New child protection proposals ‘lack clarity’

The Child Protection Act is being amended under new Family Minister Michael Farrugia.

Lack of consultation on the Child Protection Act limits the effectiveness of fresh proposals, which fail to understand the trauma of forced contact between parents and their children, according to experts.

Former minister Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca had presented a draft of the long-awaited Act in 2014, but the Bill is being amended under new Family Minister Michael Farrugia.

In April, the Maltese Association of Social Workers was given a drafted version of the Bill. However, those who spoke to this newspaper believe it is impractical as a result of lack of discussion.

One social worker said the amendments were the result of a one-man-job, contrary to the previous draft for which all stakeholders, including children, had been consulted.

“Instead of moving forward, we’re moving backwards. After being placed in long-term fostering, children could still be returned to their biological parents according to the fresh proposals. This does not give them any stability,” he said.

One of the issues that has troubled foster carers for years is that of stability for the children they care for. As things stand, only temporary foster care exists, with carers facing a review every six months. Introducing permanent fostering would remove this uncertainty and allow for future planning.”

The draft, which the newspaper has seen a copy of, obliges foster carers to facilitate and ensure contact between children and their family, or any other person, as decided by the Review Board. Residential homes could also be given responsibility for facilitating “regular and frequent contact”.

“This is not always possible, especially in cases when the biological parents are violent. Are we obliging foster parents, or nuns, to allow perpetrators in their home,” he asked, insisting that other loopholes, including the lack of understanding of the trauma of forced contact, were the result of lack of consultation.

Another social worker who spoke to this newspaper noted that the way the Bill was presented made it difficult to figure out how it would be put into practice.

“It lacks clarity and a sense of how the different entities mentioned – including court and social services – are going to be working together in the interest of the children concerned. It can do with a stricter focus on the child and it needs to ensure that this focus is present throughout – at times the Bill misses this and seems to place emphasis on the parents,” she said, noting that while all attempts should be made to ensure that the least number of children were separated from their parents, the Child Protection Bill should reflect the state’s primary aim of championing the child.

She also referred to children’s stability, noting that as the proposals stood, a child could end up in long-term foster care for years on end, with no decision about their future.

This could impact their sense of security, contrary to the 2014 Bill, which had said that after 22 months in care, a child’s placement would become permanent.

There is also no mention of the possibility of children in care moving onto adoption at any point in their childhood and adolescence. Another children welfare expert meanwhile noted that the amended proposals lacked principles that would improve the well-being of vulnerable children.

Focusing on child protection pushed the belief that the responsibility for improving children’s well-being was limited to child protection services.

Protecting and improving the well-being of children should be everyone’s responsibility and the finalised Bill should state this clearly, he noted.

Questions sent to the Family Ministry remained unanswered.