Legislative changes to protect children from child abuse should be introduced locally through the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Social Policy Ministry spokesman Alan Camilleri said.
Children’s rights are a major item on the ministry’s agenda, Mr Camilleri said: “The time is now ripe for the introduction of further legislative initiatives.”
Speaking to The Malta Independent, Mr Camilleri said the first law that was addressed during this legislature was related to the protection of children’s rights. He said that through this legislation Malta will for the first time set up the necessary machinery for the supervision of children’s rights and the full implementation of the convention.
“Further legislative changes will be introduced gradually and incrementally for the full adherence to the convention. The children’s commissioner will have the chief task of pushing and instigating these changes,” he said.
Mr Camilleri explained that the law proposes the setting up of a commissioner for children who is expected to instigate change in lateral laws should he conclude that such laws do not provide enough protection to children in terms of the convention’s provisions.
The issue of whether smacking by parents or carers can lead to child abuse was raised in the British House of Commons recently. Last week, British newspaper The Guardian reported that 80 per cent of MPs agreed that physical punishment could lead to child abuse.
Labour MP David Hinchliffe, who chaired the House of Commons health committee, examined the institutional flaws that led to the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie in February 2000. Mr Hinchliffe said the committee was urging the government to use the forthcoming green paper on children at risk to remove the increasingly anomalous “reasonable chastisement” defence from parents and carers that could impede the prosecution of child abuse cases.
The Guardian said in Victoria’s case, discipline and punishment in the form of “little slaps” escalated into child abuse and, eventually, to her murder. She died of hypothermia, malnourishment and with 128 separate injuries on her body after suffering months of abuse from her carers.
The health committee report said around 80 children died every year from abuse or neglect in the United Kingdom. It said the fact that this figure had remained relatively constant over more than 30 years was shocking.
Discipline may be an assault and a serious abuse – Appogg
Asked to comment on the issue, Agenzija Appogg chief executive officer Joe Gerada said that when there is violence in the family the children are at a serious risk, and what a violent parent may describe as an act of discipline may in actual fact be an assault and a serious abuse.
The local law does not work in the best interests of the child, Mr Gerada said. He said that as the law stands at present, whether the exercise of physical pressure constitutes abuse or not, is subject to interpretation.
And according to various research, corporal punishment does not have any affect on disciplining children and instead instills in them an element of aggression, he said.
“Moreover, smacking fades into insignificance with age, and if parents have only used this method of discipline, then they will have a problem to exercise discipline when their child grows older,” Mr Gerada said.
Back to the local scene, Mr Gerada said most of the cases investigated by the Child Protection Services, manned by Agenzija Appogg, had nothing to do with discipline but were an outright violation of the child’s right for protection, an outburst of parental anger meant to inflict pain and harm.
Mr Gerada said research and experience showed that when loving parents, who kept an open communication with their children, created a secure and stable home environment, the exercise of discipline was much easier.
“In these situations, talking to your children, reasoning things out and insisting that they carry the consequence of their actions without resorting to corporal punishment, has a much greater chance of being effective in changing behaviour,” he said.
The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child prohibits corporal punishment, he said, adding that an increasing number of European Countries are completely banning it.
“In Malta there is no law prohibiting corporal punishment and any successful prosecution in a child abuse case depends on how strong the evidence is to support a claim of abuse and differentiate this from an exercise of discipline. So abusers may use this loophole to walk free,” he said.
Mr Gerada said any issue concerning parenting tended to be controversial because a parent’s approach to child rearing tended to vary significantly and while on one hand the government could legislate parenting, it had the responsibility to ensure the rights of all citizens including the rights of the child.
“Corporal punishment is perceived by many as a form of humiliation and as a degrading treatment, and the public needs to be educated about this as well as to be provided with information about alternative methods of discipline. When this is done, the one can speak about introducing legislation,” he said.
However, he said, there were other basic needs that were still not being catered for and deserved priority, mainly the need to establish parental responsibility for those not assuming responsibility for their children.
“This is the case of children placed in institutional care, children who are not allowed to be fostered by their natural parents, the need to have recognised child welfare agencies that are responsible by law to provide the necessary support to children at risk or in need of care and support. The need to have a comprehensive Children’s Act is, in my opinion, an absolute priority,” he said.
Alarming increase in child abuse cases
Asked whether the number of cases of physical abuse in Malta was alarming, Mr Gerada said: “Just one single case of child abuse is alarming.”
The number of cases dealt with by Agenzija Appogg has increased between 2000 and last year. Mr Gerada said that in 2000 the Child Protection Services dealt with 1,087 cases, which went up to 1,264 cases last year. And between 1993 and 2002, 25 per cent of the cases involved physical abuse while 21 per cent incorporated a combination of abuse, including physical.
“In the first five months of this year we have seen an alarming increase of 58 per cent over the same period last year. This is serious as the awareness of child abuse is increasing and we are increasingly finding ourselves short of the necessary resources to act promptly and as intensively as need be,” he said.
Meanwhile, if children are exposed to a violent environment, and their only model of parenting is one based on violence, one could not be surprised if they grow up to be violent people in their own homes, Mr Gerada said.
“However, we cannot generalise and say that all the people who were physically abused during their childhood will automatically become violent adults,” he said.
On the other hand, he concluded, there was a correlation between children being exposed to violence and growing up to become violent adults or ones who find violence acceptable.
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