Tusla admits it isn't able to close any rogue crèche amid Hyde and Seek controversy
Tusla has admitted it is powerless to force the immediate closure of crèches with poor standards and could offer no guarantee that disturbing practices seen at a chain in Dublin won't happen again.
The Child and Family Agency conceded that its inspections are unlikely to catch the kind of behaviour exposed in the Hyde and Seek crèches by undercover reporters.
TDs and senators were told that Tusla relies on childcare staff whistleblowers to raise concerns and while CCTV was an "obvious solution", it posed other child protection risks.
The agency also confirmed there are 37 childcare services around the country which are the subject of serious concerns.
Senior officials from Tusla have appeared at a special meeting of the Oireachtas Children Committee following last week's RTÉ documentary on the Hyde and Seek crèches.
The programme raised serious issues about child-to-adult ratios, Garda vetting procedures for staff, rough handling of children and fire safety.
Hyde and Seek owner Anne Davy resigned ahead of the broadcast of the 'Prime Time Investigates' programme.
Children committee chairman Alan Farrell asked Tusla bosses how they can be certain such practices are isolated incidents.
Brian Lee, Tusla's director of quality assurance, said its overriding principle is to improve the sector, but added: "You can never get a cast-iron guarantee that something like that will never happen again."
Tusla officials admitted that the agency doesn't have the power to shut down a crèche - which Mr Farrell described as "very shocking".
Mr Lee said: "One power that would be a huge help is when a service is operating unregistered that we can actually act to have them closed immediately.
"At the moment we can only request and then move to actually prosecute the service."
Tusla also has no legal basis to contact parents if it has concerns. He added: "It is a gap and we are looking into ways that could be addressed."
He also said Tusla should have "the ability to close services immediately where we have a grave concern regarding the health and safety of children".
Senior Department of Children official Bernie McNally said that minister Katherine Zappone has ordered a review of the powers to close crèches immediately "where a threshold of poor standards has been crossed". Ms McNally said last week's broadcast was "deeply distressing" but the vast majority of childcare services are "safe and caring places".
Tusla's interim chief executive Pat Smyth said that the kind of behaviours seen in Hyde and Seek are "unlikely to be evident during an inspection" by the agency's staff.
He said Tusla relies on good professional practice and appropriate mandatory reporting by childcare staff under the Children First procedures,
Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone asked if Tusla was in favour of making CCTV compulsory in crèches.
Mr Smyth said that the videoing of children is itself a child protection risk. He added: "It would need huge safeguards as well, even though it's the obvious solution."
Fianna Fáil TD Anne Rabbitte was told that there are 37 childcare facilities listed as "critical" on Tusla's register.
Mr Lee said this is the "highest level of concern" on the register. Ms Rabbitte said it was clear that Tusla doesn't have adequate powers to deal with crèches that are in breach of regulations.
Early Childcare Ireland - which represents childcare providers - said it believes Tusla needs to have broader powers, "up to and including immediate closure".
On the issue of whistleblowers, it said: "Staff already have a legal and ethical obligation to come forward to Tusla and in extreme cases An Garda Síochána directly if they have concerns of a child protection nature."
It said staff must be "fully protected by law throughout any process that might ensue."