A real Child Protection Act, at last

Imagine yourself at five years old and having to wait until now, at the age of ten, for matters to finally start moving in the right direction. In the meantime, your childhood is almost over, and the most formative years of your life have been scarred and warped beyond recognition

It has taken over five years, but there seems to have finally been some real progress made on the much-needed Child Protection Act.

This delay to me is inexplicable, but one possible reason for this could be that this sector has had so many ministerial changes. Suffice to say that the Child Protection Bill was tabled in Parliament in 2013 by President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, who at the time was the minister for the family and social solidarity. Her successor, Michael Farrugia, then revised the Bill and the new Bill was approved by the House in January of 2017, however it never came into force.

The current Family Minister, Michael Falzon, then went back to the drawing board and consulted with all stakeholders, resulting in the current just-published legislation.

Meanwhile, for the children who are affected by this law, such as those who are in institutional care, and especially those who have been left to suffer in a severely dysfunctional family environment, these five years are a span of time which they will never get back. Imagine yourself at five years old and having to wait until now, at the age of ten, for matters to finally start moving in the right direction. In the meantime, your childhood is almost over, and the most formative years of your life have been scarred and warped beyond recognition.

While it seems that Falzon has taken his remit very seriously and has moved relatively fast on this legislation, it is still a crying shame for such an important sector to have been left to flounder for so many years. Those who work in the field, including social workers, family therapists and foster parents themselves, have long been clamouring for change, but heels have been dragged for whatever reason, which is inexcusable in an area which directly affects the life of vulnerable children. This is not some report full of anonymous statistics and data which can be shelved, gathering dust, because no one can be bothered to action it. These are little human beings, tomorrow’s adults, whose harrowing experiences will forever impact them in one form or another, in the way they relate to others, and how they relate to society in general.

If we cannot be bothered to have compassion for these children (because they are not “our” problem) we could at least look at it purely from a self-centred point of view and realise that if we do not take care of these children now, they will still be our collective social problem in the near future.

Published research by Danielle Zerafa, a social worker and a foster parent herself, has given us the cold hard facts when it comes to the difficult decision of removing children from their family home.

“We need to make a shift in mentality where we have always looked at children as their parents’ possession and not as individuals with rights,” Zerafa said in an interview with The Times earlier this year. “Children who have been through a difficult start in life manage to settle down when they find a stable environment. As things stand, children who have been in fostering even for 10 years could face drastic changes every six months, such as increasing contact with the biological parents, which could be traumatic, or even reuniting with them,” she said.

This is probably the crux of the issue: the paradox of biological parents who physically and psychologically abuse their children and yet still exhibit this type of possessiveness over their offspring because they are “theirs”.

But children are not things or objects you can pull and yank in every direction, sometimes fussing over them unduly and sometimes completely and coldly ignoring and neglecting them, manipulating them with emotional blackmail, claiming you “love” them even as you are simultaneously hurting them. And here we are not talking about the occasional spanking or the threats which children sometimes use, claiming they will phone 179 if the parents punish them by taking away their iPad. I think everyone knows the difference between acceptable parental discipline and cruel, horrific abuse.

It is also obvious that children are not taken away from their parents lightly. In her research, Zerafa looked into 15 family situations where a care order was issued, and another 15 families for whom social workers considered issuing a care order, but did not. According to her research, the first of its kind for Malta, children need early intervention and timely decisions. “A year in a child’s life is not the same as a year in an adult’s life,” she noted during a recent international conference about children in out-of-home care.

It is precisely for this reason that the new legislation is something of a breakthrough; great strides have been made because many of the proposals put forward by all stakeholders have been incorporated into this Act. This should be something we take for granted – after all, who better to give advice to politicians than those who are in the field, dealing with these heart-breaking cases day after day? And yet, the fact that this is considered ‘news’ simply underlines how rarely this happens.

Perhaps one of the best decisions is that the Minister will no longer be involved in the issuing of care orders, but decisions will be taken either by the Juvenile Court or by the Review Board, as the case may be. The Review Board will be replacing the Children and Young Persons Advisory Board, and will be a quasi-judicial Board. The reason why this was needed should be clear in this country where knocking on the Minister’s door to intervene even in such delicate matters, is taken as a given by some people.

According to the statement issued by the Ministry, “Emphasis has been placed on the voice of the child, and in fact, the law envisages various safeguards to ensure that the child’s opinion is heard. All this in conjunction with Children’s House model. Once this proposed legislation comes into effect, children may have a stronger voice in issues which affect their lives. This Act intends to remedy a situation where the State literally interferes into the children’s wellbeing without there being the presence of a Court of Law, representing independence and impartiality, to assess the cases and cater for a care plan which will ultimately provide for the future of the children concerned. This Act also intends to bring the Maltese ‘care order’ system in line with judgements of the European Court of Human Rights and of the Maltese Constitutional Court. Finally, the ‘best interest of the child’ notion is the leitmotiv guiding principle of this proposed piece of legislation.”

As welcome as it is, when I read this I find it hard to swallow that it has taken this long for the penny to finally drop and that the interest of the child should be the guiding factor. But better late than never, I suppose.

It is also welcome that there are going to be five different types of protection orders, namely: an emergency order, a care order, a supervision order, a treatment order (for the parents) and a removal order, which contemplate different types of scenarios. This means that it does not have to be an all or nothing type of solution.

Above all, children in out-of-home care can be freed for adoption. According to the new law, “The Court can dispense with the parents’ consent, but it is bound to hear and consider the parents’ view before passing judgement.”

Undoubtedly it is a scary, terrifying thing to think that your child can be taken away from you. And that is as it should be. Parents should be extremely aware that no, they cannot treat their children worse than they would treat a stray dog, and get away with it. Parents should be made to feel that children are not their disposable toys which they can pick up or discard at their every whim. It has taken five years to get here, but perhaps we will finally start really protecting Malta’s children, at last.

 

Public consultation on the Child Protection Act will remain open until 31 July. Maltese and English versions of the law can be found on:

https://meae.gov.mt/en/Public_Consultations/MFSS/Pages/Consultations/ChildProtectionAlternativeCareAct.aspx

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