VICTORIA WHITE: We need to break free of red tape and really put our children first

SHOCK! Horror! Two-thirds of Limerick’s creches failed HSE inspection reports made between 2011 and this year.

The reports have been published thanks to the scandal over the Prime Time undercover creche investigation and RTÉ has been helpful enough to put them on its own website.

Here we can note with horror that in Little Treasures, Fr Russell Road, Limerick, “a ceiling tile was noted to be missing in the laundry room”. And it gets worse. In Kilocolman Community Creche, Ardagh, Co Limerick, “the door from the Milk Room to the Baby Room tends to bang”.

Meanwhile, down at Castlemahon Montessori School, Castlemahon, Co Limerick, “five vials of Sodium Chloride were removed from the First Aid Box as these had expired”.

And as for the hygiene in some places. At Southill Children’s Nursery, Limerick, “A large cobweb was noted in the toilet off the Montessori Room, same shall be removed,” commanded the inspectors.

I know, you’re appalled. Your house is always perfect and your décor divine. I’m the same. As a butcher once told my father-in-law as he squashed a blue bottle with his knife, I am “a hoor for the hygiene”.

So much of a hoor, in fact, that when my twin boys were tiny and prone to stuff pieces of meat into their cushions I found their high chairs infested with maggots. I’m glad there was no undercover camera trained on me as I committed maggotcide.

Oh yes, I know it’s different in a community setting. When you have lots of kids together you have to have sky-high hygiene standards or you can get into serious trouble. The HSE has to inspect hygiene standards and has to report on their inspections. Parents deserve the information.

That’s not what gets me. What gets me is the ridiculous hierarchy of issues which we investigate when it comes to children. Concentrating on finding the tree with the wonky branch, we do not see the woods in which some children are lost.

Are we doing this on purpose? As a strategy to avoid making the kind of societal changes which would really put children first?

What matters to babies and small kids is their relationships with the adults who care for them. They need to be loving and they need to be consistent.

Babies and small kids are still programmed for terror if the adult caring for them disappears. They still fear the dark creatures lurking in the woods who would have carried away their baby predecessors. Yet we make no regulations for creches to safeguard these vital relationships. Not one Limerick creche failed the adult to child ratio test, which is welcome news. Except that the allowed ratios are truly shocking. These are one adult for three babies under one year, one adult for five toddlers between one and two years, one adult for six toddlers from two years to three years and one adult for eight preschoolers from three years to six years.

Ratios for part-time “sessional” care are higher overall. Imagine how you would feel supervising six two-year-olds or eight three-year-olds. Alright, you’re Mary Poppins, but I’d be hanging out of a lamp shade eating bits of the carpet. But that’s not even the real issue. The real issue is how the allowed ratios militate against creche workers forming that all-important bond with their little charges.

The inspectors note approvingly in most creches that “staff changes are kept to a minimum” but that’s very vague language. They can’t force staff to stay, of course. But there should be an awareness that for a very small person the loss of a trusted carer is an occasion of grief.

That’s why the choice of a small creche with an owner-manager is often a good one. Three young women who have previously worked in large chains of creches have spoken to me recently about their own grief at being moved on between rooms or between creches and “never having a chance to say goodbye to the children”.

Better pay and conditions would cut down on staff leaving the service, but more awareness is what’s needed to cut down on staff moving within a creche. The “key worker” idea, by which each child has a dedicated staff member is suggested by the HSE in some Limerick inspection reports, but it should be a regulation. It is the bare minimum which any baby or toddler should expect.

The kind of person which that baby or toddler will have as their key worker is another story, and here the emphasis on garda vetting is an insult. As if you are really “vetting” a person for the care of children if you find out they have never committed a major crime and always paid their TV licence.

An absence of paperwork relating to some staff members, including garda vetting, a second reference or a full CV was the most common evidence of “non-compliance” which the HSE inspectors found.

All the paperwork should be in place. But having the paperwork in place does not get you very far when you are looking for extraordinary human beings to care for extraordinary little children. How far our regulations are from attempting to ensure the optimal care of babies and young children, which up-to-date research evidence would require, is nearly more obvious when the inspectors are approving than when they are disapproving.

There are comments like this one: “Babies are held in staff members’ arms while being bottle-fed”. I mean, what else would you do? Peg the bottles to the babies’ cots upside down like a bird feeder?

Or: “There is opportunity for siblings to meet during the day.” What else would you do? Keep siblings apart?

The inspection reports do point up a very small number of serious issues. In Bruff Montessori, Ballinalee, Bruff, Co Limerick, preschool children “had not accessed the outdoor play area for a long time” a child was told to hurry up eating lunch and one child was reprimanded twice for minor issues which the child was too young to understand.

That’s the kind of detailed attention to the needs of the very young which matters and it’s welcome in the HSE reports. But much of the breaches in the reports will have little or no impact on the lives of small children.

The HSE should be reviewing the best research and setting completely different rules. They probably shouldn’t pass a creche which takes babies unless the ratio is one baby to one adult. They shouldn’t pass any creche which doesn’t appoint a key worker for every child. They shouldn’t pass any creche which keeps tiny babies and children in for long hours.

They should admit that ideally babies would not be in creche care at all and toddlers should only be in part-time. But that would mean changing society, wouldn’t it? Extending parental leave, allowing access to part-time work, stopping the incentive in the tax system for couples working two full-time jobs, taking childminders and care provided by other family members seriously.

Much easier to keep on looking for those big cobwebs in Limerick creches and changing nothing.


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