MASW expresses sadness over cases of child abuse at the Lourdes Home in Ghajnsielem

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The Maltese Association of Social Workers (MASW) said it notes with sadness the news about the apparent findings of the child abuse cases in Lourdes Home, the prospect of closure facing the Home in question and the effect this will have on the children who are living there. The MASW said it categorically deplores every case of abuse, wherever and under whatever circumstances it happens, but it is only fair to acknowledge that over the years Lourdes Home has provided care and protection for a number of children. It has also provided concrete and sustained support and respite to their families.

Such incidents make the need for regulating the provision of services for children in out-of-home (residential and foster) care undeniably clear. The MASW fully supports the setting up of standards in residential care for children and urges the employment of an adequate amount of professional staff in children’s homes, such as residential social workers. MASW also fully endorses the need for training and professional support of all staff and volunteers working with vulnerable client groups, particularly children with challenging behaviour and, generally, children who are not living with their family of origin. While it recognises the good work that has been accomplished and is still being undeniably carried out by many dedicated people in this field, MASW cannot fail to note the mounting pressure on the traditional systems of care and the very basic deficiencies which are coming to the fore in this system. Consequently, MASW supports the much-needed reforms in the systems of care for minors in Malta,

Through the involvement of a number of its members, MASW took an active part in the respective Working Groups aimed in enhancing such reform. Social workers have also participated in the formulation of Standards and Policies in this area, thus influencing the development of the broader sector of out-of-home care for children in Malta.

We believe that the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity which should be guiding our society should also spur the State with the responsibility of caring for its most vulnerable citizens in the event that their families would not be able to do so. However, given the over-reliance on Church and other voluntary institutions in providing this resource-intensive service for children and families, the State’s investment in this field has been rather limited. In fact most children’s residential care services have come to rely too much on charity and a good part of the energy of those running them is spent in raising funds to pay lay staff, maintenance and running costs.

In an ideal scenario the State would take a more active role in seeing that such services are sufficiently developed to be able to see to and respond to these young people’s developmental, emotional and social needs and to enter into sound management arrangements with the voluntary organisations running these homes. In fact, we note with satisfaction that the then Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity started the process of formulating the National Standards of Care in an effort to improve the standards of practice in children’s homes, as well as model Policies which are geared not to leave ‘good practice’ to chance. The implementation of these policies, and the engagement of lay workers to replace the dwindling numbers of religious staff, is expected to bring about a huge rise in the expenses required to run a children’s home.

While abuse can take place in a residential setting as much as is it could take place in foster care, at home with relatives and in any other setting, the State should recognise that incidents of abuse in out-of-home care are more likely to happen when staff are operating unsupervised, in poor working conditions and having to cope with stressful demands from clients in an inadequately supported environment. Therefore, it is to be hoped that the State will not just propose but also finance these processes in order to bring about the much-desired change.   In the meantime, staff working in the residential homes needs to be acknowledged for what they are doing well, sometimes at huge personal cost, notwithstanding the difficult situations in which they are working. It is important to empower those, whose whole-hearted efforts go into creating a homely environment for these often challenging children and families.

Residential care services for children are part of a system of social services as well as part of a wider socio-economic reality. Social Workers believe that in order to be effective, one needs, to take a critical look at the reasons why children enter the care system, the way the different parts of the system interact, as well as undertaking professional work with the children’s families and the communities they come from. A number of children who enter the care system in their early years are likely to start off on a veritable care career and unless their family situation improves or receives the support it requires, their chances of being reintegrated remain very low.

In a study about the reasons why children under three years of age are being institutionalised, published in 2005, Malta scores the second highest country in Europe where children are not placed in care because they are orphans, abused, neglected or abandoned, but where 70.5% of children under three are institutionalised for “other” reasons (European Commission/University of Birmingham, DAPHNE Programme, “Mapping the number and characteristics of children under three in institutions across Europe at risk of harm”, July 2005. To download the report please click here.

According to the same report, Malta placed in the penultimate position when it comes to European countries with regards to the average annual cost of residential care per child under three years of age: standing at €1,444 per child per annum. In contrast, in Sweden, Norway and Denmark the cost of residential care per annum for a child under three years of age is €126,245, €125,573 and €109,023 respectively. While Malta’s figures do not include the unpaid work put in by the voluntary Church organisations this evidence clearly emphasises that our country’s socio-economic progress requires further investment in these children and the modernisation of the care-giving services – not only in terms of policies, but also in terms of the provision of financial and human resources. As the Commissioner for Children has often pointed out: “Children cannot wait!”

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