Interview by Giselle Scicluna
In an ideal world all children will grow up in a happy home, with a family which nurtures and sustains their childhood and upbringing. Sadly, this is not always the case for a number of children who for a myriad of reasons cannot live with their birth parents. The death of a parent, familial crises, difficulties in parental capacity, debilitating illnesses, drug and/or alcohol abuse, imprisonment of parents and child abuse or neglect often result in these children ending up in residential homes across the country, with little or no actual experience of a normal family life.
This situation is far from ideal as these kids will probably grow up emotionally lacking and find it immensely difficult to form attachments and build healthy relationships. While a residential home caters for all their physical needs and provides a homely environment, these have their limitations and it is logistically impossible for these homes to provide children with individual, round-the-clock attention, which is paramount for a child’s emotional wellbeing.
The Fostering Service in Malta aims at offering these children the opportunity to live within a family environment, whereby they can get the love, stability and security every child deserves. Furthermore, if later on it transpires that the circumstances within their natural families have positively changed and it is in the best interest of the children to return to their birth parents, fostering can greatly contribute to helping them re-integrate within their natural family.
But fostering a child is a role which requires great responsibility as the welfare of the child is the ultimate priority and therefore the screening and assessment of prospective foster carers is a lengthy and rigorous one. When prospective candidates finally meet the established criteria for fostering, these are then enrolled on a specialised training course with a team of qualified social workers to provide monitoring, supervision, guidance and support.
But bringing up somebody else’s child requires much more than just training – there is no blood bond like that of a natural parent and child and therefore that bond needs to be built from scratch, sometimes with a child who not only carries adverse emotional baggage, way beyond his or her years, but also has no inkling of family dynamics with its established rules, traditions, code of discipline or ways of communicating.
While all this might seem dispiriting, there are still several selfless souls who persevere and still look forward to fostering a child or more. We speak to Mary*, a mother of two grown-up children, who together with her husband has been fostering a child for the past three years. What are her experiences as a foster parent? “It has been a roller-coaster ride,” she says with a smile, “We took John* home when he was just seven years old. He was a shy little boy, quiet and very introverted. But he also had a dark and angry side to him which would surface unexpectedly without any apparent trigger.
“It took quite a while for him to adapt to this new environment and that happened not without a lot of trials and tribulations. It is heartbreaking knowing that at such a young age a child is struggling to overcome past traumas and due to his tender years, he is not exactly equipped to fully overcome and banish the resultant pain. You can sense that he would love for nothing more than to be able to throw caution to the wind, simply let go of his fear and ultimately bond with you, but you must fully understand that this does not come naturally to him. Endless patience and love are required to establish initial trust and slowly build a nurturing relationship with this little person who deserves all the love he can get.”
It might seem like an uphill struggle, and one which many would not even consider, but Mary* believes that where these children are concerned, giving up is never an option, “Children like John* have had traumatic childhoods, and as their carer, making sure that you restore it back to them, should be your one and only priority. The fear of abandonment features high in these children’s minds, so commitment and above all providing them with the necessary peace of mind, which was previously lacking in their lives, fosters the all-important bond.
“You must show the child that he or she is a cherished and valued part of your family and that they have total unconditional support whatever it is they’re doing, whether they’re playing up or behaving properly. And then one fine day, you realise that this child is no longer having needless angry outbursts, that they are actually reaching out to you, that they are finally able to smile and laugh with you and that is the most gratifying day of your life,” Mary* exclaims with pride.
How would she feel if John* who is now ten and whom she clearly adores, is sent back to his natural family? “I will miss him terribly,” Mary* says with a hint of sadness in her voice, “but I would be only too happy to let him go, knowing that the situation within his natural family has improved to the extent that it poses no danger to his happiness or wellbeing. I would be more than satisfied knowing that as a family we would have provided John* with the tools to understand what a loving, nurturing relationship is all about and which in turn would help him in moving on towards healthy adulthood.
“Ultimately, fostering is the key to a better future for children who through no fault of their own cannot experience the wonderful joy of living and loving in a family. It is irrelevant whether they will reach adulthood with or without you; the most important thing is that you have provided a solid basis for a brighter, emotionally secure future,” Mary* concludes with a smile.
*names have been changed