Sole interest of Children and Young Persons Advisory Board should be to promote children’s interests

Inquiry was appointed by the prime minister

Judge Michael Mallia said the board should have only one interest – to exclusively promote children’s interests.

The board that advises on out-of-home care should never risk the children’s future or feel torn between their and the parents’ interests, a judge has warned.

The Children and Young Persons Advisory Board “should have only one interest – to exclusively promote children’s interests. Every other interest is secondary,” Judge Michael Mallia said in his conclusions of an inquiry into the board’s operations.

The inquiry was appointed by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat after Nationalist MP Robert Cutajar alleged in Parliament in October of 2015, that in several instances, the board failed to heed social workers’ reports and decisions were taken against children’s interests.

The board advises the minister on the best methods of dealing with every child or young person who is committed to, or taken into his care, to monitor these children and to promote their welfare.

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Mr Justice Mallia heard the testimony of several professionals, including foster carers.

One of his conclusions was that there was no political pressure on any decision taken by the Board.

While there could have been biological parents who spoke to a minister, which they had the right to do, it resulted that there was no ministerial influence on the decisions taken by the board.

However, he added: “Certain decisions taken by the consultative board could have been more in favour of the child’s interests than those of the biological parents, whereby reintegration could have been postponed to a more appropriate time until the biological parents were truly ready, and there was enough evidence, that they could provide a meaningful upbringing for their children.

“In the absence of such proof, the board should not risk the children’s future, or in some way feel torn between conflicting interests.”

Read: Number of care orders falls despite increase in child protection referrals

In his report, Mr Justice Mallia refers to a declaration by the board’s chair Carmen Fearne, who had noted that the board’s duty was also to bring children closer to their parents and if possible, try reintegrate them in their biological home. The judge did not believe that this was the board’s task, as this might not be genuinely in the children’s interest.

He insisted on this point again later when he noted that the few foster carers he interviewed were kind-hearted and truly had the children’s interest at heart.

“And while Ms Fearne might declare that she feels like (King) Solomon who has to share the children between foster carers and parents, foster carers’ aim is the children’s welfare.

“As much as it is real, the concept mentioned by Ms Fearne should no longer be the Board’s consideration. The only consideration that the Board, and the social workers working with the Board, should have, is the children’s interest, and that these are returned only to their biological family if it was exclusively in their – and no one else’s – interest.”

In his considerations, Mr Justice Mallia also referred to complaints by foster carers about intimidation and an arrogant attitude by the board. The judge suggested that foster carers have access to social workers’ reports about the children under their care, so that they would have the opportunity to voice their concern on situations they deem inappropriate.

In a statement, the ministry noted that the proposed Child Protection Act, which is still being revised, stipulates that people can request access to Care Order documents through the courts.