What’s changing in childcare?
Three months after a distressing TV documentary, the Minister flags progress but providers say it’s too slow
Stephanie Gratton, owner of the Crescent Creche in Monkstown, Dublin, with Gus Murphy (3), Harry Fuller (3) and Jamie White (4). Photograph: Aidan Crawley
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?