Regulation risks a two-tier childcare system

Regulation risks a two-tier childcare system

If the State is asking childminders and families using them to come out of essentially a black economy, there must be incentives, writes Juno McEnroe

A CHILDMINDER was last month ordered by the courts to attend anger management training and to remain in good behaviour.

The 18-year-old had told gardaí she unintentionally broke the arm of her one-year-old niece. She said she “simply wanted to frighten her — just to distract her from crying”.

She pleaded guilty at Ennis Circuit Court to willfully assaulting, ill-treating, and neglecting the baby.

The childminder had come to Ireland the previous October to look after her sister’s three children, aged seven, two-and-a-half, and 12 months.

The Latvian minder didn’t realise she had broken the child’s arm and she said the child cried more when this occurred and she couldn’t calm her down after that.

The baby’s parents later brought their daughter to hospital and gardaí were notified.

Such a scenario is every parent’s nightmare. Trusting someone with the care of your child is a big step. And for many parents — with families spread far and wide — the reality is that minders, creches and even neighbours are relied on more and more to care for children.

The regulation of childminders who operate out of their own homes has just been announced by the Government. Their services are largely unregulated, informal, arranged cash-in-hand and operate in a black economy. 

They are often taken up after recommendations from other parents or because of a family’s location.

Obviously, not every parent or guardian can afford creche services or live near such facilities. 

Often, if one or both parents return to work, there is also a desire for their little one to be cared for in a home-setting, where infants can play more comfortably, are less prone to picking up infections and receive more intimate nurturing from a minder as opposed to in a creche setting.

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone is set to use a carrot-and-stick approach to establish basic standards for childminding, to help parents pay for minders and ensure no such incidents like the Ennis case befall their infants.

Regulation risks a two-tier childcare system

A new national childcare scheme gets under way in October, which will amalgamate all current services under one system. 

Parents must apply for subsidies, incomes will be assessed and allowances will apply for children aged between 24 weeks and 15 years. Providers must be registered and approved by the child and family agency Tusla.

Childminding regulations will fall into this scheme. Parents will also be able to access subsidies for childminders from October.

The problem is few minders are formally in the system. The Department of Children says just 81 childminders are registered with Tusla out of an estimated 19,000 working in Ireland.

Other Central Statistics Office estimates put the number of minders here at 35,000, while those in the sector say at least 70,000 infants are looked after by those workers.

There was widespread public anger after a recent RTÉ investigation into a Dublin creche revealed that there were times when up to 20 children were left in one worker’s care. Fire-safety breaches and rough handling of children were also exposed in the programme. 

One owner was caught shouting at very young children when the room they were playing in became untidy.

This move to regulate childminders is timely given the RTÉ expose. Ms Zappone said last week that she wanted to give Tusla stronger powers to deregister and shut down shoddy facilities.

Department officials confirmed last week that minders’ homes will be inspected while they will have to get specific qualifications, first aid training and Garda vetting.

The plan will address self-employed childminders who work in their own homes. 

It does not propose extending regulations to minders who work in the children’s homes, who are regarded as employees of the children’s parents, or to relatives who care for children.

All this is to be welcomed and will hopefully ensure children are not subject to the abuse and neglect uncovered recently in some care facilities.

The Government will offer incentives to regulate the sector, with subsidies for parents as well as grants and training for thousands of minders that altogether will cost over €50m a year.

Department officials also admitted childminders will face prosecution unless they sign up to strict standards of care. Minders have yet to learn what standards and rules will apply. 

This will be the crux of the matter and will indicate whether Ms Zappone can bring minders with her or whether the entire sector will remain casual, localised, ad-hoc and unchecked.

One nervous childminder took to her feet at the regulation launch and said exactly what minders are worrying over.

How could inspectors demand that a childminder’s home be akin to a creche and have the same standards, she asked. The north Dublin minder, who has cared for children for over 15 years, said she previously deregistered with Tusla because of “unrealistic” expectations around inspections.

Regulation risks a two-tier childcare system

Furthermore, she raised the fact that registered childminders can only earn up to €15,000 a year tax-free. That threshold was “unrealistic”, she told the minister. 

Expenses to upgrade homes and the current limit of minding three children needed to be considered as part of a public consultation on childminding, she added.

Some of these changes would help childminders earn a “decent wage” and “pay a mortgage”, she told Ms Zappone.

And so, the Government must be conscious that if it is asking childminders and families using them to come out of essentially a black economy, there must be incentives. 

Moreover, chasing minders away with hard regulation or sanctions will obviously not work.

Anyone who has returned to work after minding their child — particularly in Dublin and urban centres — will testify to the difficulty in finding the right care for their loved one.

Be it a creche, minder or au-pair, the availability is extremely limited and childminding or au pair care is often secured through internet blogs, websites, agencies that charge costly fees or word of mouth.

I can attest to the frustration and desperation experienced by many, after being told recently by several facilities in a search for a creche place for my daughter that the earliest a place would become available was autumn 2021.

It is a daunting experience and often pot luck when trying to arrange the best of care for your child. And this is not sustainable, especially in a country where we want parents to return to work after a baby is born.

The Government needs to get this regulation right but be conscious of striking the right balance in its stick-and-carrot-approach in guaranteeing standards, training and funding for childminding.

The last thing that would work would be some sort of two-tiered childminding system, where Tusla-registered minders are used by some communities and unchecked carers operate elsewhere.

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