Saturday 24 August 2019

Ciara Kelly: 'The protection of our children must come before all else'

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Stock photo
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

I think every parent in the land was deeply traumatised watching RTE Investigates last Wednesday night - none more so than those who have their children in a creche. Creches: Behind Closed Doors was an expose of Hyde & Seek, a chain of childcare facilities in Dublin. And the hidden camera footage of the mistreatment of some children was distressing to witness.

I actually felt panicky as I watched distraught toddlers being physically pressed down on to mattresses. There was footage of their eyes being covered, hands put over their faces, and their backs being ''patted'' far more firmly than that word implies as they struggled and cried. Small children were shouted at, manhandled, left alone in rooms, left in high chairs for prolonged periods and treated with angry disdain like bold nuisances. All of which went on without their parents having any idea.

And I've no doubt parents around the country felt even more guilty than normal as they worried about how their own children might be treated when they dropped them off last Thursday morning.

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I've always worked but my kids have never been in a creche. I've always used childminders. And I've been lucky. But I've heard of other people who've had childminders who smoked, who smacked, who made children stand outside in the rain as punishment and, in one case, started a child in Montessori school - to get rid of them for the morning - without informing the parents. So there isn't any system of childcare that is inherently safer than another. You run the risk with all of them that care can be substandard when your back is turned - although clearly many facilities do take great care of our kids.

I saw some criticism online levelled at parents for leaving their children in creches in the first place - like this was somehow their fault, when we know the truth is most families have no option but for both parents to work.

But equally, even among those that could survive on one income, how many men would ever in good conscience be the one to give up a hard-won career that they love in order to stay home for 15 years? The expectation that need is the only reason why women work belies the fact that being a stay-at-home parent is bloody hard and not for everybody. But when parents do put their children into childcare, they've a right to expect that care will be of an acceptable standard and their children will be treated with kindness, respect and decency.

Clearly there's a difficulty in uncovering if children are being mistreated when they're too small to tell you. Especially when a creche - as in this case - is making up stuff about the children's day so it looks as if all is well. So detecting problems isn't easy. Tusla says every childcare facility in the country has been inspected and more than 2,500 inspections were carried out last year - but when Hyde & Seek creche on Tolka Road received ''Excellent'' in all categories in an inspection in 2017, you'd have to ask are inspection reports worth the paper they're written on?

An even bigger issue is that even when problems are identified - as in the case of Hyde & Seek, who had an unregistered facility, didn't have adequate staff to child ratios and breached fire regulations - Tusla, our child protection regulatory body, appears to lack the resources or the teeth to do much about it.

It should not be solely down to RTE to identify child abuse (it exposed another creche with similar issues six years ago) - that is Tusla's job.

Yet Tusla, who was aware there were problems with Hyde & Seek, didn't seem able to actually stop them opening their doors to unsuspecting parents dropping their children off every morning. It seems Tusla knew about many of the issues - but that wasn't enough to shut them down.

After RTE's investigation, Hyde & Seek issued a statement to say that Anne Davy, the creche owner filmed shouting at children and restraining them, will no longer be involved in frontline childcare services which immediately begs the question: will she be involved in backline ones?

Will someone who we know watered down children's milk, fed them 17c instant noodles instead of the food she had told parents they would receive, left a child behind on a trip to a playground, and made up descriptions of children's daily activities to show parents that bore no relation to how the children actually spent their day, continue to be allowed to own and run creches? What kind of a crazy system is that?

There are already professions such as medicine, nursing and law, where practitioners can be stripped of their licence because they've been found to have committed professional misconduct.

Other professions need to be brought up to a similar standard. Childcare providers, residential care providers and nursing homes - all of whom look after the most vulnerable in society - cannot be allowed to operate with impunity when they are found to be in breach of the standards we should be able to expect from them.

There appears to be a bias in favour of the business owner in our current system that trumps child protection. This is simply wrong and needs to change and change urgently.

Lastly, one of the most unedifying things in this whole distressing situation were the tweets put out immediately after the show by Minister Katherine Zappone's Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The first tweet said: if you have concerns about your childcare provider, go to them first. The next tweet advised going to Tusla - the state-funded agency full of well-paid public servants whose entire function is child protection. I'm sorry minister, but that is some stellar buck-passing there. If you think your child is being mistreated - first go to the party behind the mistreatment to sort it out?

It brings to mind those poor families in the past who were encouraged to speak to the Catholic Church when their children experienced clerical sexual abuse. We know how that went. And this is no different. If you think there is an issue, you go to the Garda and you go to Tusla.

They may not want to be inundated with worried parents but that is their job. It's about time they did it. If they lack the resources or the teeth to do it properly, it's up to them to highlight that and demand it changes.

It is not up to them to protect their own workload at the expense of our children.

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