Ireland’s child and family agency has called for powers to shut down creches with poor standards.
It comes after Tusla admitted to TDs and Senators that there is no “cast-iron guarantee” disturbing practices witnessed at a creche chain in Dublin will never happen again.
An undercover investigation into the Hyde & Seek creches revealed children were being roughly handled.
It also showed a series of fire safety breaches at the multimillion-euro family-run business.
The company has four creches across Dublin city catering for children from three months up to 12 years.
Undercover footage revealed repeated breaches of regulation, as well as concerns around sleep room conditions.
Representatives from Tusla and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs appeared before an emergency Oireachtas children’s committee today to discuss childcare facilities.
It was revealed during the RTÉ programme that one of the Dublin creches which opened in 2018 went unregistered for 14 months.
The committee was told that while Tusla has the power to deregister a service, the Child Care Act 1991 requires Tusla to give 21 days’ notice of deregistration, and gives services the right to appeal to the District Court.
Bernie McNally, assistant secretary general of the early years division at the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, said these legal provisions “take time” and the processes occur in private.
She added: “When Tusla observe non-compliance with regulations, their approach is to encourage the provider to fix the problems, rather than to close down the service.
“This approach works in the vast majority of services because most services are anxious to provide children with the best possible service.
“It would not be in the interests of children or parents if Tusla closed down services immediately whenever they observe non-compliance. We know that parents rely on the continued operation of services in order to go to work every day.
“Closing down a service at short notice can cause enormous inconvenience to families.”
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone has asked her officials to review regulatory powers nationally and internationally to find out if Tusla has sufficient powers, particularly those required to close services immediately where a threshold of poor standards have been crossed.
Committee chairman Alan Farrell asked how can they be “absolutely certain” practices observed at Hyde & Seek were “isolated incidents”.
Brian Lee, Tusla’s director of quality assurance, said: “Our overriding principle is to drive improvement in the sector but you can never get a cast-iron guarantee that something like that will never happen again, but by having a robust inspection model, by people complying with various other quality initiatives, it reduces the likelihood of anything like that happening significantly.
“At the moment we can only request and then move to actually prosecute the service.
“If the service is not registered with Tusla the only recourse we have is to write to them to desist, which they can chose to ignore and the next power is to proceed with prosecution, but we can only deregister a service that is registered with us.
“At the moment Tusla has no statutory legal basis to contact parents if we have concerns, and it is a gap and we are looking into ways that could be addressed.”
Pat Smyth, interim chief executive at Tusla, added: “We have the power to deregister, they can still operate in business, we don’t have the power to close it.”
The committee was also told about the importance of members of the public speaking out and reporting any issues.
Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone queried whether CCTV equipment could be installed in creches around the country.
Ms McNally said: “Whilst it does seem like a good solution and it is an option, we don’t do it in classrooms, we do have to look at the pros and cons of it.
“We do have to look at the rights of all of the children.
“Is it something that has to be discussed further? Yes.”
The committee also heard Ms McNally describe the investigation into the standard of care at the creches as “deeply distressing”.
She added: “The appalling mistreatment of children and the terrible management practices were unacceptable and inexcusable.
“I know that Tusla, in collaboration with the gardaí and the fire safety authorities, are pursuing those responsible.
“We are working intensively to improve quality in services and to ensure that there is robust regulation.
“We believe that Hyde & Seek does not represent the standard of care and education offered by the 4,500 services.”
Mr Smyth also told the Oireachtas committee the behaviour towards children and the serious breaches of regulations at Hyde & Seek creches were “shocking, unacceptable and worrying”.
He added: “The behaviours displayed are unlikely to be evident during an inspection and we rely on good professional practice and appropriate mandatory reporting under Children First, or through Tusla’s Unsolicited Information Office for the notification of child protection concerns.”
Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Children and Youth Affairs, Anne Rabbitte raised concerns over the revelation that there are 37 creches deemed as 'critical' on Tusla's risk register which is the highest level.
Speaking after the meeting, Deputy Rabbitte commented, "There are four stages on Tusla’s risk register and we learned today, in response to a question I asked, that there are 37 crèches at the highest level of critical, which is worrying.
"We weren’t provided with a breakdown of what type of services, so we don’t know if they’re full day or half day, or indeed where they are in the country."
- Additional reporting by Digital Desk