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‘Killed’ by system failures

The tragic death of Victoria, a seven-year-old Nigerian girl, points to classic signs of a systemic failure of State social welfare services to coordinate information or actions to deal with long-standing problems posed by her family.

The situation was compounded by the fact that the girl was a child of immigrants who, despite the best efforts of some outstanding non-governmental organisations working thanklessly in this field, are largely treated in a way that, often, leaves a lot to be desired.

This was a toxic mix and, in hindsight, the outcome could have been predicted though never excused.

The test of Malta’s compassion and values is now what the two inquiries – one established by the Family Minister and headed by a former judge and the usual magisterial inquiry that the law calls for in such circumstances – will find and, in the case of the independent probe, whether the judge will recommend positive changes in the way such welfare cases, especially those involving vulnerable migrant children, are handled.

Yet, some clues to what went wrong in the system that led to this tragedy can be found in the story leading to the girl’s death. Victoria died from a rare disease – aplastic anaemia. She had been living with her family at a residence in Żabbar lent to them by the Dominican nuns, though they were not officially under the care of any Church entity. The family, having been given “refugee (no social) status”, was not entitled to any State benefits or free healthcare facilities. It was totally dependent on people’s charity.

According to friends, the family was malnourished and its members spent most of their time indoors, barely having enough to eat and with the three children often missing school.

The parents also had shown “symptoms of mental health issues”.

A child protection team was alerted three months ago about the children’s absence from school and the professionals consulted agreed they should allow the family time to address the shortcomings before issuing a care order. None had been issued by the time Victoria died, when her two surviving siblings, aged 10 and 12, were placed in care.

A medical examination that had been arranged for the children turned out to have been conducted not by a medical officer but, curiously, by a psychologist. Then, the family received medical bills, which discouraged the parents from seeking further help again because they could not afford it.

Still, no care orders were issued to protect the three siblings although a family friend reported that state welfare agency Appoġġ and the Agency for Welfare of Asylum Seekers had been alerted, “since at least 2016”, that they were worried the children should not be left in the care of their parents.

It is a sad and depressing story of how perhaps those among the most vulnerable members of Maltese society – immigrant families – have had their cries for help and assistance not reaching or, worse, being ignored by Malta’s otherwise welfare system.

Victoria’s needless death should lead to such failures being identified and loopholes plugged.

Vulnerable refugee families cannot be treated as second-class citizens or worse. They should be entitled to sustainable, systematic and properly resourced welfare support. The government must invest in human and other resources to ensure it.

Unless action is taken urgently, another needless death will occur.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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