Prosperity calls for more social awareness

We are forced to question whether Malta’s social services structures are geared up for the challenges of poverty, in a new age of perceived prosperity and wealth

Squalor that is unbelievable in 21st century Malta: these are the rooms where the children, aged five and 15, were left to fend for themselves after being abandoned by their next of kin
Squalor that is unbelievable in 21st century Malta: these are the rooms where the children, aged five and 15, were left to fend for themselves after being abandoned by their next of kin

In times of plenty, with unprecedented economic growth and an all-pervasive feel-good factor, it is easy to overlook social problems festering beneath the surface.

But reality sometimes throws situations at us that serve as a wake-up call. The story of abandoned children living in squalor, published by MaltaToday last Sunday, is one such eye-opener.

The children, aged between five and 15, were found living alone, abandoned by their next of kin, after their father died. Last Thursday they were placed with a number of respite foster carers until arrangements can be made for their long-term care within a family unit.

READ MORE: Abandoned children found living alone in terrible conditions

In circumstances like these, social workers normally try to place children with members of the extended family, but this was not an option in this case. The children’s mother had been forced out of the home by members of her deceased partner’s first family, and is herself in need of help. The same members reneged on their promise to take care of the children.

This presents a set of particular circumstances that make the case exceptional. A family distraught by the death of a parent, a mother requiring help, and personal problems between different families, all contributed to the complex situation that resulted in these children living in squalid conditions, cared for by their elder sister. Efforts are under way to try and keep them together in a safe, secure place.

While the positive aspect of this story is that social workers intervened to prevent the situation from getting worse, the reality is that the trauma is far from over for the children concerned. Besides, the incident also exposed just how cocooned Malta may be from social realities such as this.

Many people expressed shock at the news; but as tends to happen with collective displays of shock or dismay, the sentiment was sometimes translated into a judgement on the mother and the family.

This is not the way forward. Experiences like this should lead us to greater awareness on the extent of social and personal problems around us. Judgment is an easy recourse, but it doesn’t help the situation very much.

On another level, popular reactions also illustrated how the road to hell may be paved with good intentions. The welfare agency also had to deal with the misguided actions of a woman who flagged the case in a Facebook post and was soliciting help from families willing to take in the children. The Facebook post, which included photos of the children’s’ living conditions, was pulled down immediately after welfare officials reported the matter to Facebook.

Without doubting the intentions of the woman concerned, there is a difference between finding homes for abandoned kittens and puppies, and finding homes for abandoned children. There are complex legal issues involved in fostering and custodianship; and while the community spirit is to be applauded, in this case the gesture also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the complexities involved.

Nonetheless, we are forced to question whether Malta’s social services structures are geared up for the challenges of poverty, in a new age of perceived prosperity and wealth. While the children’s case may have been an extreme one, there are many more, less spectacular instances of people who end up on the fringes of society because of social, economic or health problems

Not being blind to these realities is an important step to start addressing them.

The manner with which child protection mechanisms worked in the case of the abandoned children, showed that the country does have a functioning safety net. But it may not be enough, especially in view of the rising levels of poverty and homelessness that also characterise Malta’s rapid economic growth.

A changing society brings with it new problems, and that is what Malta is experiencing at the moment. A foremost challenge is housing. It may not impact the vast majority of people who own their own home, but rent affordability has become a problem for a category of people, including single parents, the elderly and migrants.

The government has to address rent affordability. But it also has to step up its efforts to build social housing units, which have been conspicuous by their absence under this administration. From this perspective, it is welcome that the Housing Authority’s new chairman, Leonid McKay, has clarified his comments to The Sunday Times, to the effect that the housing sector is ‘not to blame’ for rising homelessness.

Certainly, traditional family bonds are no longer what they used to be; but it was never realistic – as the interview seemed to suggest – that these alone should suffice to replace a rigorous welfare system.

McKay clarified that he “strongly advocates that the State should take an active role and address market failures through, among others, investment to directly provide social housing units to the weakest of our society… introduce new schemes for affordable housing to support those persons who are not eligible for social housing, keep promoting home ownership, [and] importantly, provide a robust framework of the private rental sector which ensures stability and protection for vulnerable tenants.”

This approach, coupled with greater collective social responsibility, is what the present economic climate calls for.

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