Exactly a year ago today, RTE’s Prime Time documentary “A breach of trust” aired video footage that, to use a well-worn but entirely apt description, shocked the nation.
We witnessed a child being slammed down on a sleeping mat and a blanket being thrown over him. We saw a member of staff swearing at a little girl for sticking her fingers into her food. We heard children being referred to as “little bullies”, and staff telling other staff not to be afraid to be “tough” with them. There were children being strapped into chairs for up to two hours a day, though regulations (and common sense, and human decency) say this should be for mealtimes only.
I watched in tears, as did parents all over the country – shocked that children were being treated this way, behind closed doors, by people in whom great trust had been placed. And compounding this, the children were mostly too young to be able to explain what was happening. Parents everywhere, including me, searched memories for any signs that our children could ever have been treated like this. Mine had been in a Giraffe crèche for four years, and my husband and I sat talking late into the night, going back over everything to see if we had missed something. It was the water-cooler conversation in the office the next morning and for days after, as we all tried to make sense of what we’d seen, and looked for ways to ensure that our own children were safe.
Beyond this, there was much concern for the many, many very good childcare workers who were equally horrified watching the program, and who were anxious facing parents the following morning. Childcare employees who were caring and gentle with the children under their responsibility, were potentially tarred with the same brush as those featured on the Prime Time program.
And parents too were feeling judged; many were in receipt of comments like “I’m so glad I don’t have my child in a crèche” and “I presume you’ll take your child out now?”
And of course it’s not that simple. Taking a child out of a crèche in which they’re happy, because of the distressing but uncommon occurrence shown on television, is neither logical nor practical. Yet parents felt they were being criticized for continuing to use crèches.
And one year on? Anecdotally, some children have been taken out of crèche – often from situations where there was already a question-mark over the care. But most parents seem to have used the program as a barometer – an opportunity to take stock, to question, to look at inspection reports. And ultimately, to feel reassured that the loving and kind carers who are minding their children are still the same people they were before the program aired.
The Prime Time documentary also prompted some stock-taking at state level, and new regulations are due to be put in place later this year, that will give the inspection regime more power. The regulations for the pre-schools and crèches themselves will not change significantly, but the pressure to meet the existing regulations will be more intense, as inspectors are likely to have greater powers to fine or close those establishments that are in breach, according to an official at the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
In addition to a more robust inspection regime, regulatory changes will include the requirements for all new childcare establishments to be formally registered, and for staff to attain a FETAC level 5 qualification in early childhood education. A Learners fund has been put in place to support existing staff who are working towards this, say the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
However, strengthening the legislation is unlikely to be sufficient, as a shortage of inspectors is also a problem. According to Early Childhood Ireland, there is an inspection rate of just over 60%, which is obviously a key concern. This is due to a lack of inspectors, and is further hampered by the HSE recruitment embargo.
So even with more rigorous enforcement of regulations, and the efforts to recruit new inspectors, it will be difficult to cover all childcare facilities.
One hopes that while we await the changes, that increased parental vigilance and more robust self-governance by the crèches will be sufficient. And to that end, upsetting though it was at the time, the Prime Time documentary one year ago was a watershed moment for childcare in Ireland.