Almost 500 reports of child abuse in 2008
Child protection services received just under 500 calls reporting mistreatment of children in 2008, ranging from neglect to sexual and physical abuse, official statistics show.
During the same year, the government agency Appoġġ, handled 1,178 cases, including 267 new cases that were filed in just six months, between January and June.
The new cases involved different types of child abuse, from neglect to sexual and physical abuse.
Each case on the list is more than a number and hides a complex history of social family problems. The story behind each case of child abuse is complex and a balance has to be found between listening to children's voice while protecting them. In fact, many children remain very loyal to their parents and do not like to see them in a negative way, said social worker Patricia Bonello.
Child protection does not involve creating a negative impression of the parents, she insists.
The most important thing is to listen to what they have to say and not to portray the parents as monsters, Ms Bonello said. "We have to listen to their voice while making sure they are protected."
Last month, the story of a young mother who was given a suspended sentence after she was found guilty of severely abusing her three children hit the news. It emerged that she was allowed to keep the eldest child after she convinced probation officers that she had changed her ways. The probation services were asked to monitor the woman for some months before sentencing and concluded that she was making an effort to take care of her children and provide them with a decent quality of life.
The 30-year-old was found guilty of child abuse along with her former partner, who is not the children's father. The children, two boys and a girl, were respectively aged one, two and a half and five at the time.
Ms Bonello explains that not all children in care were physically abused but may have lived in a situation of neglect, among other things. Others were placed in care voluntarily because their parents were unable to take care of them.
However, the majority of children in care suffered some form of abuse, whether physical, emotional, sexual or neglect. Although there needs to be a social response to abuse, each case has to be treated on an individual basis.
Great care has to be taken not to allow the child to be re-traumatised, particularly if and when legal proceedings are taken. Testifying in court against his or her parents is, in most cases, very difficult for a child, Ms Bonello points out, as is the process leading up to this and the possible consequences, including the parent's imprisonment.
Although video conferencing is often used in court cases involving children, they still have to indirectly face their parents in court and testify against them. These are very traumatic experiences.
Many children still want access to their parents and, in such cases, it is usually beneficial for the child to maintain contact with his/her family, while ensuring his/her protection by, for example, having access visits supervised, she adds.
Referalls to Appoġġ, through helpline 179 can be made by the victim but also by anyone who finds out about the abuse. They are usually made by teachers, hospital and health centre staff, the police, the courts, family members or neighbours.