Eilish O'Regan: 'Time to 'name and shame' crèches that aren’t up to standard'
State has power to use its investment to improve quality
Crèches and pre-schools were inspected 2,513 times last year but, in contrast to nursing homes, the findings from these visits mostly remain under the radar.
They are eventually published on the website of Tusla, the child and family agency, but it is difficult to navigate.
Contrast this approach with another regulator, Hiqa, which oversees nursing homes and other services. It is tenacious in sending batches of reports to newspapers and other media, many of which end up in headlines.
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If Tusla wants to drive up standards in crèches, it might follow Hiqa's example and employ the simple method of "name and shame".
It's six years since the first 'Prime Time Investigates' undercover exposé of crèches prompted a pledge to tighten up regulation of the pre-school sector.
Former children's minister Frances Fitzgerald said the findings were haunting images that would "strike terror into every parent".
This week, successor Katherine Zappone said she was "shocked and appalled" at the secret footage showing children being mistreated and emotionally abused at Dublin's Hyde and Seek chain.
The revelations about the family-run business which has four crèches led to one of the owners Anne Davy (64) stepping away from frontline care.
So how did it come to this after parents were told to be reassured that a whole set of new regulations that crèche owners had to obey were introduced in 2016?
How much does regulator Tusla really know about what is going on once parents drop off their children?
And is it time for the State, which had become a major source of funding for these businesses, to use this as a driver of standards?
A look through some of the inspection reports of Hyde and Seek show a visit to the Tolka Road crèche nearly two years ago found one of the staff was not Garda vetted.
The main meal of the day was chicken à la king but six medium-size fillets were expected to feed 34 children in that crèche and 30 more in another of its centres.
Inspectors found their books available in the toddler room was insufficient to support their language development.
There were just four books to share.
Inspectors also found an inadequate number of cots provided - just six were available for 15 children under two who needed sleep. But 11 cots were needed to accommodate all children under the age of two.
The temperature of the hot water presented a scald risk to both staff and children. In the tiny tots rooms, a cord from a roller blind was loose and trailing, creating the risk of strangulation.
Cots and stackable beds were positioned directly beside each other rather than appropriately separated to reduce the risk of cross-infection and allow staff access in the event of an emergency.
The inspection report comes with pledges of corrective action from owner Anne Davy.
Fast forward to recent weeks and the 'RTÉ Investigates' undercover worker was offered a job at the same crèche within hours of being interviewed and without the employer getting Garda vetting.
During lunchtime, one carer was left to look after 18 children. At one point, the chef had to help out with childcare.
A fire exit was blocked and staff were told to make up a list of activities on a report journal for parents.
It's unclear how many times Tusla has inspected the crèche since October 2017.
It said this week the Tolka Road branch of Hyde and Seek had been subject to a significant level of regulatory enforcement activity and referrals had been made to Tusla's child protection and welfare services.
The approach taken by Tusla is to give providers an opportunity to set out corrective and preventive actions to address deficiencies.
In the case of a crèche owner flagrantly ignoring instructions, Tusla does not have immediate powers to close a service and it has to make a very clear case first.
Tusla is obliged to inspect a crèche every three years but claimed it happens much more frequently.
It has closed down five since early last year.
The inspection process, no matter how robust, has its limitations.
Poor practice can be hidden, although Tusla has said the majority of facilities are up to standard.
But given the State is now such a source of funding for the sector under the free pre-school scheme, it has the power to link this investment to service quality.
Figures obtained from the Department of Children yesterday showed more than €9.2m has been paid out to 4,230 facilities for the free pre-school programme between September 2018 and June 2019.
The Government's 10-year strategy on early childhood care and education known as 'First Five' published last year promised that "gold standard" crèches and childcare centres would get more resources.
Reward should also be accompanied by penalties for those who continue to breach regulations.
Currently, the conditions attached to the pre-school payment are vague and say the provider must take all reasonable measures to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of the children attending the service.
There is no one fix for this sector, which continues to be beset with low pay for qualified staff. The average pay is just €11.18 a hour - €1.12 less than the living wage.
It's little wonder that so many crèches have high staff turnover and that the ratio of childcare worker to children can be breached.
Many parents will have been unsettled by this week's exposé and may question their own instincts.
Good crèche providers and staff will also feel they are unfairly under public scrutiny and attack.
The advice to parents is to arm themselves with as much knowledge about their crèche and its operations as possible: What are the qualifications of staff? Can I see a copy of your last inspection report? Do you have a care plan for the child? What is the weekly menu? When was it last inspected by fire officers? How are children settled for sleep time and comforted if distressed?
Tusla said yesterday said it should be contacted where someone had "reasonable grounds" for concern.