Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Putting children first

On Tuesday evening RTE broadcast a Prime Time special – A Breach of Trust -on childcare and crèches. Using secretly recorded film of three crèches the programme showed disturbing images of young children, some between one and two years of age, being emotionally and physically abused by some staff.

While it acknowledged that its under-cover researcher witnessed some very good examples of childcare the focus was on the ill-treatment that occurred. This included children being thrown about like a rag doll at nap time in one crèche; children being strapped for hours at a time into chairs with no stimulation available; staff shouting and cursing at children; lax supervision, poor or no training, and insufficient numbers of staff to cope with the children; and staff falsifying diaries of children’s activities.

The programme revealed that 75% of all crèches in the state are breaching mandatory standards. The programme also revealed that there are no inspectors in local health offices in Louth, Dublin South City, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and North Monaghan.

Many families often pay more than their mortgages to ensure that their children are in childcare facilities. They expect that their children will be properly cared for and that their developmental, educational and learning needs will be catered for. And that all of this will be properly scrutinised and inspected by government.

However, the RTE programme revealed that the needs of children are not being met. It exposed the use of unacceptable practices.

It is clear that there is a serious failure of regulation and a failure of governance. Breaches of regulations are widespread, while the inspection regime is simply not up to scratch. Crèches in some parts of the country have not been inspected for up to four years despite hundreds of complaints from parents.

This is light touch regulation at its worst. There seems to be an over emphasis on the business interests of childcare providers and under emphasis on standards and regulation. Childcare is a very profitable business, not least because those involved draw down millions in state funding, despite there being no robust inspection regime.

The Giraffe crèche in Stepaside was featured on the RTE programme. The Giraffe childcare chain received over €1 million last year from the state. Along with the two other crèches highlighted in the film they secured €3.6 million. One of the three crèche groups – Links Childcare and Montessori Ltd – recorded accumulated profits of €1.7 million last year.

The state paid this money as part of its Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme under which every child is entitled to a free preschool place. This system also demands that children do not miss more than 20 days and the level of funding follows the child. So if parents move their child to a different crèche then the money moves with them.  

There is an onus on the government to ensure that there is a rigorous inspection system and that all crèches are fulfilling their statutory obligations. It also needs to ensure that childcare facilities are providing the quality framework for early years education that was agreed six years ago. One report suggests that just 3% of childcare providers are fully implementing it.

It is also clear that there is a serious shortage of trained and qualified staff. Almost a quarter of staff members has either inadequate or no qualifications.

The government should also ensure that no state funding is provided without a stringent inspection regime, proper training and robust regulation.

The State should not be funding high cost and profitable private childcare facilities that are below standard. In fact the whole policy of dependence on the private for profit sector for childcare should be reviewed.

Children deserve better and parents need to be reassured about the standards of care their children will receive. This is a scandalous situation and the HSE must move immediately to appoint inspectors for childcare facilities in those counties that have no inspectors.

Sinn Féin has indicated our willingness to work with the government to facilitate legislative progress on the 'Children First' legislation and the establishment of the Child and Family Support Agency as one way of addressing the appalling situation exposed by the RTE programme. But all of this will be meaningless if the government does not provide the necessary funding and ensure that the new structures and laws and recommendations are implemented in full.


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