Monday 25 March 2019

Silence is not always golden

The cacophony of noise about politics thankfully died down for a fleeting few days, but I always wonder why we are so vociferous about anything political and yet we seem to pick and choose those human interest stories which make us take to our keyboards to pound out our indignation and outrage.

A case in point is this story carried last week in Malta Today.  Children under a care order who are placed in foster care because their mothers are drug addicts pass through a traumatic ordeal. These are children who are taken away at birth, and who are born addicted themselves because of the drug abuse during pregnancy and who have had to be weaned off the drugs like any other drug addict. However, despite being dealt such a harsh blow at the very start of their lives, despite being handed such a cruel fate to have been born into such circumstances through no fault of their own, the law states that a child must have contact with the biological parents because it is a fundamental human right.

As reported in this story, “The Children and Young Persons Advisory Board, which is independent of Agenzija Appogg, holds regular sittings where the child’s care plan is presented and discussed with the persons involved in the child’s life. The Board also makes recommendations as to whether contact with the birth families should be made.”

I can understand why the rights of biological parents cannot be so easily stripped away and that one always needs to consider that with rehab, drug addicts can turn their lives around. Speaking to an expert in this field, I was told that “it is paramount for the child to meet the parents and to give the parents the opportunity to get better and have the space to practice and show their improvement. This is because, with the exception of a handful of cases, the child will always return to the parents, whether during or after the care order when the child is 18.” He points out that these parents do not have any type of support and are expected to get better on their own. “Most cases are genuine cases of (parental) mishandling, of ignorance and lack of education.”

It must be heart wrenching to have a child taken away, and I am informed that it is only done in worse case scenarios as a last resort. So yes, people deserve second chances. And yes, children deserve to know who their real parents are if only to ensure that they do not live their lives constantly wondering about their origins plagued by that hovering, lingering thought that they were “not wanted”. But what happens when the contact is having a detrimental effect on the child? What happens if, as reported in the Malta Today story, biological parents start threatening and harassing foster carers who have stepped in to care for the children who were, let’s face it, considered to have been neglected?

This is a delicate and sensitive subject, and yet in a country which purports to love children so much (and which made such a fuss about the possibility of gays adopting children), there was barely a peep. Why is that? I sometimes wonder whether we are losing our empathy to the extent that we only feel the need to comment about things which affect our own comfort zone. “How can gays be allowed to adopt?! It is not natural!” (for which read, seeing two men raising a child disturbs me greatly and I do not want to see it). The objections were being made because people said they were thinking about the interest of the child, but that does not explain why NO ONE felt the need to kick up a fuss about the interest of the child who is placed under a care order. Where are all those who were arguing so heatedly about children’s rights coming before any “right” anyone feels they have to be a parent?

The only explanation I can think of is that if it doesn’t concern us, we shrug and turn the page or click to the next story. In this case, fostering does not concern the majority of people because signing up to become a foster parent, knowing that the child will eventually be returned to the birth parents, is something very few people have a big enough heart to do. With “drug babies”, the “interest factor” to the general public is narrowed even further – apart from a few sighs of jahasra and imsieken, it seems we just do not want to have to deal with the kind of brutal realities described in the MT story.

As for the biological parents, the substance abusers themselves whose lives are one hot mess of dysfunctional behaviour, which has resulted in their children being taken away from them, the likelihood is that they are not actually on our radar either. It’s another world to most of us, the underbelly of Maltese society which we would rather not have to acknowledge, let alone have anything to do with. So we shut it all down, finding it easier to bicker about trivial issues.

As has often been noted by judges the world over who have to step in over cases of serious abuse and neglect there are some parents “who do not have what it takes”. Those parents who are in the throes of substance abuse, especially, simply do not have it in them to put their children’s needs before their own, resulting in shocking cases such as that of Amanda Hutton in the UK last year, who was accused of letting her four-year-old starve to death, and who left him lying dead in a cot for two years. The timeline of events show that despite the mother’s record of alcoholism and several allegations of child neglect towards all her five children, she had always refused offers of help from social services and no one had ever really checked up on the four-year-old.

“It appears Hamzah disappeared off the radar of his community and services, and a full picture of the horror that was his life emerged two years too late,” said Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC,

This, admittedly, was an extreme case, but other cases where children are at risk are all around us. We are wrong to ignore these potential ticking time bombs.

Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that these things cannot happen here, or that some Maltese parents are incapable of appalling neglect, or that we have something in our DNA which automatically makes us “better” at parenting than other nationalities. In a world which has become more and more self-obsessed, too many children have become afterthoughts and are the last on the list of some parents’ priorities. The deafening silence after the publication of the MT story simply underscores the fact that something is very wrong and skewed when the public breaks into a frenzy about maltreated cats and dogs, but remains stodgily silent about the rights of children who are in foster care.





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