This column first appeared in Malta Today
In many respects, Malta has always lagged behind, in some cases simply because it is an island-state with all the limitations that implies. But it cannot be denied that it was also held back from developing at a normal pace as long as it remained a colony under the British empire, and we often have to remind ourselves how relatively young this nation is in terms of self-governance.
To put it into perspective, and just to mention two minor examples, up until 1964, my mother’s generation travelled on British passports and the island used British currency.
Our history may date back thousands of years but our independence, 55 years old, is a mere baby in comparison. The chips on many shoulders that we are “not good enough” when compared to what is done abroad can be directly traced to the fact that, for a couple hundred years, another country was basically in charge of Malta and dictated everything. Today, even writing that sentence sounds odd to my ears.
Apart from being stunted in what should have been a gradual development of our democracy and politics, the island was also held back because of the iron hand of the extremely influential, all-powerful, Catholic Church which kept Maltese society tightly wound in an unnatural state of taboos and repression for far too long.
If we needed further proof that you cannot put a tight lid on social changes, we got it in 2011 when the Yes vote in the divorce referendum was won by a majority, and literally below the lid right off what many of us had known for decades. Basically, while the majority of Maltese people (supposedly, 99%!) continued to profess themselves to be Catholic, their lifestyle was anything but. Many had no qualms about living with this hypocrisy, but the referendum changed all that because it forced people to make a choice and to take a stand, even if it was only in the privacy and secrecy of the polling booth. After that, other social norms quickly tumbled and we were thrown into a new reality which we are all very much aware of (same sex marriages, second marriages, second set of children) and yet it bears reminding that all this happened within 8 short years.
With this preamble I wanted to lead up to something which has often nagged at me. It has occurred to me, more than once, that we refuse to learn from what has been done in other countries in many sectors, and to avoid their mistakes, because our relatively new independence has made us what is so aptly described in Maltese as “suppervi” (rough translation: too proud and pigheaded). Much like a teenager who is convinced they know it all and that their parents are hopelessly old-fashioned, Malta persists in ploughing blindly ahead on certain issues even as countless examples all over the world have proven time and again that it is the wrong way to go about it.
One example is fostering. I have just read the amazing life story of a young woman who has been dubbed the best female gymnast of all time: the incomparable Olympic champion. Simone Biles. At the World Gymnastics Championship held this week in Stuttgart, she recently broke the record to become the most decorated gymnast in history.
But her story became even more jaw-dropping when I learnt that she was once a child in foster care. In her op-ed piece carried in February 2018 on CNN online, she states, “My road to success began the day my grandfather and his wife officially adopted my sister and me. My birth mother suffered from drug addiction, and when I was just three years old, my siblings and I were removed from her custody. From there, we bounced around until I was six and my grandparents made the brave move to adopt us.”
Anyone who knows what foster cares means can understand the meaning of “bounced around” – you have no home to call your own, and you are moved from one foster family to the other. I could quote entire paragraphs from her excellent article and what it meant to her to finally belong to a loving family, but you will just have to read it yourself.
The foster care situation in Malta, as with so many social issues, is a classic example of how we still lag behind. Adoption of Maltese children in care is still rare because it has always been much too difficult (which explains why most adopted children are from other countries). Fortunately, there are exceptions. I watched a TV interview conducted by Louise Tedesco with John Role and Amanda, a very well-spoken young woman in her mid-20s who has been fostered since the age of 5, and was only adopted by her foster parents a few years ago at the age of 22. It Is a wonderful success story, and like Simone Biles, she eloquently explained what a difference it can make to a child to feel that they are secure and finally “belong” to a family, and are not mere afterthoughts or living in a state of limbo.
Being in a loving family which wanted her meant she flourished not only emotionally but even in terms of her education. From being unable to read and write properly, she went on to pass her exams at MCAST and became an ECG technician and now works at Mater Dei. Who knows what other potential talents and skills children who are currently in care have and which are not being tapped because they do not have the same opportunities and the right family environment?
Recalling her childhood when she was living in a children’s home, Amanda says, “I thought I would always remain there and I used to wonder, what will become of me when I grow up? What will I do with my life? I was afraid of the future.”
Thankfully, the law has now changed. As John Role from the National Foster Care Association explained, “We have always insisted that after a certain amount of time the placement of a child with a foster family should become permanent. You cannot have a child always living in uncertainty about whether they are going back to their natural parents or not.”
Another change is the right of foster carers to adopt. Now, according to the new law, a child can be adopted after living in foster care for five years and after three years in exceptional circumstances (rather than ten years as it was previously) and having to wait, as Amanda had to, until she became an adult. The fear which comes with instability, of not knowing what the future holds can be assuaged by the legal procedure of adoption. It is a relief that this measure is now in place, but I cannot help but wonder why it has taken us so long to get here, and how many other Amandas there are out there, who have spent their childhood, adolescence and young adulthood always living in a state of flux and uncertainty. Most of us take our families for granted, but when you are a foster child, nothing can be taken for granted.
It has taken a long time, and several changes of Ministers for us to get to this point. Suffice to say that The Children’s Act was drafted in 2000… that’s right, almost 20 years ago. At one stage, the strategy for children in care presented in Parliament for consideration was completely scrapped because it had serious shortcomings, and work had to be started from scratch. Perhaps if we had looked at the experiences of other countries in this sector, and learned from them, it would have saved a lot of time, resources and money, not to mention trauma and heartache to generations of children, whose biological parents have proven to be unfit, but who, for reasons of their own, refused to give their children up for adoption.
It is a classic case of thinking that we know better, that we can do things our way because ‘this is Malta’ and that no one can tell us what to do. Yet the growing social problem of children having to be put into homes in this country has never been so acute, more foster carers are badly needed, and the sector is ill-equipped to cope. Had we put our “suppervja” aside, today’s 20-year-olds may have been given the stability they so badly needed when they were 5 years old instead. After all, while cultures may differ, the human experience of what it means to be an unwanted child is universal.
To quote Simone Biles once again, “Although I was young when my foster care ordeal began, I remember how it felt to be passed off and over-looked. Like nobody knew me or wanted to know me. Like my talents didn’t count, and my voice didn’t matter.”
The National Foster Care Association Malta will be holding a training seminar on the Minor Protection Act (2019) and the Rights of the Children we Care for on Saturday 26 October at St Martin’s College, Swatar. For full details go to their FB page.