It is a sad reality that children today face risks that are arguably more toxic than those faced by children a few generations ago. The different forms of families that make up our society today present challenges for all those responsible for the well-being of children, whether they be educators, social workers, or even public authorities.

 The good news, however, is that awareness about children’s rights has never been so intense. No government can ignore the pressures of public opinion that clamours for legislation to safeguard children. While some countries, have various child protection Acts to safeguard children in different aspects of their lives, our legislation has so far been relatively basic and in need of upgrading to bring it in line with current progressive thinking on child protection.

The Ministry for Family, Children’s Rights, and Social Solidarity issued a draft Child Protection (Alternative Care) Bill for public consultation before being presented to Parliament for approval.

The first attempt to enact child protection legislation was made by President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca when she was family minister. Following various interventions by stakeholders in childcare, the government revamped the previous Bill to include new measures aimed to safeguard children’s interests better.

The Bill is undoubtedly an improvement on current legislation in the field of child protection. It consolidates various child protection provisions enshrined in existing laws. When enacted, it will revoke all previous legislation relating to childcare. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of this proposed legislation is the fact that care and custody of minors in need of protection is no longer a prerogative of a government minister who up to now is the person involved in the issuing of care orders.

Such sensitive decisions will now be taken by the Juvenile Court or by the quasi-judicial Review Board that the new legislation will be setting up.

Put simply, decisions on child protection orders will no longer be taken by politicians but by experts in the field who will be sitting on the various boards contemplated in the new Act. It is also a positive development that any decisions taken by the Review Board are subject to appeal in our law courts.

The Family Ministry has made it clear in its presentation on the launching of this consultative process that these changes should not be interpreted as an abdication by the government of its responsibilities in the field of child protection.

For child protection legislation to be effective at all times, the Family Ministry should conduct an ongoing monitoring process that involves all stakeholders including other government departments, the Education Department and the health authorities, as well as private voluntary organisations involved in promoting child welfare.

One key factor that will influence the level of success of this legislation is the provision of resources to the two new directorates that are being set up to implement the provisions of this law. Employment and training of specialised staff, payment for ancillary services provided by third parties to the directorates and an adequate physical infrastructure from where to operate are as important as the commitment and motivation of those entrusted to protect children.

Ultimately, what matters most is that this new legislation will ensure that ‘the voice of the child’ is heard at all times. 

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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