What’s changing in childcare?

Three months after a distressing TV documentary, the Minister flags progress but providers say it’s too slow

Tue, Aug 27, 2013, 01:00

Sickening scenes of little children being flipped over like rag dolls, toddlers trying to walk while strapped to chairs and vulnerable tots being sworn at, captured by a hidden camera for an RTÉ Prime Time documentary, convulsed the State earlier this year.

They were “haunting images that will strike horror into every parent”, said the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, straight after the broadcast of A Breach of Trust on May 28th.

The programme, coupled with the news that three-quarters of childcare centres inspected by the HSE had not met required standards, created uproar over how best to safeguard children entrusted to creches.

Three months on, and at the time of an annual influx of children into childcare, what has changed? What progress is being made on promised improvements to the childcare industry and do parents feel differently about their childcare choices?

Anybody who had nagging doubts about their own childcare arrangements was likely to be most deeply affected by the programme, with some who use creches feeling “judged” in the aftermath.

Childminding Ireland reports a 21 per cent increase in calls to its office on the corresponding period (May to August) last year; hits on its website’s childminder directory increased by 66 per cent during the same period; and members are finding that vacancies are filling up quicker, according to its chairwoman, Mary Walsh.

However, parents turning away from childcare centres (the most widely used form of non-parental childcare for pre-school children, according to 2007 figures from the Central Statistics Office) in favour of childminding, will find a sector where there is little or no regulation, and trust in one person is at a premium.

Minders have to notify the HSE only if they care for four or more pre-school children (excluding their own) at home.

Childminding Ireland has long been campaigning for regulation and, from the beginning of next year, will require its new members to have Garda vetting (even though it is not a statutory requirement).

It already insists members have insurance and clearance from a GP as being medically fit to care for children.

Some smaller creches have reported increased interest in what they offer since the three centres shown in the programme – Giraffe in Stepaside, Co Dublin, Little Harvard in Rathnew, Co Wicklow and Links Childcare in Malahide, Co Dublin – are all run by chains. (Just over 200 childcare providers, or 5 per cent of the 4,400 registered, have three or more outlets.)

The Belgrave Agency in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, had an upsurge in inquiries about nannies, particularly in the first week after the programme.

“From the very next day we had a huge amount of people ringing up and coming to visit us,” says its owner-manager Susan Dunn. “There was a lot of concern obviously.”

Giraffe, in a statement published on its website on August 13th, acknowledges it has been “a difficult summer for all involved in the childcare sector following the revelations of lapses in care standards”. But it maintains only 2 per cent of families across its 21 centres removed their children due to those revelations and thanks the other 98 per cent for their continued trust.

John Byrne, who lectures in social care at the Waterford Institute of Technology, has been commissioned by Giraffe to audit all its centres, and this is due to be completed next month, according to a spokeswoman. Also over the summer, Little Harvard has announced the appointment of a former Garda detective superintendent, John McCann, as its new child protection and compliance officer.

Irene Gunning, chief executive officer of Early Childhood Ireland (ECI), to which about 3,330 providers belong – including the three aforementioned chains – said immediately after the airing of the programme that it was like a turning point for the under-resourced, low-pay sector.

“I was hoping it would be a turning point,” she says now, “but so far I am disappointed. Things are moving very slowly.”

In relation to this, the Minister for Children is quick to list initiatives in train. But these will only have a real impact if funding is forthcoming and she is the first to stress that more investment is needed in the sector.

“People ask why childcare is expensive in Ireland,” says Fitzgerald. “It is not because people in childcare are being paid huge amounts, for the most part. It is because we don’t subsidise like other countries and we don’t subsidise because we put more into direct cash payments [child benefits].”

Significant alterations to that system at the moment seem out of the question. “Because of what everybody has been through, with mortgages and everything else, everyone needs child benefit now,” she says.

So, on what fronts are we any nearer a better and safer childcare service since A Breach of Trust was aired?


Sanctions
The last Cabinet meeting before the summer break approved the drafting of new legislation to allow closure orders and increased fines for serious breaches of regulations. This is with the Attorney General now and Fitzgerald hopes to introduce the legislation in the Dáil later this year.

Sanctions are good “when people are really out of line”, agrees Gunning. However, she stresses that “once you have sanctions, you must have supports”.


Mentoring
Establishing early childhood care specialists as mentors to childcare services throughout the State is among five things the ECI called for back in May. Yet, Gunning says, they have “heard nothing” about this since.

Fitzgerald is enthusiastic about mentoring and estimates that “with a relatively small amount of money – €3-€4 million – you could make quite a difference to the sector”.

Has she got that money? “No. We need a budgetary decision.”


Inspection
There are currently 36 full-time inspectors for about 4,700 childcare centres. An average of 220 inspections a month was conducted in 2012, according to an HSE spokeswoman.

From September 1st, any new service will have to have a HSE inspection before it can open. Up to now, a creche just had to notify the HSE when it set up business.

The long-promised publication of past inspection reports finally started last month, but only a limited number from six (at the time of writing) counties have been put up on the pobal.ie website.

Fitzgerald hopes reports from all counties will be up by the end of the year. In the meantime, parents can ask a creche to provide them with a copy of its latest report.

The first batch of reports on inspections carried out since July 1st are expected to be published “within weeks”, although Fitzgerald acknowledges the inspectors are “understaffed and busy”.

Personally, Gunning does not see any value in putting up old reports. “The retro reports are a waste of time and energy, and causing the whole thing to be slow and cumbersome,” she says.


Standards
New standards for inspections are being prepared and will focus more on staff-child interactions and child development. Fitzgerald believes management responsibility needs a closer look too.

“It would be wrong to think you would get quality by simply focusing on inspections,” she points out.


Qualifications
From September 2014 for new services, and September 2015 for existing services, all staff working directly with children must have at least a level-five qualification in Early Years Care and Education. Core staff delivering the free preschool year will, from the same dates, need a level-six qualification.

While Gunning welcomes this, she points out that there has been no talk of any training fund to help services achieve it. Fitzgerald says she too would like to see a training fund and is pushing for more support for the sector.


Parents
Parents’ alertness and their demands for the best care for their child is another factor in the drive for better childcare, says Fitzgerald, although she acknowledges “the most caring parent can miss if there is some sort of institutional abuse”.

Gunning says one of the positives to arise from the Prime Time programme was that parents have started asking more questions, while providers realise they aren’t always doing enough to reassure parents.

“Some people have suggested to me that CCTV is the answer – it really is not. Have it if you absolutely must, but a camera can never replace a relationship.”

Parents seem to like the idea, she acknowledges, but “it does not replace talking to the staff, developing a relationship with the staff and staying connected”.

While “official Ireland” moves slowly, working parents such as Naomi and Jesús del Pozo in Knocklyon, Dublin, have to get on with organising the care of their small children.

Ben (four), who has been at a creche, is starting school this week, while their youngest, Lola (two), has been with an “exceptionally good” childminder up to now. Feeling that Lola would benefit from the company of other children, Naomi has just been through the process of finding a creche for her. Cost ruled out the one Ben had attended.

“I would be more clued in after seeing that documentary,” says Naomi, a primary school teacher. “I was asking more questions.” Did it put her off creches? “It did affect me, but they are not all like that – that’s all you can think,” she says. “You just have to trust your gut.”

She looked at only one creche for Lola, as she had a good recommendation from a parent whose son was already there. When she visited it, she was happy.

“When you walk into a creche, the initial impression is really important – do the kids look happy, are they engaged in something?”

She adds that she would not have made an appointment for her initial visit and would expect a creche to be happy with that – “that you would catch them nearly off guard and it wouldn’t be set up and that you would still see that the kids are happy”.


Useful websites:
earlychildhoodireland.ie has an excellent guide to choosing a childcare centre;
childminding.ie has a guide for what to look for in a childminder.

Creche inspection reports published so far can be viewed on pobal.ie.


swayman@irishtimes.com

Stephanie Gratton had just taken over the small Crescent Creche in Monkstown, Co Dublin last May and she was worried that there would be a backlash against all childcare centres.

Staff members were also concerned about how parents would react to the Prime Time programme. However, the following morning at least six asked their children’s carers were they feeling okay, acknowledging how upsetting it must have been for them too.

“None of them had concerns for their child [here], which is great,” says Gratton. And the creche, which can accommodate 27 children, has had an increased number of viewings by prospective clients.

“What I thought was going to be a negative turned out to be a huge positive,” she says.

Some parents who had their babies booked in to branches of chain operators were on the lookout for smaller places. Her creche ended up taking three of these babies and now has a waiting list.

“I think parents really love somewhere that is small and homely. I have six staff and myself” – she retained all staff when taking it over. “The turnover of the staff is nil.”

New parents now sometimes ask to
see the creche’s last inspection report, which was conducted last August before Gratton was in charge and in which it was found to be non-compliant on adult-child ratios.

As a creche owner, she regards such non-compliance as a major issue and, although it was sorted before the end of last year, she was very concerned before buying the business that she would be carrying issues forward from that report. She has also completely changed the food policy since then, with all meals cooked on-site, using organic vegetables.

A pre-school officer assured her that, as a new owner, the report had nothing to do with her, and that the creche would be re-inspected within two months of her taking over. However, she has heard nothing since.

While she welcomes the online publication of inspection reports, she will wait until one is conducted on “her watch” before putting it up on the creche’s website. Meanwhile, she always urges parents to tell staff how they’re feeling if there is an issue. “If you don’t, we don’t know and we can’t deal with it,” she says.

Aimee Nolan, who runs Cranford Creche and Montessori with 12 staff and 60 children in Rathgar, Dublin, has also had nothing but affirmation from parents over the past three months. If you can take a positive out of the programme, she says, it is that it will sharpen up everybody in the industry. However, she believes there is a major problem with the inspection system and her hurt and anger at being found “non-compliant” on a couple of issues two years ago is evident.

The creche prides itself on feeding the children really well – with food cooked on-site for those over 12 months and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Yet because it splits the snacks – giving children a cracker and milk at 10am and then yogurt after the main meal at 12, to encourage children to eat their “really important” meal, she explains – the creche was deemed “non-compliant” on food and told cheese or yogurt should be offered with the cracker at 10am.

In addition, they were reprimanded for not telling a pregnant mother of a baby and toddler, who brought in a jar of organic baby food for her younger child that day, to provide home-cooked food for her baby in future.

On staffing, the creche was found non-compliant for not having two
written references on file for two
long-serving carers who were recruited before that requirement was introduced
in 2006. “To a lay person reading that report, ‘non-compliant on staff, non-compliant on nutrition’ – I wouldn’t put my child in a cr
eche if I read a report like that. It’s quite damaging,” says Nolan, a mother of three young children herself.

It doesn’t reflect reality, she argues, nor that people who send their children there are very happy with the care.

“It’s a total mess – the whole system,” she says, and illustrates why creche operators say having a right of reply incorporated in the publication of creche reports is essential.

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