Claudine Cassar | Sunday, 21 June 2009
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Children falling through the cracks

The great majority of us think Maltese children are lucky – Malta is a wonderful place for kids to grow up in, we think to ourselves. However we are then knocked off our pedestal of complacency when we hear horror stories about how the most vulnerable children on the island are falling through the cracks in the welfare system. We hear of little boys raped repeatedly over several years by dirty old men, girls who are raped in their own home by their mother’s lover and children who are abandoned on balconies with cats and have food thrown to them by neighbours.
These extreme cases are just the tip of the iceberg. They are the stories that make the headlines, the ones we talk about for a few days, before we forget about them and move on. However there are hundreds of cases of children who are suffering in Malta, and we never hear about them. Children who are neglected; children who suffer physical, emotional and sexual abuse; children who witness domestic violence; children who see their parents taking drugs; children who are living under the poverty line.
In recent years many services were launched to help children suffering from any type of abuse or neglect, making it possible to identify them as early as possible and to reach out to them. Protocols with schools were developed and psychological help started to be offered. Residential homes are working towards standards and many children in care have access to a social worker.
The reality, however, is that the service has not managed to keep up with the scale of the problem, and many children are not getting the support they need.
Over the last few weeks I have had a number of disturbing chats with friends of mine who have dedicated their lives to helping these children. One of them told me – “I learnt early on that some children simply could not be saved. I do my best for those where something can actually be done”.
More money needs to be made available to strengthen agencies such as Agenzija Appogg, which is the first port of call for people who are going through such traumatic situations. This agency has published reports showing that the Child Protection Unit receives an average of 84 new cases per month. Social workers in child protection in Malta have to deal with three to six times the number of cases held by child protection social workers in the UK. No wonder they find it hard to cope.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that when children at risk are identified, it is very hard, if not impossible, to find a place for them in care. The residential homes available have limited places available; when they are full there is nowhere else to turn to. So the children stay put, and continue to suffer the abuse. Social workers have to live with the fact that they know some children are suffering, but they cannot remove them from the place where they are daily being put at risk, because there is nowhere to take them.
So children in abusive situations are ending up on a waiting list to find a place in care. Yes, we do not only have waiting lists at Mater Dei – we also have waiting lists for abused children to get help.
Part of the problem emerges because the services available for child protection are not supported with a parallel provision of family/community services. Such services are vital not only to help families avoid getting to the point that children have to be put into care, but also to help the family reunite and prevent children from getting institutionalised. In other words, once a child is put into care there are no resources available to work with the families in order to rebuild the fragile relationships and create an environment where the child can return home. Instead the family remains fragmented and the child languishes in care, resulting in great frustration and violent outbursts.
The situation then comes to a head when the children become adolescents. At this stage there is very little aftercare support, and kids aged 16 to 18 find themselves having to leave the residential home with no choice other than to end up homeless, return to the abusive family or shack up with the first partner they find. Some of them end up spiralling into dangerous situations, including prostitution or crime.
Faced with this scenario, social workers in Malta end up feeling that they are caught in a vicious circle, where children in homes cannot get out, and those who need a place cannot get in. They face these children on a daily basis, and they feel their pain. They want to help them, but instead they find themselves making call after call begging some home or another to take the child – only to be refused time and time again.
The result: burnout. After a while it is simply too much and they opt to leave the area of child protection. That is why the great majority of social workers on these cases at the moment are new graduates, facing delicate situations that should ideally be tackled by people with much more experience than them.
It is clear that the time has come for a major re-haul of the system. Investment is needed to improve the homes that are available – the time has come to stop depending on charity and vocations, and instead to have a centralised plan with adequate funding, to ensure that there are enough places for all the children who need them, and sufficient resources to care for all those who are in need.
Fostering and adoption services need to be strengthened, and the public educated about these options. More counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists must be deployed so that support is given not only to the children and their families, but also to the carers and social workers who work with them.
Yes it will take money – and I know that money is in short supply at the moment. So what price is the life of a child?
We all know that we are currently going through a time of financial crisis, and that costs must be cut. However there is no doubt that this is an area where the State cannot afford to economise. One could be callous and point out the future costs that will be borne by the State if they are not helped now, before they grow up – drug use, poor health, unemployment, criminality.
But I say, to hell with that! We should help them because it would be morally reprehensible not to do so. This is not an area where we should be counting our pennies – here we should be counting lives saved, the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society.


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