The proprietor of a creche spoke yesterday of her devastation of being prosecuted for breaches of childcare regulations.
Following a day-long inspection last year at her preschool facility in Co Cork, Hazel O’Mahony said, within a week, she had been advised the HSE was considering legal action.
Normally, she said, a proprietor would be given an opportunity to address issues raised by a HSE investigation team.
But Ms O’Mahony, who runs Tiny Tots in Killeagh, Co Cork, told a special sitting of Midleton District Court: “It’s devastating. To think the first report from the HSE team was a warning letter.
“I got a second telling me the HSE was taking legal advice.”
Asked by her solicitor Frank Buttimer how did she feel about being prosecuted, Ms O’Mahony, who has been running childcare facilities for 18 years, said: “It’s very upsetting.”
During a five-and-a-half-hour examination in the witness box, Ms O’Mahony said she had always adhered to what the HSE officials had asked of her.
On day one of the hearing on Monday, environmental health officer Lorraine Potter and her HSE colleague, assistant director of public health nurses Eleanor Buckley testified about a series of concerns after an inspection of the creche in November 2012.
A total of eight charges were proffered against Ms O’Mahony after the inspectors claimed the beaches included inadequate supervision due to under-staffing, food left un-refrigerated, damaged toys in a garden, a main door allegedly unlocked along with dust and dirt on radiators and activity centres.
An insurance policy allows for 35 children but the HSE team found, at one stage, 37 children present.
The charges are being taken under Childcare (Preschool Services) Regulations 2006 but the defence insists the regulations are guidelines and not legislation.
However, penalties on some of the breaches are up to €1,000.
Giving evidence before Judge John O’Neill yesterday, Ms O’Mahony accused the HSE officials of being “so intimidating on the day”.
She claimed: “We had dealt with the health board for 18 years and never had a day like it.”
She insisted the HSE investigation team did not engage with the children in any way and claimed Ms Buckley allegedly “fobbed off” any questions from creche staff, stating: “I work in the HSE”.
On both days of the hearing, Judge O’Neill acknowledged several times the strong conflict in evidence between the HSE witnesses and further defence witnesses, due to appear at a later stage.
He said there was no doubt that all the staff at the creche had a “love of children” but he pointed to HSE concerns of under-staffing on the day of the inspection.
Ms O’Mahony allegedly told the HSE officials there were six staff working but only five were noted, initially. One worker, it was stated, had to go home due to illness, shortly after reporting for duty.
After Ms O’Mahony outlined her long-held reputation as a creche owner, solicitor for the HSE Denise Kirwan pressed her on staff ratios. The defendant said most of the childcare guidelines were reasonable. But she did accept, in cross-examination by Ms Kirwan, the staff/child ratio on the day of the inspection had not been adhered to — due to an unexpected arrival of children from a parent facing a personal difficulty.
Ms O’Mahony also acknowledged that, in 2008, she had closed a creche facility in Midleton after “agreement” with the HSE.
However, she still operates a separate pre-school facility in the east Cork town.
The matter was adjourned until September.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved