuser. This meant that while they were already going through trauma because of the abuse, they had to go through the ordeal of being removed from their house, the association’s secretary Katya Muscat noted.

The new draft introduces a ‘training order’, which invites parents to take up parental skills training. Social workers fear magistrates could resort to this order if they were undecided.

Instead of limiting a care order to parental training, such training could form part of the social worker’s care plan drawn in line with the removal of the child from their parents’ house.

Mr Antoncich noted that the previous Bill had listed a series of responsibilities for the State, which were not included in from the new draft. These included providing adequate training to professionals and placements for children.

The law, he noted, should serve as a reminder to the State about its responsibilities.