Drastic fall in care orders has social workers worried

Sharp downturn in care orders – down to 7 in 2016 – shows State less willing to take charge of abused children

The FSWS said the low number of child abuse reports shows that Child Protection Services and FSWS were investing more in “supporting and aiding families” rather than working against them
The FSWS said the low number of child abuse reports shows that Child Protection Services and FSWS were investing more in “supporting and aiding families” rather than working against them

The number of care orders issued by the State in 2016 fell by 95% to a mere total of seven, when compared to the 127 issued in 2013, despite the fact that the number of referrals and verified cases of child abuse or neglect remained somewhat constant, MaltaToday has learned.

In 2016, child protection services verified 254 cases of child abuse out of 1,473 reports filed.

But following assessments of the verified cases, seven care orders were issued, as well as two court orders and four voluntary placements.

The Foundation for Social Welfare Services (FSWS) told MaltaToday that this low number shows that Child Protection Services and FSWS were investing more in “supporting and aiding families” rather than working against them.

But these figures have again raised concerns about ministerial policy on issuing care orders, which first came to light in court back in June 2016, when a police inspector testified that Appogg, the social services agency, cited ministerial interference in the refusal of a care order for 7-year-old allegedly forced by his father to have sex with prostitutes to prevent him from “growing up to be gay”. 

The claims were denied by minister Michael Farrugia, who criticised the police’s behaviour as not being up to par. At the time, a spokesperson told MaltaToday that the drop in the issue of care orders “was because there were fewer requests from professionals for care orders” and insisted no policy changes had been instituted.

But while 127 care orders for children were issued in 2013, with the number falling sharply to 27 in 2014 – the first full year of the new administration – and to 21 in 2015, only seven care orders were issued last year.

The FSWS said that, of the 254 verified cases, 81 were referred for further monitoring and follow-up and 43 were sent to the Home-Based Therapeutic Services Unit. “Only three children needed to be taken into care in 2016 from the cases referred to the monitoring team,” FSWS said in reply to our questions. “The other cases were referred to other Aġenzija Appoġġ services such as Community Services, and Intake and Family Support Service, while a number of parents were referred for parental skills courses or addiction services offered by Aġenzija Sedqa. A small number of cases were referred to Youth in Focus Services and courts services.”

Concerns at low number

But social workers have expressed concern at the downturn registered, and at the government’s failure to promote social work as a viable career choice, encourage fostering and provide adequate residential homes for children.

Little appears to have changed since last May, when Alfred Grixti, CEO of the FSWS, warned MPs in the family affairs committee that too few people were interested in taking up a job as a social worker, and that the FSWS had to engage social support workers to complement social workers on staff.

Dr Daniella Zerafa, social worker and lecturer at the University of Malta, told MaltaToday that removing a child from the family should always be considered a last resort, but insisted that the child’s welfare should always be a social worker’s top priority.

“Seven care orders in one year are too few for the number of cases verified,” she said. “Such a low number worries me and leaves me wondering why it is so.”

Zerafa, whose doctoral thesis was on the decision-making process to remove children from parental care, said her research had highlighted the low number of foster families registered in Malta and the acute shortage of residential homes for children.

“No request for a care order will be considered unless the social worker can guarantee immediate alternative placement for that boy or girl,” she said.

She bemoaned the fact that a planned campaign to encourage fostering had been cut short abruptly. “It is no wonder that fostering is so widespread in the US – authorities there promote it as being more precious than gold,” Zerafa said. 

Zerafa’s research showed that the parents’ voice was much stronger than that of the child, when child protection assessments were being carried out and decisions taken. “A clear example of this was how parental cooperation was found to be given a lot of weight in the decision-making process, when the focus should be the impact which this parental cooperation is having on the child concerned.” 

Zerafa said it is the right of children to be involved in decisions taken about them, including, and especially, decisions with far-reaching consequences, such as the care order decision. “Social workers should be trained to use techniques which are child-friendly and age-appropriate to facilitate a thorough exploration of the wishes, thoughts, fears and hopes of the children concerned.”

Zerafa also said that children tend to be unprepared for the drastic change of the care order, as social workers may not discuss the possibility of this decision with them.

Commissioner for Children Pauline Miceli agreed that it was imperative that children be protected from further abuse. But she insisted that care orders should only be considered as a conclusion to a thorough assessment of whether it is in the best interests of the child to be removed from the family. “This principle, which is clearly articulated in Article 20 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, means that although it may not be ideal for a child to remain in the family where he or she has been abused, removing the child from the family may be more harmful to the child than keeping him or her in it,” she said. 

Commissioner for Children Pauline Miceli
Commissioner for Children Pauline Miceli

“However, the family should be given the necessary support to overcome the difficulties that may have led to abuse.” 

The FSWS confirmed that a number of cases were closed despite there being confirmation of the abuse. “This generally happens because there would be a supportive element in the family or a parent that is willing to take action to protect the child/ren,” it said. “The Child Protection Services had several cases that led to swift police action to protect the children or swift action by a concerned relative or parent who took the matter to court to protect the children.” 

Miceli however pointed out that with the number of reports of alleged child abuse being six times higher than the number of cases of verified child abuse, this pointed to a “civil culture of active intolerance towards the ill-treatment of children, whether or not such treatment is tantamount to abuse in the strict sense of the word.”

Miceli said that the Child Protection Bill would only deliver the desired results if adequate supporting resources, structures and services are in place to allow decisions and plans concerning each and every child who has suffered abuse within the family to be implemented and followed through. “The authorities should keep in mind that children cannot wait,” she said.

Who issues the care order?

Under the current Children and Young Persons (Care Orders) Act, “if upon representations made to him in writing... the Minister is satisfied that that child or young person is in need of care, protection or control, it shall be the duty of the Minister by an order in writing under his hand to take such child or young person into his care.”

When a child is taken from its parents and placed under a care order, the welfare of the child becomes the direct responsibility of the minister, “as if the child is his own”. 

Minister Farrugia promoted the Child Protection Bill, which was passed in parliament late last year, as a platform for changes to the current system of child protection. One major difference is that the new bill shifts the responsibility from the minister on to the courts, following an investigation.  

As the law now stands, there are three methods to remove a vulnerable child from parental custody: by means of a care order signed by the minister, through a court order – which is only temporary – or through the highly-questionable path under which the agency gets the parents to sign a declaration that they have placed the child “voluntarily in care”.  

In the latter scenario, the legal obligation of care and custody remains with the parents, as this practice does not currently have a basis in law.

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