National policy strives 'to improve' parent-child relationships

Minister for Family and Social Solidarity says the need for strengthening “family friendly” measures is already being felt, warning that a state of affairs where grandparents will also be working and therefore unable to care for young children was not far off

Government has launched its National Strategic POlicy on Parenting
Government has launched its National Strategic POlicy on Parenting

Minister for the Family and Social Solidarity Michael Farrugia has launched a new policy on parenting, aiming at bringing together the disparate family support services which currently operate individually, by November 2017.

Speaking at the launch of the National Strategic Policy for Positive Parenting, the Minister said that the issues of positive parenting and relationships had started being felt in the run-up to the divorce referendum.

The ministry had listened to the stakeholders, gathering a lot of data before coming up with this policy, which aims to continue building on the existing infrastructure so as to facilitate and organize the operation of services in Malta, Farrugia said. The process had brought a number of lacunae to light, the minister observed, adding that these have now been addressed.

One of the priorities for the new policy is to identify vulnerable families and give assistance even in the antenatal stage, Farrugia explained. The document proposes routine screening related to the mental health of the expectant mother.

Measures such as antenatal parentcraft classes, assistance for parents of disabled children, childcare services and schools are now to be coordinated. A task force led by the Ministry, in coordination with representatives from other Government ministries involved in the are, as well as academics is to be set up. A centralised computer database of those using the services is to be implemented to avoid fragmentation and foster better coordination.

On care orders, he emphasised that when a family is facing problems, it should not be left to solve them on its own. “Especially if the problem is affecting the children, a family plan should be drawn up to assist them,” Farrugia said. Also to be given priority is addressing the relationship between the parents as part of the therapeutic process. If this fails, there will be structures already in place to accept children, the minister explained.

Single parents are crucial to keeping population decline in check but are at the highest risk of poverty, but will benefit from more protection, the Minister added. “If it wasn't for single mothers, who are subject to criticism and often looked down on, our birth rate would not exceed 1.” The current rate of 1.54 births per woman is not sustainable, the minister said, adding that he had extended the NI contribution credits for mothers to 4 years and is evaluating further measures.

The policy itself is ambitiously comprehensive and covers healthcare, schools and family court, in addition to the areas previously mentioned. Amongst other measures mentioned is the requirement that prior to the commencement of separation proceedings, couples will need to first complete a programme, called Focus on Kids, to learn how to raise children in these circumstances.

Also announced this morning is the news that a secure unit is to be set up to address children with severely challenging behaviour. Currently, problem children often end up being held at the YPU, despite not suffering from mental health problems.

Also addressing the launch, Prof Angela Abela from the Department of Family studies at the Faculty for Social Wellbeing at UOM explained the importance of parenting in the changing landscape of modern families.

Rates of women aged 25-54 in employment stood at 64% in 2015 and had a high rate of growth and 25.2% of births took place out of wedlock in 2011 according to the NSO. The highest risk of poverty was among single parent households – 47.6% of these were found to be at the risk of property.

Prof. Abela emphasised on the importance of education on diversity and gay adoption, amongst other areas. “The time has come for policy to be established.”

Marta Santos Pais, a UN official working in the field of prevention of violence against children had endorsed the policy, she added, commending this personal initiative taken by the minister.

Farrugia said the need for strengthening “family friendly” measures is already being felt. “We will reach a situation where the grandparents, currently the mainstay of childcare for most young families, will also be working and therefore unable to care for young children.” The minister is understood to currently be coordinating with unions and the FSWS with the aim of tabling a bill in parliament related to this issue, in the near future.