Breakout sessions discussing topics surrounding justice for vulnerable children

Image: Manuel Xuereb

The 2nd National Conference on the Wellbeing of Children focused on children’s access to justice. Four breakout sessions were formulated, with the aim of creating recommendations which the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society (PFWS) will publish. The recommendations will be passed over during the 2nd day of the conference.

Breakout Session 1:

Asylum Seeking Children

(Chaired by Astrid Podsialowski - reported by Manuel Xuereb)

Image: Nicole Borg

The workshop surrounding the topic of asylum seeking children mainly discussed how can one improve the system, make it more just to accommodate children who are asylum seekers, asking questions like: what are the challenges? What are the possible solutions? And how can they be implemented?

Later after a general introduction, and listing of several generic themes regarding asylum seeking, the director divided the participants into smaller groups, which were asked to discuss further the previously mentioned problems and possibly coming to solutions.

The main problems brought forward included the lack of access to education and proper information to asylum seeking children. The difficulty these children face when they are looking for help in overcoming language and cultural barriers. Generally these children ask for help, and cannot be granted this help, since there aren’t any cultural mediators to help facilitate such help. Other topics discussed include how asylum seeking children are registered and monitored, and whether the roles of the legal guardian and the social worker need to be redefined and better structured to meet the needs of these children.

All groups put forward the lack of financial support and resources that could help current social agencies, and create new social bridges that help these asylum seeking children in keeping track of their rights and protecting them. Government can invest resources in making sure these loopholes for these children are closed.

Moreover the problem of red tape and bureaucracy was mentioned, in the case when asylum seekers who have relatives in other European countries, have the right to apply for that particular country, as asylum seekers as stated in the Dublin Agreement. Generally this process is too complicated, and takes a long time.

Refugees themselves who are trained to offer services of help, could be a good initiative, towards making these children feel welcome.

Media should be held more accountable to the way it projects illegal and irregular migrants. Moreover the population ought to be more educated on the processes provided to asylum seekers and refugees to create a general respect for humanity.

Breakout Session 2: Children in Alternative Care

(Chaired by Danielle Douglas, IFCO - reported by Jessica Arena)

Image: Nicole Borg

As part of the 2nd Annual Conference on the Wellbeing of Children, hosted by the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, this workshop was an intensive, discussion based gathering, where the participants openly debated on the access of justice currently available to children under alternative care in Malta. With a wide variety of professionals and academics working in the field, the workshop gathered together in a participative group discussion to bring forward recommendations in jurisdiction and policy that directly affects the children in Malta currently being housed in care residences or foster homes.

With a focus on Maltese procedure, however also with valid input from international participants who are also actively working in the fields of alternative care of children in their respective countries, the discussion highlighted a number of qualms and needs that are currently not being met adequately enough, or even at all. This turned a sharp focus on the topic of policy, which directly affects the children, as well as the professionals to whom their care is entrusted. While a number of issues were raised during discussion, a majority seemed to circle back to the fact that legislation on the topic is either unclear or even non-existent, which leaves a large percentage of the decision making with regards to the child based on the opinion of the social worker and the child’s carer. As was evident through the overall tone of the participants, these kinds of situations may cause additional strain and responsibility to the child’s caretakers that may in turn lead to negative implications for the child.

A common consensus was evident in the need for there to be a clear set of procedures that are fundamentally child friendly, meaning that the child must be aware and informed of their situation every step of the process, and that professionals in question create an environment of trust and stability that is adequate accommodating to children most likely to be experiencing traumatic circumstances, and that their encounters with such entities do not cause further trauma.

What emerged furthermore form the discussions was a pressing need to have distinct and informed policies. Ideally, these should draw from already existing studies and studies currently being carried out locally, as well as those performed overseas that produced positive results and are in line with European directives and charters. This system, while not perfect, is the best first step towards achieving better standards and practices for children currently in alternative care, while keeping their wellbeing and success a constant and urgent priority.

Breakout Session 3: Violence Against Children

(Chaired by Maureen Cole, National Institute for Childhood, PFWS - reported by Mel McElhatton)

Image: Nicole Borg

Violence against children is an uncomfortable truth for many people. It is something we discuss in hushed whispers, or with open outbursts of disgust…but how many of us really understand what violence against children is, and what can be done – not just to help avoid it, but at least to make the reporting aspect of the ordeal less traumatic?

What was very good about this workshop was the vast array of professionals present – from educators, to medical practitioners, to social workers. This allowed the workshop to take on different angles of the experience of a child who goes through the justice system.

A child’s experience with the justice system is rarely going to be a positive one. First and foremost, the child must encounter the world created by adults – a world which is rigid and has its own code. Secondly, the reason why children who encounter the justice system may find it to be a fearful experience for them is generally due to the child being “taken away and put into care”, as quoted by a paediatrician with experience in the field.

Even the practical aspects of the system are excluding of children – with one delegate commenting about the high benches at the police station, meaning that a child cannot even see the police officer as they try to report an injustice. Another practical aspect was that sometimes; children are kept from being informed about what is going on in the court proceedings to protect them…but this just leaves them feeling confused and alone.

Through this workshop there was the recommendation that a child should be in contact with a speech therapist, who will ensure that the child is understanding completely what is happening around them.

Finally, it emerged from this workshop that APPOGG, the national agency which caters for children who have been neglected or abused, is working on a house-system which is currently being used in various countries abroad, such as Luxembourg and Norway. The idea behind this system would be that there would be a house where children who have been abused, either physically or sexually, can be taken. There they get to speak with a psychologist who will do the initial assessment, and then be checked by a doctor and so on. The aim behind this house is that it is neutral territory, without the associations related with hospitals or police stations, and all the professionals work together – therefore, the child is not expected to repeat the same story over and over, but rather, there would be continuity.

Breakout Session 4: Juvenile Justice

(Chaired by Norah Gibbons, Eurochild - reported by Kristina Saliba)

Image: Nicole Borg

The second part of the conference was held at the Old University building in Valletta where participants were divided into four separate workshops. This particular workshop gave focus on the justice targeted on the juvenile point of view and was moderated by Norah Gibbons.

The people who participated in this particular group come from different backgrounds and places, and most of them work in the juvenile justice sector. A minor, depending on what they are passing through, might face court, either because of minor situations that were unavoidable or because they did something but they are too young to be considered as adults. Here, participants were again divided into two groups: one group emphasised the challenges facing with juvenile justice, how they feel, and if there were any form of segragation separating them from the adults. The second group focused more about the positive aspect and if there are recommendations to improve the arising issues in social justice.

Most of these discussions were work related as many of these people have hands on situations with their line of work and discussed in detail about the problems at hand as well as pointed towards how things might improved. Mainly they pointed towards the need of the worldwide judiciary system to be improved in order to be more child and youth friendly and to guide and educate them rather then just punishing them, as they need to have a voice and understand the particular situation.

Make sure to follow our live feed tomorrow for more details on the conclusions of these breakout sessions as well as some wonderful speeches carried out by children themselves.

Written by

Manuel Xuereb

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