‘Care shouldn’t stop at 16’
Report suggests ‘seriously reconsidering’ age young people leave services
After the trauma of being taken away from his abusive parents to be placed in a residential home, Raymond* had to experience another “leap in the dark” when he turned 16 and had to live alone in a slum.
Daniel*, who also lived in a home and had to leave at 16, described that period as “a huge mess” that was “psychologically traumatic”.
The two men, who are now in their 20s, were among the nine people interviewed for a study on challenges faced by children in care.
The report recommends “seriously reconsidering” the age of leaving care, currently 16. It says semi-independent facilities that support children until the age of 21, at least, are urgently needed.
Entitled Children in Out-of-Home Care in Malta, the study was launched yesterday by Children’s Commissioner Helen D’Amato.
She said the three-pronged research, led by researcher Angela Abela, exposed the reality for the 332 children in Malta and Gozo who do not live with their biological parents.
The report will now serve as guidance to policymakers. During yesterday’s launch, several attendees stressed the importance of implementing the recommendations.
It showed the main challenges when vulnerable youngsters left residential homes were lack of money and support. They were also prone to alcohol and drug abuse.
“I know a lot of my friends, who left with me, ended up homeless. I’m sorry to say that half of them died of an overdose. There is lack of attention,” Becky* was quoted.
Becky also recounted her happiness when someone offered to foster her but her dreams to live with a family were slashed when her father did not consent.
“This draws our attention to the need for liaison between the legal and out-of-home care systems to be able to deal efficiently with such situations and if necessary revoke parental rights,” the report said.
The first part of the study highlights that children under five should not be placed in residential care as they suffer long-term consequences from lacking a personal carer who can act as a parent.
Due to lack of human resources in residential homes, there is a low child-to-carer ratio, with one person looking after about seven toddlers.
The second part looked at the psychological, behavioural and academic profile of such children .
Most were placed in care because their parents had inadequate parental skills or mental health problems. Some children were exposed to abuse and neglect.
The report showed children in foster care did significantly better than those in residential care in terms of psychological functioning and more resources should be used to ensure children could be brought up in a family setting.
Children in out-of-home care exhibited behavioural and mental health problems. Yet there was a “considerable discrepancy” between the 17.8 per cent formally diagnosed and 49 per cent found to have some form of mental health issue, suggesting under-diagnosis.
The report recommends educational and psychological assessment on entering care.
The final section explores the long-term outcome of leaving, including the experiences of the nine who lived in residential care.
Some described it as a safe place. But others spoke about abuse while in care, with one girl saying she was sexually abused by a maintenance man when she was eight.
Others spoke about lack of personal attention and privacy.
Many spoke about the anger and confusion of being abandoned by parents and their coping mechanisms, including promiscuity.
There were also individuals who managed to pull themselves together despite their troubled past.
“I think I consider myself a family man and I’m doing very well… I have my own house. I have a wife and son. I know that once I finish work I return home and there is someone to greet me,” Luke* said.
The full report can soon be viewed at www.tfal.org.mt.
*Fictitious names used in report.
• Out of the 270 children over five who are in care, 262 are Maltese. The majority, 154, live in residential homes, 108 are in foster care and eight are in mental health settings.
• For the majority of children – 82 per cent – the first experience in the care system was a residential home.
• 28 children experienced more than four transitions in carers while 113 had no transitions.
• The majority of children in residential care have a ratio of one adult to six children.
• Out of the 62 children under five who are in care, 28 are the children of irregular migrants.
• Most children under three live at the Ursuline Creche in Sliema.
• The majority spent well beyond four years in care.
On the nuns: “If I didn’t have them, I don’t know where I could have ended up.”
On parents: “She could not give us a lot of things, but I always appreciated her.”
On neglect: “My mother never wanted me… I remember she had many wine bottles… instead of giving me a feeding bottle she used to dip the pacifier in the wine, or whisky, so I would go to sleep. She always wanted to get rid of me.”
On being in care: “I was not loved much… so I ended up numb and not in touch with my feelings.”
On living in a home: “When you start growing up, you are becoming an adolescent, you are embarrassed to be seen with the nuns.”
On being abused when in care: “I felt dirty, but it was not my fault, and I used to cut myself because I felt really low… I used to say: ‘Dammit. I am living in a home and I am still suffering’.”
On too much change: “I lived in such a confused state that I have not received the sacrament of Confirmation up to the present day.”
On the effect on parents: “When you take away their children, the only person that maybe keeps them back from doing certain things, then these people will have nothing to lose and will not care.”
On hope: “There is a chance that you will make it in life. There is a possibility that you will be better than your parents.”