‘We’re not child snatchers, we want to help families’ - Alfred Grixti

Alfred Grixti, CEO of the Social Welfare Foundation says Child care orders are down since 2015 after a home-based therapy programme was put in place

Alfred Grixti
Alfred Grixti

Children have the right to grow up in their natural family, Foundation for Social Welfare Services CEO Alfred Grixti said, with the Foundation’s main aim being to help solve familial problems, and to strive to keep children together with their families.

Speaking to this newspaper just as a week-long conference of the Geneva-based International Social Service (ISS), of which the FSWS is a member, is taking place in Malta, Grixti said, however, that if the conditions existed for a care order to be issued, the Foundation wouldn’t think twice to do so.

“In 2015, a project focusing on home-based family therapy started,” Grixti said, “Through this, we work with families which have multiple problems, where there is an environment not ideal for children to grow up in.”

“Such families are on our radar, and monitored by specialised people who go to the homes for two to four hours per session. We help them work out their issues,” he said, “If an improvement is registered, we keep contact with them but reduce the intensity – we aim to maintain a favourable situation for children.”

Grixti said that, at the moment, there were 120 such families in the therapy programme.

On the other hand, only eight child care orders were issued in 2017, and seven in 2016, he said. He explained that the programme was used to recognise family problems and work to solve them, instead of having a care order separate a family.

“If, on the other hand, no improvement is registered through the therapy, and we have tried everything, then we’d go for a care order,” he said.

Severe material deprivation

One of the current focus points of the ISS, which is made up of national entities in 134 member countries around the world, is working to safeguard migrant children.

“Around 100 million people in the EU are under 18 years of age,” Grixti highlighted, “26 million of these are living in poverty – they are significantly materially deprived.”

He said that migrant children – some of whom are with their parents, but others who are either sent alone towards safety, or used as “forward parties” to check the situation in a particular place or country – often end up lacking access to essentials such as nutrition, clothing and shelter.

“This is a sensitive situation in Europe – especially in light of the situation in Syria – which has been abused of by the far right parties. Such children might be abused sexually, or through labour exploitation.”

ISS also advocates for current issues, one of which is the implementation of the United Nations guidelines for the alternative care of children.

“If you have children who have to be protected by a care order, one issue is deciding where they will be kept,” Grixti said, underlining the extent of the sensitivity of this in Malta.

“The UN’s convention on children’s rights specifically says that children should be kept in a family environment, not institutions.”

“According to the charter, any place housing ten children or more is classified as an institution,” he said, “In Malta, however, the situation is a bit of a grey area.”

“Half the children under care orders on the island live in Church homes, and the other half are in foster care. The Church homes have been re-designed and are now made up of small flatlet units.”

“Technically, since they live at the same address, they’re in an institution. But we know that the children are looked after in the sub-unit of the flat, in a sort of family environment,” Grixti emphasised, adding that the homes had all the modern amenities and were comfortable.

International surrogacy

Another matter ISS is dealing with is international surrogacy.

Surrogacy, a very controversial topic in Malta at the moment due to its proposed introduction with the revised IVF laws suggested by the government, happens when a woman agrees to act as a surrogate and carry a baby for another woman who cannot bear children.

“The issue can’t be approached from only a moral point of view – different countries and religions make morality relative, in some respects – European morality is not the same as South East Asian morality, for instance.”

“So ISS is looking at the matter holistically and trying to come up with standards which are acceptable for everybody around the world, and then get them ratified internationally, and eventually by the individual 134 members,” Grixti said.

The ISS issued a UN mandate earlier this year to develop international principles and standards surrounding surrogacy arrangements that are in accordance with human rights norms and standards, and particularly regarding the rights of the child.

The Foundation would be following the promised consultation on surrogacy “very attentively”, Grixti said, and it would make an objective summary of what was said, pass the information on and contribute to the local debate.

Safeguarding children’s data

The ISS is also devoting time to implementing the EU’s general data protection regulations of the EU.

“This affects us because one interpretation of the regulations is that we should destroy all information on our clients,” Grixti said, “But imagine a child migrant whom we’ve assisted wants to eventually look up his family history – how she came to Malta and if she had any parents or siblings with her.”

“If we destroy everything, all this information will be lost,” he cautioned, adding that FSWS would be going over relevant protocols together with the ISS and local data protection commissioner to assure the authorities that all records would be kept safe and private.

A seven-day ISS Council conference, hosted in Malta, started on 20 May.

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