Another creche scandal ... but we’ve been here many times before

Another creche scandal, more public outrage — and same old replies from HSE and government.

What the Prime Time investigation has done, in disturbing detail, is remind us what we’ve known for years — the inspection and regulation of the system is not fit for purpose, training and accountability woefully lacking, proper and robust sanctions non-existent, and a political system that promises much but delivers little to reassure parents and, more importantly, ensure safe environments where children can learn and grow.

Barnardos, the ISPCC, the National Creche and Nurseries Association, and Early Childhood Ireland have been screaming for years that profit, not quality of care, is at the centre of the Irish childcare model, there is little incentive for staff to train up due to paltry wages, the department has washed its hands of the sector and inspectors need to put development at the top of their agenda.

Seven years ago, the Irish Examiner blew the lid on horrific and deeply disturbing complaints by parents and childcare workers regarding standards at creches.

The shocking revelations included cases where children were found wandering on a busy street by a passerby after walking out the front door of a creche unnoticed; children being slapped and screamed at by creche workers; social services contacted after children were found with broken limbs; and one child found with its hands taped behind its back.

Responding to those complaints at the time, the HSE and minister for children described themselves as “appalled” and “horrified”. And, just like now, they promised speedy reform, online publication of inspection reports, introduction of a beefed-up inspection regime, and a renewed focus on quality.

Just like now, parents were paying up to €1,200 a month for their children’s care, believing they would be safe at a creche.

A year later, the Irish Examiner secured inspection reports for the thousands of creches across the country. Same disturbing revelations; same lip service.

A year later, another set of inspection reports revealed another catalogue of regulation breaches.

The Freedom of Information documents made it clear that, due to the clinical nature of creche regulations, there was a far greater emphasis during inspections on issues like dust on skirting boards than on the quality of interaction between staff and toddlers. Then, as now, it was obvious that the emotional and developmental needs of the children played second fiddle in inspections to public health gripes such as the temperature of the creche fridge being too low. Creches and the HSE regulations that governed them didn’t seem concerned with creating “homes from home”.

There was an avalanche of promises and commitments from ministers and the HSE in 2007, but as this week’s Prime Time showed, nothing has changed.

Childcare in this country is still of dismally low quality, yet services are obscenely overpriced while staff are woefully underpaid and undertrained and the regulatory framework has fewer teeth than a four-month-old.

Breaches revealed by inspections are repeatedly ignored, creches aren’t named and shamed, and little more than a handful of owners ever end up in the courts — and then fines are derisory. Under the Child Care Act, a breach leads to a €1,270 fine.

Despite the clamour five, six, and seven years ago, inspections still aren’t unannounced but are pre-planned, giving managers ample time to deep clean the premises, stock up on toys, ensure a full complement of beaming staff and all documents are up to date.

Contrast this with food hygiene inspections, where teams arrive unannounced and can shut down the premises in 24 hours.

As Heino Schonfeld, former director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education, has pointed out in these pages, the State appears to have no appetite to drive change and quality improvements in the childcare sector. It is happy to write up reports and leave the voluntary implementation to the private sector. It drafts frameworks, curricula, flimsy regulations, and advisory groups but then doesn’t enforce them.

But more regular inspections alone won’t force change unless there are serious legal and financial repercussions for disregarding childcare regulations. The PR gurus advising the three creches exposed by Prime Time all speak about the other great childcare workers in those creches.

Tell me, then, why they haven’t spoken out about the abuses they must see every day? And where are the individual managers in this? There is no way that such a culture could go unnoticed by creche management, unless they too see the regulations as hassle and the children as mere numbers.

On Tuesday night, thanks to a secret camera, a nation reluctantly and with great distress watched children being emotionally abused. They witnessed workers and management treat toddlers as demanding little pests who deserve to be strapped in a high chair for two hours a day. They saw them being screamed at and cursed at when they wouldn’t comply, and being thrown to the ground like a ragdoll when they wouldn’t fall asleep on demand.

The current system allows such people to do so and they and the creche owners go unpunished.

A number of creches have installed CCTV cameras. Make it mandatory. CCTV in every room in every creche and hand the tapes over to parents and inspectors if requested.

This would act as a deterrent to bad behaviour, would protect the reputations of the very many loving workers, and allow parents feel more secure while providing a new pool of data to inspectors.

It is with simple initiatives like that and a sea-change in the State’s attitude that we can trust our children are being cared for properly.

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