Government social welfare agency Appoġġ has been absolved over the case of two German children who were snatched from under its care and taken back to Germany last July.
The abduction took place through no fault of the agency but due to the “arrogant and unethical” behaviour of a German social worker, an independent inquiry has concluded.
The inquiry, headed by retired judge Philip Sciberras, had been appointed after a court harshly criticised Appoġġ over the incident, saying the agency was less able to take care of the children (who were under a care order) than the mothers themselves.
However, Judge Sciberras said: “In the scheme of things, I do not see any guilt on the part of the Appoġġ and its workers or any misconduct, malpractice, negligence or any breach of procedures in the protection of minors.”
The case goes back to June when an emergency temporary order was issued on three German children after one of them, aged four, was found roaming around in a Marsalforn field on his own.
While they were under the care of Appoġġ, this boy, Jeremias, and his brother Jaydan, 2, the sons of Sabrina Albrecht, were taken abroad by German social workers without the agency’s knowledge.
The third child, Julia, was subsequently returned to her mother, Jutta Wiedekind.
Ms Albrecht was charged in court with abandoning her eldest child but has since been cleared due to lack of evidence. Questioning whether Appoġġ had been too trusting, Judge Sciberras said this could be brought into question in any other situation, including trusting children with foster carers.
While absolving the Maltese social workers of any negligence, he recommended that airport authorities, including airlines and ground handlers, as well as shipping agents and Transport Malta, should be notified of any care order so they could withhold embarkation documents.
He also recommended that a plan be drafted to beef up the agency’s financial and human resources, putting it in a better position to carry out its wide-ranging duties.
A number of Appoġġ workers testified in the inquiry that they were stretched to the limit. In the same week of the abduction they had to urgently find places for no less than 21 children who were on their waiting list.
The agency needed to spread its load because under the current system many social workers and trained professionals were leaving the agency, Judge Sciberras said.
“This plan should help stop the haemorrhage of social workers who seek alternative employment due to pressure and exhaustion.
“It does not seem acceptable that Appoġġ has never-ending waiting lists because it does not have sufficient placements to look after children who require protection,” he added.
He heard that the agency’s staff list was so limited that, even in the case of the two German children, it had to use the services of two students studying social work.
The two MCAST students were with the children round the clock between June 19 and 28 when the German Youth Welfare Office sent out its own social worker, Jessica Eichhorn.
She cared for the children between 9am and 5pm and the Maltese took over for the rest of the time.
On July 5, Ms Eichhorn informed Appoġġ that she was being replaced by Eva-Maria Friedrich, who arrived that same day. The following morning, Ms Eichhorn and Ms Friedrich told another German social worker who was responsible for Julia that they were taking the boys to the beach.
Instead, they boarded a Lufthansa flight and informed their German colleague upon their arrival in Germany.
Ms Friedrich informed Appoġġ via e-mail that they had taken the children back to Germany on the strength of a decree by the German family court and since the “situation was unacceptable”.
In a subsequent e-mail, she said the youth office had full custody of the children and that “we didn’t tell your office that we were flying back to Germany with the children even though we had the decree because we are sure you would not accept it”.
The Maltese authorities argued that the children had been abducted as they were under a temporary order imposed by a Maltese court but this fell on deaf ears.
After hearing the version of the Maltese social workers and Appoġġ workers and management, Judge Sciberras concluded that there had been a breach of trust by those who were supposed to be collaborating with the agency. “Trust was overmined by Ms Friedrich’s deceit, in blatant breach of professional ethics which state that social workers are to treat colleagues with respect, courtesy, fairness and good faith.
“The arrogance of this person was manifested in her e-mail where she said her agency was the legal guardian so she could, unilaterally, take the laws into her own hands and determine the children’s residence,” Judge Sciberras said.
Sources said applications to have the children returned back to Malta were filed with the Maltese Central Authority and transmitted to the German authorities. The Maltese are still waiting for the outcome of this request.