VICTORIA WHITE: It’s our children who suffer when State fails to properly regulate minders

SO now it’s official: childminders are the non-family childcare option chosen by a majority of mothers who go back to work in their babies’ first year. Childminders, who in Ireland are almost completely unregulated.

The Growing up in Ireland report found that of nine-month-old babies in Ireland who were not cared for by their mothers, 42% were cared for by other family members, 31% were cared for by childminders and 27% were cared for in creches.

There may be up to 70,000 children in Ireland cared for by childminders. There may be about 19,000 childminders.

How many of them are regulated? One percent. That’s quite some result in a country so loudly concerned with child welfare, isn’t it? But of course the situation is getting bigger, brighter, better.

Wrong. The situation is getting worse. Since the beginning of this year, most of the childminding support officer jobs, at the pleasure of the city and county childcare committees, have been discontinued.

HSE cutbacks. Nothing to be done about it. It’s “regrettable,” said Minister Frances Fitzgerald in the Dáil, but childminding will still be supported by the committees.

There used to be 33 working around the country. At the last official count there were seven and we are counting down. The posts still exist in Kerry and Cork, but they are under threat as they are in Wicklow and Wexford. Although the decisions were made locally, and should be unrelated, the clean sweep made of these posts this year must be HSE policy at a national level.

And advocates working in the sector don’t see the minister overturning it. She “doesn’t want to go there” says one. Getting to grips with inspecting childminding services would be too expensive and it might be politically difficult because it is thought that many childminders don’t want to be regulated.

The current regulations regarding childminders would be laughable if this were not a life and death issue. A childminder need not be registered if caring for less than three preschool children and even then is not required to register if the children are all from one family. The care of school age children is not regulated at all.

Since 2006 a scheme of voluntary registration has been in place, through the work of the childminding support officers. Very few childminders — about 1,250 — have registered. But some argue that this is because the scheme offers so few advantages to childminders, not because they don’t want to be regulated. The few benefits voluntary registration confer are now under threat. What will happen to those childminders who voluntarily notified the HSE of their existence in order to avail of the €15,000 annual tax-free allowance? Now that there is no childminding support officer, there is no one to notify. Will their tax-free shelter disappear? Leaving them exposed to a taxman who might never have known they existed if they had just kept mum?

Worse still is the dent in their confidence which will come as a result of the support officer being axed. There is evidence that support officers were slowly building professionalism in the sector.

As one former support officer says: “Childminders just don’t exist now. Physically they exist. Officially they don’t. A woman rang me recently looking for a childminder for a baby who was seven weeks old. I had a list for her. What happens next year when there is no list?”

Is that what officialdom wants? And if so, why? Research suggests the that 31% of parents who choose childminders for their babies are making a good choice. The Families, Children and Childcare study in the UK rated childminders second only to parental care and well above creche care.

Growing up in Ireland doesn’t make such judgements, but does say that the opportunities for one-to-one interaction during the day are much higher than in centre-based care. There are more toys and books in centres, but that situation could be turned around for childminders with relatively little expense.

There is a big emphasis on the doubled risk of a short-term illness in a young child in a centre compared with in home-based care in Growing up in Ireland. But that advantage might disappear later on when the kids who haven’t been in creches go to school.

There is, however, the complicating factor of creche-reared kids getting more antibiotics earlier, which can make them less protected by antibiotics and has been linked to asthma in some research.

You would go mad trying to work out what’s best. But what is sure to affect working parents is that they are more likely to miss work because their young child is sick if he or she goes to creche. And understandably, most creches won’t take a sick child. What is more telling are the increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol found in babies in creches with 40% rated “stressed” whereas babies in home care were no more stressed than they would have been with their parents.

The further advantages of care of childminders over creches for some family situations are obvious. Siblings can be raised together. Children in rural areas don’t have to travel outside their communities.

We’ve been codded into this idea that in the brave new world small children are cared for under bright lights in big rooms with white shining surfaces. But there are many examples of progressive childminding services. In Denmark it is a growing trend for children under three to be cared for by “daycare mothers” working in a network.

In Scotland, all childminders of children under 16 years are required to be registered and regulated if they care for more than two hours, six days of the year. A well-established Community Childminding Service extends the role of childminders to help families going through periods of acute stress. All the adults in a Scottish childminder’s house must be vetted. And it is scary to think that of the thousands of completely unvetted adults going in and out of the houses of unregulated childminders in Ireland.

We seem intent on squandering the largely homegrown expertise of our army of childminders. We have been taking responsibility away from them. Since 2010, trainees accessing childcare as part of VEC/FÁS community employment schemes are not allowed to choose a childminder but must choose centre-based care. This is a cack-handed intervention, given that centre-based care is often not available in small rural communities. And some of these kids may desperately need the home-from-home experience provided by a good childminder, as their parents are well-aware, if they make this choice.

With proper regulation and support, childminding in Ireland could look a bit like the GAA: unique, local, homegrown and world-class. But the State doesn’t seem to be able to recognise this.

It’s only women, with a few exceptions, after all. It’s only what women have always done. It’s as natural to them as breathing. Sure, why would you regulate it, and why oh why would you value it? The State is blind to quality if it happens in a woman’s home. And it is children who suffer for it.


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