It all started in 1998. Dr. Laurence Gonzi – then Minister for Social Policy (he was later appointed Prime Minister of Malta) invited me to share my thoughts about setting up a fostering service for children in Malta. Back then, the majority of children needing out of home care were placed in large residential Homes. Statistics showed that only twenty-nine (29) foster families were fostering minors at the time. These families were doing their best to give the children the care and stability they needed. However, they had no preparation or training prior to fostering, very little social work support and no financial help. There was very little, if any, awareness about fostering in Malta.
After the initial meeting with the Minister and his advisors, I set about addressing goals one by one. The main objective was to set up a professional foster care service in Malta.
One of the first steps undertaken was individual meetings with the foster families. I needed to get first-hand information about their experiences with the children in their care, notably about any difficulties they were facing. From the outset I could see that these families had not been prepared for the challenges of foster care and how living with a traumatized child could affect them and their families. Lacking basic understanding of trauma and its manifestations, these families often found themselves struggling to understand what was happening. Not everyone was coping. Another main concern was fear of possible contact with the birth parents. Malta is a very small country, and many of the foster carers expressed concern that the birth parents might locate the foster family and there was fear of possible consequences. Lack of legislation and lack of protection gave rise to this fear.
A complicated issue was the mentality that children are possessions and that no matter what, the adults had a right to the children. Birth parents leading highly unstable lifestyles would not accept the fact that the child had been removed from the birth family because the child had a right to experience care and stability. Foster carers were also struggling with the reality that the children in their care might be sent back home if circumstances changed. Both these issues needed to be addressed through adequate legislation as well as training and preparation for the foster carers.
When I look back, I realize that we had undertaken a massive task. Basically, we had to start from scratch. I knew I was carrying a lot of responsibility, but this was a feeling which spurred me to work even harder.
I used the method of mind-mapping to identify goals and targets. One of the main objectives was to create an awareness campaign about foster care in Malta. Use of various media – television programmes, radio, newspaper articles, information meetings within local communities. This was carried out in tandem with the formulation of a policy and procedures manual.
We set up support groups for foster carers and their children (both birth and fostered children). This was followed by the introduction of initial and ongoing training for foster carers.
In 2000, the first Foster Care team of social workers was set up as part of the National social work agency. Foster carers could now have access to regular support and guidance. In time, the Government also understood the need to give some financial help to foster families, it was not much but it was a start.
Between the years 2004 and 2006 I worked as part of a team on an international project: Quality4Children – European Out of Home Care Standards. The outcome was clear, identification of care standards which were to be implemented in various countries in Europe, amongst which was Malta. The National Foster Care Association of Malta– NFCAM – was also set up during this period. NFCAM is still working hard to give a voice to the children in out of home care.
In 2007 we saw the birth of the new foster care legislation in Malta. The term foster carer was introduced to Maltese legislation for the first time. A major achievement. As was the first IFCO Conference which was held in Malta in 2007. A memorable achievement for myself and for the team of fostering social workers.
During the years that followed we worked hard to organize regular training seminars for foster carers and professionals within the field. Foreign and local speakers shared their knowledge and experience with our foster carers. These were enriching experiences which gave the foster carers more determination and preparation for their work with children in their care.
In 2011 foster carers in Malta received an increase in remuneration by the State. An acknowledgement of their valuable work and a sign of increased awareness of the validity of foster care.
In 2017 another IFCO Conference was held in Malta. This time round we worked in collaboration with The President’s Foundation for Well-Being. Another memorable experience for all involved.
By way of conclusion I can only add that over these past twenty years the biggest achievement of all was the fact that over five hundred children and young persons were placed in foster care. In their great majority, they grew up into young adults who are now paving a way towards a better future thanks to the generous and courageous people who were willing to share their lives and their homes with the children who needed them.
IFCO Board member and
Senior Social Worker, National Foster Care Association of Malta