Malta should do away with an advisory board that every six months raises the hopes of children in care but offers no permanent plan for their future, according to the director of the Church’s children homes.
“We cannot continue with having children asking whether they are returning home every six months,” Andrew Azzopardi told this newspaper.
“During the three months before every advisory board meeting, children are prepared for a possible change, and after every board meeting, they can at times spend another three months grieving. In such cases, the board is actively being of detriment to the children.”
Mr Azzopardi was speaking to the Times of Malta after the Children’s Homes Commission submitted feedback to the Family Ministry about the long-awaited Child Protection Bill, a draft of which had been presented in 2014 by President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, then family minister.
The Bill was held and amended, with experts voicing concern about lack of consultation. In May, the ministry asked for feedback from Mr Azzopardi, because the Church, which has the largest number of residential homes (nine) is directly affected by any law seeking to protect children.
Mr Azzopardi noted that Family Minister Michael Farrugia had said he would take on board many of the commission’s points.
The Children’s Homes Commission believes that the birth family is nearly always the best place for bringing up a child. However, there are a minority of cases where it is not in the best interest of the child, he said.
Mr Azzopardi, a specialised social worker, took on the role of director in March. He has worked for England’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and also headed the safeguarding investigation team of the England Football Association.
We cannot continue with having children asking whether they are returning home every six months
Mr Azzopardi said the English system does not have an advisory board. Instead, social workers provide the courts with a permanency care plan for each child, which includes how contact with their birth family will be reviewed over the years.
In Malta, children under a care order are placed in care at a residential home or in foster families, among other places. Every six months, an advisory board decides where and how they will continue to be cared for.
This means that those children who are not under a care order and are placed in a residential home voluntarily by their parents remain forgotten.
The Children’s Homes Commission is recommending that the new law should do away with the board and put an emphasis on permanency, whether that means remaining with the biological family or at a residential home, in fostering or adoption. The most important thing was that social workers and the courts reached a decision as soon as possible, the commission says.
“The worst enemies of children in care are delay – when a decision keeps being postponed – and drift, which is when they are forgotten and lost in the system.”
Mr Azzopardi believes that a clause should be included in the law for a decision about permanency to be taken “in the best interest of the child within the shortest possible time”.
Although he is not against setting a two-year deadline as previously suggested, he fears that if such a timeframe was set, every decision would take two years.
“This could translate into a disservice for most children, as only a minority would require two years for a permanent decision to be taken.”
Finally, the law needs to reflect more the responsibilities of the local authorities.
“Safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility – from the health to the education authorities to the police and social services.
“I strongly believe that the only way we can work effectively and in a child-centred manner is through multi-agency collaboration between Appoġġ and health and education authorities.”
Mr Azzopardi believes the Bill lacked emphasis on permanency, the best interests of the child and local authorities’ responsibility.
He said, however, that the government had made a positive and courageous move from the age-old system that saw the family minister taking decisions on care orders towards a system where the courts took these decisions.
This was one of the local challenges, as was freeing up children for adoption.
It was painful to see children remain in care from birth to their teen years when they could have been adopted, he added.
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