Failing to show the other side to the sad and lonely picture that is often painted of children in residential homes will only feed the wrong idea. Andrew Azzopardi, director of the Church’s Commission for Children’s Homes, spoke to Sarah Carabott.

Children in residential homes are not pitiful and lonely, but if the authorities want more foster family placements, the Church should be allowed to help, the director of the Church’s Commission for Children’s Homes is insisting.

“One of the things that irks me is the rhetoric about children in care – they are usually described as pitiful, sad and lonely in theatrical works, during electoral campaigns or by the media,” Andrew Azzopardi told this newspaper.

“Children in residential homes are also happy, enthusiastic and have aspirations and when we fail to show this other side, we fuel the stigma.”

Mr Azzopardi noted that the homes run by the Commission did not provide institutional care, where children were one of many. There were hardly any two children with the same care plan because even siblings had different needs.

And he will keep on repeating this until he hammers it home.

Mr Azzopardi was appointed director of the Commission called Ejjew Għandi two years ago, when the Fra Diego home was facing a series of allegations, and a carer was eventually charged with injuring siblings.

The Church has asked to start foster care training and placements

Under his directorship the care system was changed, decreasing the groups of children in care within the same ‘flat’ to six. The home now has three ‘flats’, which are totally autonomous, while each child has their own care plan. One of the flats hosts five siblings.

In a bid to create a more homely environment, the number of different carers that the children come in contact with has been decreased, and there are two key workers who are responsible for the children’s daily needs. This was done to model a family environment and to build meaningful relationships.

The new approach being tested out at Fra Diego, which hosts one key carer for every three children, has led to “overnight changes”, and will eventually be applied to the other Church homes.

At the moment there are some 400 children in out-of-home care, half of who are in residential homes

The new approach will ensure that siblings, even of different gender, are not separated because it is very painful for children taken away from their natural home to be separated from their siblings.

So far in Malta we have been terrible at this, as siblings are either split up before they turn into adolescents, or are moved from one home to the other, Mr Azzopardi explained.

Fra Diego and one other home are run through a public social partnership, but as financial support dwindles, the backing of the government is needed for other homes if they are to remain open.

At the moment there are some 400 children in out-of-home care, half of who are in residential homes, a number deemed high by some.

Director of the Commission for Children’s Homes Andrew Azzopardi.Director of the Commission for Children’s Homes Andrew Azzopardi.

Mr Azzopardi acknowledges that the proportion is high, as the majority – around three fourths – actually need a family placement.

“I’m not saying that residential care is better than foster care. I don’t even think that that is an argument.

“And I’m not saying we need more homes – we have enough homes. I think we need both quality homes as well as more foster placements. But in Malta we don’t even have any foster placements left,” he added.

It was useless insisting that children were better off within foster placements when the number of foster carers has levelled off, he said.

The Church therefore made a formal request to the government to start foster care training and placements. The request was made last year during the drafting of the new Child Protection (Alternative Care) Act. However, the law passed this year does not allow for this.

The proposal was never formally turned down but according to the new law, fostering should be run exclusively by the State agency. The Act became law last January but has not yet been enforced, pending a legal notice.

“I don’t think the Church will ever provide 200 foster placements, but even 10 would make a world of a difference in a situation where I get requests for placements practically every day,” he said.

“I’m confident we can improve the placements and I cannot understand the drawback. The Church is fully committed and has been a service provider of childcare for hundreds of years.”

Meanwhile, an alternative family placement outside the natural one that is not explored enough in Malta would be living with the next of kin. This is quite surprising for Mr Azzopardi, considering that extended families here are so strong.

When working as a frontline social worker in England, Mr Azzopardi would have had to call what is known as a family group conference, during which the social workers would explore who is able and willing to take care of this child.

“The reasoning is that it’s less traumatic to stay with your aunt or uncle, cousin or grandparents than it is to stay with foster carers or within a residential setting.”

Still, different children have different needs and some would not be able to live with foster carers, either because they come from a broken down setting and  the intimacy of a family is too intimidating for them, or because the sense of loyalty towards the natural family is super strong.

The loyalty towards the biological parents could impinge on the loyalty towards the foster parents and some children have expressed concern about mixed loyalties.

‘It is not an istitut. It is home’ – Rebecca*

“I cannot stand the word ‘institute’ and I just call it what it is: home,” Rebecca says as she stretches her pink chequered duvet, flattening out the creases.

The word ‘love’, made out of flowers, is plastered right above her headboard and bedside table, which holds a photo of her elder brother.

“The word istitut gives the impression of pitiful children who are locked up… in reality we have all that we need, including freedom.

“I’m studying, working and I go out with friends. I do what everyone else does at my age,” the 16-year-old, who aspires to work within the care sector, adds.

When Rebecca is out and about, she hears others referring to children in out-of-home care as imsieken. This really irritates her and she looks forward to the day when the stigma is stamped out.

At the home Rebecca has her own room, and she feels that she can be herself in her own space. Her younger sister agrees.

Speaking keenly about school, where she has taken up accounting classes, she explains that she always says she is “going home”, when she is on her way back from school or a weekend with her father.

“It just feels like a regular home, where I have a routine, chores and my siblings with me.”

*name has been changed

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