Miriam Donohoe: The welfare of our children must be protected at all costs
Shocking Freedom of Information material, published exclusively in today's Irish Independent, paints a shameful picture of a childcare system in crisis.
Details of 4,000 creche inspection reports dating back to 2011 make for deeply disturbing reading. Coupled with what we saw on 'Prime Time' on Tuesday night, they will leave every parent in Ireland with children in paid childcare extremely worried.
As well as highlighting a litany of breaches of regulations, the reports reflect a childcare inspection regime that is toothless, with no clear indication of the extent of follow-up of breaches of regulations.
Another frightening aspect is that the reports released to this newspaper only represent about 40pc of creches and childcare facilities in Ireland, as the remaining 60pc have not been checked in the last four years. So we still don't have the full story.
The reporting procedures appear to differ, depending on what part of Ireland the creche is in. Inspectors in some areas provided well rounded accounts of the services provided and failings identified.
However, a small number of reports contained little detail and raised questions about the rigorousness of the inspections. So where you live in the country may dictate how safe your child is in care.
Taken together, the records provide overwhelming evidence of a sector that does not provide adequate safeguards for young children.
In fairness, some creches passed inspections with flying colours, but issues of concern were highlighted in around three-quarters of inspections.
These inspection reports have been lying on shelves gathering dust for the last two years and only came into the public domain after a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The Department of Children says they will be made public in the next six weeks.
It is a disgrace that these reports have been kept hidden away. They should be published as soon as they are completed. Every parent in Ireland is entitled to be able to check out the facility to which they plan to send their young children.
The reports, couple with the distressing 'Prime Time' footage, showing mistreatment of children in creches, will leave parents with very little confidence in the childcare system.
Hard-working mothers and fathers, who are already under massive pressure due to the recession, will be questioning if leaving their children in childcare and creches is the responsible thing to do.
For many families, both parents are working not out of choice but out of economic necessity, as they are trapped in negative equity and finding it hard to make ends meet due to successive pay cuts and tax hikes.
Far too much political lip service has been paid to this issue in the last 20 years. There have been several media exposures in that time of low standards in Irish creches but these have not been acted upon.
The fact is that repeated promises of speedy garda vetting of staff have not been followed up. There is still no deadline set for the introduction of minimum qualifications for those working in the childcare sector, nor is there any requirement for all childcare providers to be registered with the State .
Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald last night ordered a Health Service Executive review of the reports. The review will be conducted by the HSE's National Director of Child and Family Services, Gordon Jeyes, who has been asked to assess if any patterns exist.
While the review ordered by the minister is to be welcome, we do not need yet another report to tell us that our childcare service is in Ireland is in serious crisis. And the minister should not wait for Mr Jeyes' review to take action.
The Constitution promises to cherish all the children of the nation equally. It is astonishing, and to the shame of successive governments, that our childcare system has reached this low.
The welfare of our children must be paramount.