Monday 19 March 2018

Crèche worker's 'life ruined' after tot left outside

Childcare worker Laura Johnston, who has taken a case to the Employment Appeals Tribunal
Childcare worker Laura Johnston, who has taken a case to the Employment Appeals Tribunal

Greg Harkin

A childcare worker broke down in tears as she told a tribunal how her life had been 'ruined' after she was 'wrongly blamed' for leaving an 18-month old toddler unsupervised outside a crèche for 10 minutes.

Laura Johnston (36) was giving evidence at an Employment Appeals Tribunal where she is suing Letterkenny Community Playgroup Limited for constructive dismissal.

Ms Johnston was the only qualified creche assistant on duty in the playground of the facility when confusion led to the boy being left outside after playtime on March 22, 2011.

The hearing at a Letterkenny hotel yesterday heard Ms Johnston reveal that on the day of the incident an unqualified student was with her looking after 12 children aged between 18 months and three.

She had been organising the children into a queue to return inside when she noticed the door to the premises was open and the children had already gone inside.

The boy had been left outside before he was noticed missing ten minutes later.

Ms Johnston was suspended from her post the next day before being dismissed from her position after being found guilty of gross misconduct.

After an internal appeal she was reinstated to her job but a decision of “serious misconduct” was kept on her record.

However on her return to work she was told by creche manager Geraldine Burke that the mother of the toddler did not want Ms Johnston near her child again and she was assigned other duties.

A note-taker was present at the meeting and Ms Johnston says she was told all future meetings would be recorded.

She objected to the findings of the creche appeal panel, left her job and was later declared unfit for work by the Department of Social Protection.

During her evidence yesterday the case had to be adjourned for twice as Ms Johnston broke down crying.

“How could I possibly move on with my life with serious misconduct hanging over my head?” she said.

“I have been a creche assistant since 1998. This is my career at the end of the day. We have suffered, my family has suffered.

“I need my name cleared to get back into the career which I love. It is not fair. I didn’t have the right staff that day – I was disciplined for doing my job.”

Her solicitor Cathal Quinn told EAT chair Emily Daly that Ms Johnston could not have been responsible for the incident as statutory guidelines stated that there should have been at least one qualified member of staff for every six children.

The inexperienced student, he said, could not be counted in that context and he produced a statement from HSE safety enforcement officer Eileen O’Hanlon which said the creche was in breach of safety rules.

Ms Johnston later denied three disciplinary offences to include failing to carry out a head count, failing to search the playground properly and failing to report the incident.

She said she was under pressure that day, her immediate supervisor was on lunch and she had to leave straight after her shift at 1.45pm to collect her own child from school.

She had intended to report the incident on her return the next day when she was suspended.

Mr Quinn said the upholding of the charges by an internal creche appeals panel, when the creche was in breach of staff/children ratios was wrong.

He said his client was made a ‘scapegoat’ by the playgroup for the incident and “was essentially being bullied”.

The tribunal heard that Ms Johnston felt she had been blamed for another incident some months earlier when a missing child was found inside a cupboard at the creche.

On that occasion, she said, the boy was later found inside a cupboard used to store mattresses which was being supervised by another member of staff and that she, Ms Johnston, had finished her shift.

The claimant said she was still seeking work but believes she will never get a job until her name is cleared.

“I was good at my job and I don’t know if I will ever be able to do this job again. I’ve had nothing but heartache,” said Ms Johnston sobbing.

Solicitor Terry McNamara, representing Letterkenny Community Playgroup Childcare Ltd, said his client was standing by its findings against Ms Johnston.

She will be cross-examined at the next hearing later this year.

Irish Independent

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