There is a saying which goes: “Parental love is the only love that is truly selfless, unconditional and forgiving”. So what about the love that foster carers give to children who are not their own from birth, asks Joanne Cocks.

Just stop for a minute and think: How many adoptive/foster parents do you know? How many children in your own child’s class has have been adopted or fostered?

Adoption and fostering have become more accessible of late.

Now consider something else: How many times have you heard of an organisation going all out to encourage you to go and watch a film?

That is exactly what the National Foster Care Association of Malta did a few days ago. The association issued a statement recommending those who love children and want to better understand what fostering is all about to go and watch KRS’s latest offering – Instant Family – which will hit local screens tomorrow.

The movie is based on the real-life story of its very own director, Sean Anders, who together with his wife adopted three children initially placed in foster care.

The storyline depicts the adventures, disappointments, challenges and successes that foster care brings within a family. The task of raising three children who had experienced multiple foster placement breakdowns is not easy.

The patience and dedication shown by the couple in the movie who accepted these three children in their lives as their own is an expression of love that many genuine foster carers all over the world are ready to give.

“Love, belief and dedication make it possible for children who cannot live with their birth parents to heal and thrive,” says the association.

By tradition, Malta has always been known to look after its children; to live with a family relative when things were not going so well with the birth family was the norm.

It was between 1996 and 1998 that the Church and State worked together as an inter-agency team to set up a plan to establish foster care professionally. During the years that followed, local government agency Appoġġ was given the authority to keep developing the service to ensure that whoever became a foster carer would receive support to help children in need of a family.

A spokeswoman for Appoġġ said there are now 244 children, ranging from babies to 21-year-olds, with 210 foster carers, some of whom have more than one child.

“Although there is a good number of foster carers in Malta, unfortunately it does not match the demand. It is a continuous struggle to recruit more foster carers to help more children in need of a fostering family,” she added.

Although there is a good number of foster carers in Malta, unfortunately it does not match the demand

John Rolè, who spent 42 years as a social worker in the field of children in care, believes that foster care has “given many children and young people the opportunity to develop healthily and become good honest citizens”.

“I am proud to have been given the opportunity to share memorable moments with these children and their foster families. The satisfaction one feels when I meet young adults who have passed through the foster care system and are bringing up their own children and/or settled at work is priceless,” he explains.

But what exactly is the aim of fostering?

Most children, says Mr Rolè, come into foster care because they have been abused and traumatised by their birth fami­ly; in some cases, like when there is a drug addiction, even before they are born.

“This means that whoever becomes a foster carer has a mammoth task in undoing these bad experiences and changing them into positive ones by providing children with a stable, nurturing and stimulating fa­mily environment. Through this family experience children are helped to bridge their past, pre­sent and future, a big challenge to all foster carers.”

In some cases, foster care has also helped reunite the child with the birth family. When this is not possible, a sense of permanency is introduced – minors can grow up with their foster family and continue to live with them even after they turn 18. There have also been cases where the children or young adolescents were eventually adopted by their foster family.

Mr Rolè recalls that in 1996, the 29 couples who were foster carers had very little support, with no training prior to becoming foster carers. There was no legislation recognising their status, no financial benefit for the services rendered, no therapeutic support for the children and their foster families, and very little supervision and monitoring of cases.

“Over time, the foster care team at Appoġġ overcame these hurdles and developed numerous services to help foster carers. Since then, over 500 children were placed in foster care,” he says. This, he continues, did not mean there weren’t other emerging difficulties.

“Today through research we know that early childhood trauma changes the structure of the brain. Children who experience abuse live in fear. They do not trust the adults around them, a component that is ­needed to heal the wounds of abuse.

“Foster carers struggle daily when expressing emotions of love towards the child they foster and sometimes get very little back in return. This can become harder when birth parents, who are still in contact with their children through access visits, disapprove of their child being brought up within another fa­mily.

“When birth parents accept that their child is better off living with foster carers, then the situation becomes better, especially for the children, because they are not put in a position where they have to choose between families.”

Mr Rolè is very aware that not all cases are the same. There have been cases when a child has been reunited with his or her birth family and contact with the foster carers has been kept, but this doesn’t always happen.

Asked whether it’s traumatic for a child who has settled down with a foster family to be up­rooted again and sent back to their birth family, Mr Rolè does not mince his words:

“Yes, it is traumatic, especially if the child has been living with the foster family for numerous years. In fact, the association suggests that the issue of permanency in a foster placement is introduced. Children have a right to be brought up in a stable family. It is not right to keep a child waiting for years on end, expecting their birth family to pull their act together without being given an alternative permanent family.

“The introduction of permanency in foster care would ensure that a child can keep living with the foster family till they become an adult.”


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