A former crèche worker has denied verbally and physically abusing children in her care and said she felt her dismissal from the position in July 2013 was part of a conspiracy.
Luana Lucchesi had been employed by Holy Family Parish Community Crèche in Dundalk, Co Louth, for 17 years before an internal investigation upheld allegations that she cursed at and covered the mouth of a child, and had inappropriately covered the head of another infant with a blanket.
Ms Lucchesi and another former worker at the crèche, Imelda Brennan, have taken an unfair dismissal case at the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) in Dublin.
The child abuse accusations were specifically levelled at Ms Lucchesi, who had been a team leader in the baby room of the crèche at the time of the alleged incidents, all of which are said to have occurred on September 27th, 2012.
Ms Lucchesi arrived to work on September 28th, 2012, and was told by her superior Christine Brennan that a number of her colleagues had alleged that she had cursed at a child.
She was told that the HSE had been notified.
She was then suspended on full pay and asked to leave the building.
In her evidence at an EAT hearing, Ms Lucchesi denied swearing at any child.
She said she "knew nothing about" the accusation that she had placed her hand over the mouth of the infant, who was said to be "screaming" and "in distress", prior to a meeting with HSE childcare expert Linda Roddy on December 19th, 2012.
Ms Roddy said the latter incident was captured on CCTV cameras in the baby room, which also appeared to show Ms Lucchesi placing a blanket over the head of another child who had been drinking a bottle on the ground.
A report published by Ms Roddy on January 18th, 2013, found that Ms Lucchesi demonstrated “inappropriate practice” by placing her hand over the child’s mouth, as well as by placing a blanket over the head of another child “without appropriate attention and supervision”.
However, the report said the accusation that she had cursed at the first child had not been proven.
The crèche resumed its own inquiry following these findings.
Ms Lucchesi denied all the accusations levelled at her during subsequent meetings with company management and independent investigators over the course of 2013, although she admitted that some of the incidents “looked bad”.
Speaking to the tribunal, Ms Lucchesi said that she had been placing a dummy in the first child’s mouth rather than “gagging” him, and that she had tucked the blanket around the chin and face of the second child, without fully covering his head.
“It certainly was not to smother or gag any baby or any child . . . it’s a soother I had in the child’s mouth and it’s for two split seconds,” she said, in reference to the first incident.
The tribunal also heard accusations that she told the first child, “Shut the f**k up you bastard” and “F*****g sick of this, go to sleep”.
Ms Lucchesi denied both accounts.
Under cross-examination from counsel for the crèche, Owen Keany, she said that she felt her dismissal was the result of a conspiracy between management, including her manager Christine Brennan, and independent investigators.
“That’s what I felt,” she said.
The tribunal reconvenes on March 15th, when it will hear evidence from Imelda Brennan.