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Anger after child is 'forced' to meet estranged parent PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Claudia Calleja   

Kelly* is dragged into Appoġġ's offices after the court ordered a supervised access visit with the father. The photo has been edited to protect the child's identity.

A Gozitan man whose son was forced to live in the UK for two years following a cross-country custody battle has criticised the authorities for not giving children a say in the matter.

Mario Attard said: "My case highlighted how important it is to listen to the children. The courts ignored my 12-year-old son's voice and he was forced to live away from his family for two long years."

After winning his custody battle, Mr Attard was contacted by parents going through a similar experience.

One of these is a woman who can no longer bear to see her four-year-old daughter, Kelly*, break down into tears and desperately cling to her when she takes her to the court-ordered five-hour supervised access visits with her father.

Kelly's foreign father entered her life a year ago. Given that he does not live in Malta, the court ordered access to take place when the father visited, and allocated five-hour supervised access visits for four consecutive day stretches. Every time this happens, Kelly is torn out of her mother's arms by social workers outside the Appoġġ agency offices in the presence of court officials. The Sunday Times watched the child desperately try to hold on to her mother.

"I have no problems with my child seeing her father. But I can't understand why it has to be done this way. How is this benefiting the poor child? It breaks my heart to have to see her pulled away from me," the mother said.

Since these visits started, Kelly became more withdrawn, refusing to go to school, and does not mingle with other children.

This is all familiar to Mr Attard whose son, Shaun, is still suffering psychological repercussions.

Two years ago, court officials snatched him from his home in Gozo following a UK court decision.

Shaun's father and two siblings lived in Gozo whereas his mother moved to the UK and wanted to take her youngest son with her. A Maltese judge ruled it was in the boy's best interests to remain on the island but the mother appealed in the English courts, which ordered the boy's immediate return to Manchester.

That day, Shaun was whisked away by police and social workers. He remained in the UK for two years until Shaun took matters in his own hands to make his voice heard. The case was concluded last year when his father was granted custody and the boy returned to his family in Gozo.

"They are repeating the same mistake. They are not listening to the children. I ask myself, who are these people protecting in court? Who is there to protect the child? What are the authorities doing?" Mr Attard asked.

In a brief reply to questions sent by The Sunday Times, a spokesman for the Justice Ministry said it was felt "that the courts, which are an independent institution, already have the necessary tools to adjudicate such cases according to the specifics of every case".

Children's Commissioner Carmen Zammit said she had always stressed that children needed to be heard more in court and had suggested that children should have their own lawyer to safeguard their rights.

According to a spokesman for Appoġġ, supervised access visits usually start with one or two hours of access. The time is increased slowly by the court after monitoring the minors' wishes and progress of sessions.

But Kelly's mother is arguing that no one is listening to her child's wishes.

"Five hours are too long and the father should have been introduced to the child more gradually," she said.

According to Appoġġ, the duration of the supervised access visits depends on the requirements of the case.

"There are instances where the court orders long visits, which could even be longer than five hours, mainly due to limitations of regularity of access - such as that of a visiting parent living abroad," the spokesman said.

Currently there are around 15 cases of supervised access visits which last about five hours.

So what happens when a child resists these access visits?

Unless instructed by the court to stop the supervised access visits, Appoġġ still provides supervisors for that case. Here, the supervisors use child-friendly techniques, such as play, to encourage participation during the visit, depending on the child's age.

If this does not work and if both parents agree, the custodial parent is involved during the supervised access visit, the spokesman said, stressing that Appoġg followed the court's decrees "and thus it is accountable to court".

* Name and personal details have been changed to protect the child's identity.


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