The Child Protection Bill was first presented in Parliament five years ago by then family minister Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca. As President, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca comes to the end of her presidency. It must be disappointing to her that the matter has not yet been completed.
The draft law has had a chequered passage. It was revised by her successor as minister and a new Bill was approved by Parliament four years later. But this never came into force and the current minister, Michael Falzon, went back to the drawing board, with a fresh draft being presented in January.
While acknowledging the vital importance of enacting the best legislation possible on such a sensitive subject as child protection, it is a matter of concern it is still not on Malta’s statute books. There comes a point when the best is the enemy of the good. The need to move ahead is now paramount.
The final version of the Bill has been broadly welcomed by experts in the field, albeit with some reservations. Its emphasis on the priority of achieving permanence and stability for children – including for those in foster care placements – in the quickest possible time sets out the new spirit of the law and will be critical to its success.
A special welcome was given to the fact that, in future, decisions to issue care orders will be made by an independent judiciary, not by the minister. The President’s Foundation for the Well-being of Society especially welcomed the introduction of the Children’s House, a place specifically allocated to children’s court sittings.
The law also encouraged the fundamental principle of shared responsibility by the whole range of different entities that were likely to be involved in dealing with the protection of children: health and education, police and other child care professionals.
This is a particularly weak area of administration in Malta. Coordination and early communication are vital and their lack have often been blamed when vulnerable child care cases have been mismanaged. The need for the various entities involved and the community to work together to ensure children requiring protection find the services that truly met their need is key.
Concern has, however, been expressed about the position of the Minister for the Family, who appeared to exercise too much power in relation to the selection of professionals to fill the majority of a wide range of posts on boards. The selection process should be transparent and based on professional competence in specific roles, not political affiliation.
This concern was also highlighted by the President’s foundation, which deemed the involvement of the Family Minister as still being too prominent. It felt that the law still failed to address autonomous and independent lines of decision-making, which it considered should lie with the courts.
Clearly, the question of the intrusive – if not over-dominant – position of the minister is one that still needs addressing. While it is clearly understood that the political responsibility always lies with the minister, who is vulnerable to criticism if matters go wrong, a better balance needs to be struck that removes the minister as far as possible from the chain of command.
The Minister for the Family should look again at the possibility of delegating more of his powers to the courts and the professionals now that the Bill is finally being debated in Parliament.
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