Second Opinion: It’s time to stop being bystanders when it comes to our children’s welfare
Unlike most people who watched the Prime Time programme about some of Ireland’s creches, I was not shocked or even surprised. Instead I felt angry and a sickening sense of deja vu.
Several nursing homes for older people and many children’s services have already been exposed as being unsafe and detrimental to the wellbeing of those using them. Now home help services are about to come under scrutiny.
Call me cynical, but when humans provide health and social services for other humans of any age, abuse is inevitable.
Adults are not perfect. They were raised by other adults who were less than perfect and who may or may not have role-modelled empathy and integrity.
Although many people have these qualities, a significant minority do not and may end up working in health and social services.
Such qualities cannot be screened for when someone attends for interview, nor can they be learnt through training and academic qualifications, which is why child-minding services need regulation, scrupulous inspection, and strict enforcement of the law. Trust but verify must be the default position of inspectors of these services, who need to actively seek out abuse and deal with it forcefully.
Fit for purpose
Most Irish health and social service regulations and standards are fit for purpose. The Child Care (Pre-School) (No2) Regulations 2006 and the National Standards for Pre-School Services (2010) are perfectly adequate and, if enforced, would mean that staff in these facilities would not behave as shown in the Prime Time programme.
Standard 14.2, “The service facilitates each child’s individual need for sleep or rest”, means that children go to bed when they are tired, not when their carers need a break.
In fact, all the abusive behaviour shown in the Prime Time programme is covered by the National Standards. We are great at regulating, less good at inspecting, and even when inspections take place, there is little enforcement and few consequences for law-breakers. Blind eyes are turned at every corner.
Food safety is one exception. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has a website listing all Enforcement Orders which is updated every day.
The website shows that in May 2013, 15 closure orders and four improvement and prohibition orders were served, and a food stall was fined €750 with costs of €3,486. Food businesses such as restaurants are inspected twice a year and other less risky establishments once a year.
Why is there not a similar open and transparent system for child-minding services? Surely facilities where small babies are minded should be inspected twice a year, and after-school services for older children need a yearly inspection.
Instead, Ireland has child-minding services that are inspected once every 18 months to three years.
It is nearly impossible to find out anything about these services without asking for a copy of the last inspection report and even then parents do not know how empathetic the child-minders are to children’s needs.
Empathy can only be observed by empathetic supervisors. Child-minders who look after three children or fewer in their own homes and after-school services are not even inspected.
Levels of importance
Does this mean that children’s safety and wellbeing is less important than food?
Most people would say of course not. Then why is the system of inspection and enforcement for food so much better than that which applies to child-minding facilities?
One answer is that food is very big business. Food harvest 2020 from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food shows that the food business is worth €24 billion to the Irish economy, employing over 150,000 people, and growing.
It is assumed, rightly, that food producers will cut corners to boost their profits, hence the stringent regulations and law enforcement.
Decades of cap-doffing have produced a diffident culture about health and social services. Irish people assume, wrongly, that professionals will always do the right thing. This has led to a blind trust in service providers.
Women have had their wombs whipped out and their pelvises broken on a doctor’s whim. Dead children have had organs removed without their parents’ permission, not forgetting the Magdalene laundries, orphanages, mental health institutions, child rape, to name just a few examples of Irish blind-eye-turning.
The State cannot be in every creche all the time so everyone has a responsibility to expect abuse, be vigilant, ask questions, and complain assertively when not satisfied.
Being less diffident does not mean being less friendly, a quality which is also part of Irish culture. It is time to stop being bystanders.