Save the children

Over the past few weeks, I have read various news reports about children and young people in Malta. At first, I took each report as an isolated instance of the vicissitudes or achievements of the younger part of the population, but then I started wondering whether what appeared to the naked eye to be random cases were, on the contrary, part of a bigger picture.

Report No 1.  For instance, one report concerned a 17-year-old girl who had a custodial sentence of 12 months suspended on appeal, after she had been charged in 2017 with possession and supply of cocaine and heroin. Her lawyers appealed the punishment, saying it was too harsh and did not reflect the circumstances of the case. Her family circumstances at the time, they claimed, had led her to frequent circles which did not allow her to obey the probation order she was under. She had since overcome her drug dependency on her own, said the lawyers.

Though Mr Justice Aaron Bugeja believed that the punishment was close to the minimum for the crime she had committed, even after factoring in her age, he said it would be in her best interest to be subjected to a suspended sentence, during which time she would be under professional supervision to help her overcome her drug habit.

Report No 2.  On the other hand, President George Vella was reported by another newspaper to have paid tribute to Kaya Falzon, a 13-year-old student who had offered unwavering support to Anthea Camilleri, a fellow student of the same age in the second year of secondary school at Our Lady Immaculate of Ħamrun. In bestowing on her the annual John XXIII Award for Kindness, the President lauded Kaya’s noble altruism, evidencing a strong commitment in favour of full inclusion.  

The President remarked that, in today’s fast-paced world and with the greater sense of individualism that has entered our social fabric, it has become more difficult to find people who choose to be different and to fully embrace the principles of empathy and altruism. Kaya, he said, had served as a bridge between the challenges associated with schoolwork and Anthea’s abilities so that she can also be fully involved in the school life and enjoy the fruits of learning. Kaya had reduced her free time and dedicated it to the benefit of others.

Report No 3.  A third report was about over 150 people who were fined by the Police for organising and attending illegal parties in Mellieha and Pembroke, in breach of the COVID-19 restrictions. Around 80 fines were issued for the improper use of face masks and for congregating in groups of larger than four. While taking down details of those present, an 18-year-old French man attacked the police constable, tore his shirt, and inflicted some light injuries.

Report No 4.   In another report, a child was filmed being instructed by a hunter how to handle and shoot a gun at Miżieb. The hunter was the same person who last year was filmed doing the same thing with a girl. He was alleged to have resorted to vulgar language and obscene gestures when confronting Bird Life members.

Report No 5.  Malta was reported as still having one of the highest rates of early school leavers in the EU, with one in six students having quit school in their teens. Despite considerable progress in decreasing the phenomenon, managing to halve the number between 2006 and 2019, we still have too high a number of 18 to 24-year-olds who have a secondary school education at most and are not in further education or training.

Students who leave school early were reported last year as suffering from “intense health-related problems”. A study by Milosh Raykov and the National Observatory for Living with Dignity, found that 42% of students who ended their education early, at about the age of 14 years, complained of physical ailments, which was only made worse by the low income they earned and the high levels of job insecurity they experienced. 

Report No 6.   The last report I came across was that almost one out of every five children in Malta between the ages of 11 and 16 suffered from depression during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Prof. Carmel Cefai who heads the Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health at the University of Malta, said that his study revealed that 4% of participants showed strong symptoms of depression, 13% showed signs of moderate depression, 7% showed symptoms of strong anxiety, another 8% suffered moderate anxiety, whilst 11% of participants showed a lack of resilience.

Prof Cefai noted that, interestingly, online learning played a minor part in helping children cope with the pandemic, through the mechanism of creativity, exercise, family, and the children’s psychological qualities. Although it is still early to predict the long-term impact of the pandemic, he warned of the dangers of the so-called “lost generation”. The pandemic has hit hardest vulnerable children, such as poor ones and those with some disability, not to mention domestic violence.

What do we make of all these reports?

The idyllic picture of happy and care-free children is largely a mirage. Sure, there are thousands who lead an untroubled life, their cheery character probably complemented by a protective cocoon provided by their parents and close family, and blessed by a good measure of good luck. But there are equally thousands whose childhood and adolescence is pure hell, as possibly weak characters combine with a difficult family environment and challenging external circumstances.

What to make of this complicated picture? Malta has a National Children’s Policy whose vision, according to Minister Michael Falzon, is that all children are to be loved, supported and protected. “Children are to be encouraged, guided and assisted to reach their maximum potential, both in childhood as well as eventually to mature into responsible and active adult citizens,” he says. The UN, the EU and the Council of Europe have all elaborated conventions and programmes aimed at promoting the wellbeing, best interests, and empowerment of children, through the protection of their rights and the provision of high-quality services. Government agencies and NGOs are active in the field.

But are we succeeding in this vision? 

I was struck by what Pepe Di’Iasio, executive head teacher at Wales High School in Sheffield, told an English newspaper recently. He said that about 80% of the issues schools have to deal with, can be traced directly back to some sort of situation in the child’s life. The girl in Report No 1 probably needed support and she didn’t get it, so her behaviour was adversely affected. In contrast, the girl in Report No 2 probably does not have anxieties and is able to engage positively with other children. Self-harm would be totally alien to her.

Dr Antonis Kousoulis, director of the Mental Health Foundation in the UK, says young people struggling with unaddressed problems, including mental health ones, are quickly labelled as problem children rather than children with problems. He hit the nail on its head. The children in Reports No 3 were crucified on social media as “troublemakers” and disruptive people, to be punished as an example to others, while those in Reports 5 and 6 are generally considered as “losers”.

Society needs to think hard about its children and young people. Saving them should be its priority.

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