Making sure your child is safe
To stand on the side of a pitch for an hour once or twice a year, as one of several designated parents on duty for after-school hockey at my son’s national school, I have to be Garda vetted.Meanwhile, up the road, a childminder looking after three pre-school children from different families in her own home all day, every day during the week, doesn’t.
It is a glaring anomaly, which forthcoming legislation in the area of child protection is doing nothing at present to address.
“It’s crazy,” says Toby Wolfe, acting director of Start Strong, an alliance of organisations advocating improved early care and education in Ireland.
“It is right and proper that volunteers should be vetted,” he stresses. But, he points out, in many sports club and youth organisations, volunteers are operating in an open, public setting with other adults around, whereas “childminders are working in their own homes, unsupervised and unsupported. And this is their job.”
Schools requiring Garda vetting of parents who voluntarily help out with activities “and who may have unsupervised access to children” is currently best practice demanded by the Department of Education and Skills.
It will be compulsory for all organisations working with children when the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Adults) Bill 2012 becomes law, although it exempts volunteers who assist at sports or community events “on an occasional basis”.
Start Strong wants the Bill to be amended to include paid childminders – and all other adults in their household – as a first step towards regulation of this informal but highly significant part of the childcare sector. At present, only childminders looking after four or more pre-school children have to be notified to the Health Service Executive (HSE) and they are covered by the new Bill. About 50,000 pre-school children are cared for by childminders every day, according to Start Strong, and only 1 per cent of paid childminders are subject to inspection. The paid care of school-age children after school is not regulated at all.
However, the new Bill does require any agencies which provide childminders, nannies or homecare assistants to vet the persons whose services the agency employs.
Childminding Ireland, the national organisation for promoting and supporting family home-based childcare, also wants universal vetting for childminders.
“Initially we would be looking for it for childminders and adults within the family home, but not grandparents,” says the manger of Childminding Ireland, Bernie Griffiths. “I don’t think that it is appropriate for grandparents who are minding their own grandchildren.”
The second piece of relevant legislation currently going through the Oireachtas is the Children First Bill 2012, the draft heads of which ent before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children during the summer. The focus of this Bill is to oblige all organisations working with children to report concerns about neglect, sexual abuse and physical abuse of children to the HSE.
Start Strong would like to see this Bill applying to childminders too. “Our concern to include childminders in the child protection system isn’t just about pointing a finger at the risks associated with childminders,” explains Wolfe. “We are also saying childminders can be part of the solution.”
Childminders, who often have a very close relationship with a family, are well placed to identify welfare concerns around the child they look after, he points out. “If they could be brought into the system, it would be a positive thing.”
Griffiths agrees and would also like to see childminders included in the statutory duty of care to report concern about abuse. However, the new system would have to be “useable”. “At the moment the whole reporting mechanism is very complex.”