Tuesday 20 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Another year, another report of shocking creche conditions'

The reason nothing seems to change over childcare may be because of the economic system which demands it, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

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Eilis O'Hanlon

It's May 2013. One year on from the children's rights referendum, RTE has just aired a powerful documentary, A Breach Of Trust, which exposes worrying conditions in Irish creches. The next morning, Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, appears on Morning Ireland to tell listeners that what she'd seen on TV was "deeply distressing and absolutely unacceptable", "dreadful to watch", and "cannot continue".

She insists that there will soon be a "dedicated" agency to deal with child protection, aka Tusla, the child and family support agency, which would instigate "a national approach, national standards, national management... focusing on children, on standards, on child protection".

Fast forward to July 2019. RTE airs another documentary, Creches, Behind Closed Doors, which exposes worrying conditions in Irish daycare. The next day, Katherine Zappone, the current Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, appears on Morning Ireland, and declares that she is "deeply shocked and appalled" and "so concerned" that, despite improved standards and regulations, these abuses in the system are still continuing.

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Unlike Fitzgerald, she has no new agency to announce, so concentrates instead on reassuring parents about the extent of Tusla's regulation and inspection regime.

It doesn't take Nostradamus to predict what another six years might bring. Inevitably, there will be a different minister for children by then, but RTE will almost certainly be able to send in a new team of undercover reporters to creches and find similar shortcomings in care. Hyde & Seek is just one chain of private daycare facilities, in one part of the country, offering to look after the young children of working parents. What happened there, as exposed by RTE, is happening elsewhere. Every parent knows it.

They may have been shocked by the extent of poor conditions in Hyde & Seek, which ran the gauntlet from staff being employed without Garda vetting, to fire exits being blocked, to crying children being neglected - but they can't have been surprised. The vulnerable are mistreated at both ends of life. Care homes for the elderly have also been exposed in the same way. You just hope it's not your own child or elderly parent who is being ill-treated, but you never know for sure.

Right now there are renewed calls to beef up the inspection of inadequate creches, and Fianna Fail's Anne Rabbitte has called for a sitting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs "to ensure that such a breach of trust and responsibility does not recur within the childcare sector".

Knowing exactly what to do is less simple. It's not that Katherine Zappone doesn't care, or that her counterparts across the Dail care more.

The answer from Labour's spokesperson on this issue, Sean Sherlock, is that "it's time to question and scrutinise the entire model of childcare in Ireland", arguing that "the State must take a stronger role, and examine the potential of rolling out publicly run and owned, non-profit childcare facilities."

Morning Ireland was also quick off the blocks to suggest that the problem lay with "for profit" private childcare.

Who really believes, though, that state-run childcare would be free of these failings? The State's record of care for the vulnerable under its wing is far from blameless.

There definitely needs to be more regular and thorough inspections. Minister Zappone reassured parents last week that they could log on to the Tusla website and check out inspection reports for themselves, which does sound comforting - until one actually does so, and sees how few of those providing childcare are registered at all, and how scant is the information available on individual creches. Most children are still being looked after by unregistered childminders anyway.

After hearing from one couple who described getting a bad feeling when their child had difficulty sleeping after attending one of the offending creches, Zappone urged parents to "listen to their gut"; but if they were honest, most parents would probably agree with well-known psychologist Oliver James who has noted that studies show "daycare is less good for under-threes than childminders, who are less good than nannies, who are less good than close relatives, who are less good than parents".

Why do you think mothers feel so guilty? They know.

Creches must be held to the highest standards, but they will always fall short of the ideal, and there will always be unscrupulous operators.

An economy which demands that families have two wage earners to get by just makes it impossible to break out of that heartbreaking trap. We're all prisoners of an iniquitous, anti-human system.

But why not expand the debate to asking what can be done about that, rather than pretending that state-run, wraparound childcare is the panacea for all these ills?

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