The year 2020 has marked an important development in Malta with regard to children’s rights. In January, the Directorate for Alternative Care (Children and Youths) was set up, together with the setting up of the Directorate for Protection of Minors. In July, long-awaited legislation was enacted: Malta now has a specific law for the protection of minors (Alternative Care Act).

The Directorate for Alternative Care (Children and Youths) offers specialised services for children in alternative care and for vulnerable youths. The children we work with are those who had to be removed from their parents’ care. It is our duty to ensure that these minors have a fair chance in life and that they too have a bright future.

This year gave us the opportunity to evaluate our practices. One criticism that I personally drove home was the lack of involvement of children in decision-making. Often, professionals spend hours thoroughly evaluating various options for a particular child, yet, very rarely do they spend some time to involve the children in the decision-making process.

Throughout our work, we strive to reach out more to children and making them an integral part of these decisions. One should keep in mind that, throughout this pandemic, children and young people have consistently demonstrated their commitment to obey the rules in order to protect public health. They showed us resilience, a sense of understanding and a great sense of maturity. This should serve us as a lesson to involve them more and to really place them at the centre of our decisions.

The introduction of the new Minor Protection (Alternative Care) Act

This year marked important legislative decisions that should not go unmentioned. We have long insisted on the importance of permanency for children and the new legislation ensures this. This means that after giving the biological family a true chance to work on their issues and explore possible reintegration, our focus should then turn to offering a stable environment to the children and ensuring that their placement is stable. Since July 2020, we have already presented over 50 permanency plans. This is the security we want to give to our children, which will help to give them stability and peace of mind.

Our focus should then turn into offering a stable environment to the children and ensuring that their placement is stable

The new legislation has also ensured that children who have been in foster care for more than five years can now be adopted by their foster carers. We have not only secured permanency but gone the extra mile. Yet, even here, we cannot legislate and pretend that one size fits all.

In my line of work, I still meet children who wish to be adopted, however, they still want to identify with their biological family. Some don’t want to give up on the biological family’s surname. Are we going to listen to children here? Are we going to discuss a possible scenario where children who are adopted can choose to keep their family’s surname? I am sure that this discussion will soon be taking place and I look forward to seeing children at the forefront of this discussion.

Aftercare

A particular lacuna along the years has been the provision of an after-care service. This service was officially set up in mid-2020 with the aim of ensuring that each child has an aftercare plan, which will lead them into adulthood.

Emphasis is being placed all across Europe on the importance of concrete aftercare services. Such services, however, cannot exist in silos and liaison with other stakeholders is paramount to make such plans a success.

The year 2020 has already seen the directorate embarking in discussions with the Housing Authority to lay the foundation for a healthier collaboration in this sector. We are already reaping the success of various schemes, such as the social loan home acquisition scheme, where various caregivers were helped to buy their own lodging and are now proud homeowners.

Way forward

The new year will mean the start of something new. A consultant paediatrician will join the directorate on a full-time basis, ensuring that each child in care will receive a personalised medical plan.

Research and experience shows that children in alternative care suffer attachment difficulties, experience traumas and have poor health develop­ment. A specialised paediatrician within the directorate will ensure that a medi­cal plan is drawn up for every child, leading to earlier identification of mental health difficulties and other health issues experienced.

High on our agenda as a directorate is pushing for a specific national alternative care policy that not only sets standards of care but shows how all institutions should be working together and in tandem.

The directorate will also ensure that professionals and social workers are given more training in successful reintegration. It is encouraging to see our determination to give biological families a chance but lack of specialised training in this sector risks not being effective enough and having more family breakdowns.

We have a long way ahead, yet, our vision is clear, as is also our determination to give our children their rights, their voice. The positive steps taken this year by the Directorate for Alternative Care are set to improve the daily experiences and life chances of children in care.

Children’s rights should not be something we speak about only on Children’s Day, which was marked on Friday. It should be at the heart of our every legislation, of our every policy and on everyone’s agenda.

The improvements made this year are a very important start but we have a long way to go. I am confident, however, that,  because there is goodwill, Malta will reach new heights in the provision of alternative care for these children too deserve the very best.

Remenda Grech, Director for Alternative Care (Children and Youths)

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