Paul Gatt and Daniella Zerafa have been married for 18 years and have fostered three children over the past six years. Their first child was four years old when she was fostered and has been with them for six years. A year and a half ago they wanted to foster another child and were told about a young girl.
A few days before fostering her, they were told that her brother also needed a home, as otherwise he would end up in a residential home. They did not think it fair that one sibling was in a family environment while the other would be in an institution, so they decided to foster them together. Until then the siblings had both lived together and had a close bond.
Apart from the enormous task of being foster carers, Paul is also the president of the National Foster Care Association whilst Daniella is a social worker as well as a university lecturer in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work. She also completed her doctoral research on what makes social workers recommend care orders for children suffering abuse or neglect, as is the case with many fostered children.
The fact that she worked with child protection services as well as carrying out research in the area gives her a holistic perspective on the subject. However, “The experience of fostering itself, having children living with you, in your own family, gives you the necessary skills as to the needs of the children,” Daniella points out.
Speaking from both perspectives, they feel that, considering the amount of sacrifice that goes into raising foster children, their efforts go unnoticed and not enough support and protection is provided. Protection is sometimes required when the biological family is unsupportive and aggressive.
What is the process of fostering?
Paul and Daniella explain what the process of fostering a child is like, both in terms of the logistics as well as being prepared on an emotional level.
The first step in fostering is to contact the agency, in this case, Aġenzija Appoġġ. There is usually a one-off initial encounter with a social worker to get to know the prospective foster carer/s.
Aġenzija Appoġġ runs a specific training programme for foster carers, which include about six sessions of three hours each. The programme is necessary to equip carers with the skills required for fostering and as Daniella explains, “so that one would know what they are getting into”.
Different situations are presented by which children would require fostering and how to deal with the fact that the children may have contact with their biological family.
A proportion of prospective carers already have their own children so during the programme they must understand that this is an altogether different experience from raising their own children. “With fostering, the caregiver must remain in constant contact with professionals, and certain decisions about the child are not yours to make. You are accountable to the agency in all decisions you take about the children,” Daniella explains.
After the training programme, a decision is made as to whether they wish to go ahead with fostering. In fact, there are people who decide to opt out of fostering at this point.
If the decision is to go ahead, the assessment period commences and a set number of forms need to be completed as well as six or seven home visits by a social worker. A particular social worker is assigned to the family.
The focus of these visits is to assess the skills of the foster carer/s as well as the general workings of the family. If the prospective parents are a couple, the dynamics of the relationship are also analysed. “The assessment is quite rigorous,” Daniella says.
Part of the assessment includes a visit to the homes of two referees as proposed by the prospective foster carer/s. A clean bill of health both mentally and physically is also required from the family doctor to ensure they are fit to take care of other people’s children. The assessment is similar to that required for the adoption process.
Anyone with the sufficient skills to care for children, including single people, can become foster carers. During and following the assessment process there is the matching stage whereby the prospective foster carer/s lifestyle, strengths and weakness are matched with those suitable for the child.
Daniella explains that there are so many children that need fostering that matching does take into consideration the prospective foster carer/s wishes. Between the initial training programme to the day, the child enters the family the time is minimal, usually just a few months. Unfortunately, it is usually the children who have to wait a long time for a foster family.
As with both Paul and Daniella’s cases, it happens that they would have never met the child before the day they come to stay. “You only know a few days before the exact day when the child will be coming to stay. You would not have even seen a photo of them. You also have to see it from their point of view as well; they would have never met us, especially if they are of a certain age, it is definitely difficult for them”, Daniella explains.
In their experience, as well as that of a number of other foster carers, the children adapt quickly to their new environment. It is possible that since most of these children come from very difficult situations when they find stability and attention it comes as a sense of relief to them.
Difficulties faced by foster carers
Paul and Daniella believe that one of the main reasons that people are hesitant to foster is the lack of permanence of the situation. As the law currently stands, no matter how long the child has been fostered by the family the situation must be reviewed every six months to determine if the child should remain with the foster family. This creates a sense of instability within the family and results in a lack of long-term planning which is essential for a child’s upbringing.
They explain that life as a foster parent is never easy and constant contact needs to be maintained with the authorities, such as when the family would like to travel abroad with the children. There are a number of regulations that must be followed as well as special permission granted by the Minister. Paul believes that if these children are trusted to live with them on a daily basis then such decisions like travelling abroad should be passed on to the foster carers.
Another problem for foster carers is that their concerns are not given sufficient weight and are not listened to enough by professionals making the decisions. “This gives a bad reputation to fostering which does not encourage more people to make the decision to foster,” Paul says.
Contact with the biological family
Aġenzija Appoġġ makes the decision if and when the children should remain in contact with their biological family. “Ideally, it should be in the interest of the child but it is often the case that social workers are pressured by some biological parents to see their children more often. I was a social worker; I know what it is like and how hard it can be to tell parents that they can only see their children, for example, once a month,” says Daniella. “That’s why there should be professionals who determine these decisions without bias and pressure from adults,” Paul adds.
From a research perspective, Daniella explains that there are two conflicting areas of research discussing if it is beneficial for the child to keep on seeing his/her biological family. On one hand, research shows that is important for the children to remain in contact with their biological families and on the other hand other research shows that it is too confusing for the child.
Daniella believes that both views have their own merit. A child needs to remain in contact with their biological family because it is essential for them to know their roots as without knowledge of this it is sometimes very difficult for the child to move forward. On the other hand, it also depends on the personal experience of the child during the visits. If the parent does not accept the fact that his or her child had to go live elsewhere than this can cause confusion for the child.
The literature emphasises the fact that stability and security are of utmost importance so if visits enhance these factors then it should be condoned, if not then it should not be forced on the child.
Life after foster care
After foster care, there are three options. One is the possibility is to age out, which means that when child reaches the age of 18 years the care order would automatically end.
The second is reunification whereby the child is reunited with his or her biological family. With this option, Paul explains how the Association has expressed their concerns to the Ministry. However, their concerns fell over deaf ears as they never received any replies.
The Association even made contact with the Commissioner for Children about concerns over children when meeting their biological families but again no replies were forthcoming. “Even the foster carer, in this case, alerted the authorities about the problem but nothing was done,” Paul explains.
“You do not have a say as a foster carer to stop the process of reunification. You have to open a case in court which will probably take so long it will be too late,” he continues. Even after reunification, the follow-up the children receive is minimal, with visits from social workers being infrequent.
Another problem Paul faces as part of the Association is the lack of communication and consultation with the Ministry concerned. The Association raised a number of concerns about the fostering process but the Ministry was very curt in its replies, only noting the fact that the allowance was raised from €70 to €100, which was not mentioned as one of the concerns of the Association.
The last option is the possibility of adoption by the foster carers. To date, Daniella says that very few children in foster care end up being adopted.
At the start of the fostering process, it is understandable that the situation is somewhat fluid; however, as time goes by, especially after a number of years, it no longer remains fostering but something permanent. The aim of fostering is that the child is placed with foster carers until such time that their biological family can take care of them again. That concept falls apart after many years with the foster carers as their family by then would be established as that with their fosterers.
However, she also refers to a new Bill that will make it easier for foster carers to have the possibility of eventually adopting the child.
The new Child Protection Bill – the light at the end of the tunnel
The Child Protection Bill was originally tabled in Parliament by President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, the then Minister for the Family and Social Solidarity. The draft law was revised by her successor Michael Farrugia. The new Act was approved by the House in January 2017 but a legal notice bringing it into force was not published.
Due to the change in the legislature, the Ministry had to re-table the Bill but decided to consult once again with the stakeholders including foster carers.
The new Bill states that there will be an evaluation to instate permanent fostering which means that although the children will not be adopted by the carers they will remain in their care until the age of 18. In addition, health, travel and education decisions will become the responsibility of the foster carers. However, there are no fixed terms and after evaluation, the fostering period can be extended without the possibility of permanent fostering.
The new Bill also sees the voice of foster carers being heard since every decision concerning the child requires the opinion of the carers.
According to the Foundation for Social Welfare Services, there are currently 178 foster carers and 214 children in foster care. Foster care placements vary from short-term to long-term, kinship fostering, specialised fostering, as well as respite placements.