Laws and regulations are only as good as their enforcement. Without a realistic threat of detection and punishment, some companies will abuse their positions of trust. The unacceptable quality of care provided for some pre-school children is just the latest evidence of this tendency.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald expressed shock and distress over the contents of an RTÉ Prime Time report that portrayed the emotional and physical abuse of toddlers at a number of crèches. It was a feeling acutely felt by most parents with children at this stage of their lives . Opposition parties offered cooperation in the passage of legislation establishing a Child and Family Support Agency and a Children's First Bill – all very predictable. Everybody spoke about how appalled they were at the treatment meted out to these children. But once again – and in spite of a Garda investigation – the outcome relating to State oversight is likely to be focussed on systemic rather than individual failures.
The Health Service Executive is the responsible monitoring agency. Regulations recommend that crèche inspections should be held at least once a year. But the average is between 18 and 24 months. Five local health areas have no inspectors at all. Where inspectors did identify shortcomings, they were frequently not addressed by the operators. Offending crèches and pre-schools remained open, and in many cases benefiting from State funding.
The Minister for Children has acknowledged the need for a stronger inspection regime that will focus on issues of child development and education. HSE inspection reports will be placed online in a matter of weeks. The transfer of responsibility for national management and inspections to the Child and Family Support Agency may help. But Ms Fitzgerald was vague about stricter penalties and recruitment of additional inspectors.
Instead, she encouraged parents to raise their concerns with management. It is, indeed, the responsibility of parents to check that their children are receiving quality care. After all, they are paying for the service. But they also need reassurance the State is fulfilling its role through inspections, enforcement of regulations and the employment of trained personnel with suitable qualifications.
In many cases, crèches provide high quality care and children are encouraged to fulfil their potential in a supportive setting. Those that fail this test should be held more accountable. Earlier this month, a report from the Department of Education and the HSE criticised the quality of pre-school care and education being provided in these institutions. Many staff were found to lack suitable qualifications and training. They were also badly paid. The RTÉ programme exposed what happens when stress and pressure are piled on those inadequacies.