An estimated 1.5 million children in European member states live in alternative care.
In Malta, around 469 children live in alternative care, with 206 living in community/residential homes and 263 living in foster care. The Directorate for Alternative Care (Children and Young People), established by the Minors Protection (Alternative Care) Act (Protection of Minors (Alternative Care) Act, Chapter 602, of the Laws of Malta), offers socio-legal services with the aim of protecting the rights of children, guided by the principles of the best interest of the child.
The Directorate reviews the care plan of every child regularly to ensure that care is only provided for the least time possible, actively assessing potential reunification with the biological family. The Directorate works within the guiding principles set by the Council of Europe for children in care (Council of Europe, Recommendation Rec (2005) 5,) among them: that the family is the natural environment for the well-being of the child; the placement of a child should remain an exception and have as the primary objective, the best interests of the child and their successful re-integration to the biological family as soon as possible.
The Directorate for Alternative Care is implementing these rights for children who have very recently been removed from their biological families, and work is initiated immediately with each biological family and the children themselves. A clear procedure with set timeframes and transparency from the word ‘go’ is established. It is a joy watching foster carers who not only look after a child for a few months but are such an important part of the re-integration process.
Research shows us that increasing the involvement of foster carers in the preparation of children for reunification, aids the process (Farmer, E. (2014). Improving reunification practice: Pathways home, progress and outcomes for children returning from care to their parents. British Journal of Social Work, 44, 348-366.) How fortunate we are in Malta to have these foster carers who are compassionate and dedicated, willing to go the extra mile to see these children settled back to their families.
Not all is bloom and shine however and there are other cases where difficulties are experienced. Some of the tricky ones are when a decision is needed for children who have been in care for a number of years. How could the Directorate manage the right of the child to live with the natural family, who may have made significant progress, without losing sight of the strong attachment that children have built in the meantime with their carers where they have lived for years. This is no easy feat and one which will constitute in long debates which this space does not permit me to go through. What we must pay heed to is the voice of the child.
A lost opportunity of this new law would be if members of the judiciary will not understand the importance of hearing the voice of the child, a possibility afforded to minors under the newly enacted Minor Protection (Alternative Care) Act, and also under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We must not underestimate the importance of hearing the voice of the child and the effect it will have on the process and the minor’s life in general.
In Malta the numbers are much less with only 10 children reported to have gone back to their family in 2020. We need to strengthen our support services, to have more preventive measures that both avoid children being removed from their biological family and ensure when they need to be removed, all services come together to support parents to get their act together and work to get their children back as soon as possible.
There is however the reality of situations where re-integration is determined not to be a possibility and children should remain secure in their placement. During the last eight months, 44 children were given the security of having their placement secured permanently and we look forward to give this certainty to many more who would benefit from it.
We have come a long way but we are not there yet. There are still cracks in the system and unless all professionals and systems work together, we will still experience heart wrenching cases. We owe it to these children to listen to their voice, to understand them and to help them become part of the decision making in their life. Because after all, this is their life, not ours, to live.
Remenda Grech, Director for Alternative Care (Children and Youths) within the Foundation for Social Welfare Services.
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