Katherine Zappone: 'We will root out despicable behaviour and prevent the cavalier treatment of children'
The treatment of children as witnessed on RTÉ last night is reprehensible beyond words.
There are laws in place to protect children and to prevent this type of intolerable treatment of children.
Children should be happy, nurtured and protected. They are entitled to be treated with kindness, dignity and respect. Parents watching the programme will, quite rightly, be distraught. I understand this.
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The vast majority of those working in Early Learning and Care are champions of children. They care, they educate and they take pride in their part in children's development. My own background is in Early Learning and Care. Like many former colleagues I am disgusted at the offensive, undignified and cavalier way these beautiful children were treated.
Since 2016, every early years service must be registered with Tusla, which is the Early Years Inspectorate. If a service is not registered then it is breaking the law. Parents can check on the Tusla website to check if a service is registered.
The programme gave details of a service provider operating without being registered. Several months ago, Tusla ordered this service to close. The provider legally challenged the decision. The case went to the courts. The courts did not require the service to close. As a result of the legal case, the service was registered with conditions attached. Tusla continued to actively monitor the service.
All the related services have been inspected by Tusla and it is taking the necessary action.
As minister I will make it mandatory for early years services to display a certificate of registration in a prominent place on their premises.
The programme highlighted a registered provider who has a conviction. Parents and the public are legitimately questioning how this could be possible.
This person has been a provider since before 2016. At that time a service could only be closed down by the courts. Where a service provider was convicted, it was for the courts to determine what would happen.
In 2016 Tusla was given the power to deregister services, forcing them to close without requiring court decisions. However, because of constitutional limitations, Tusla cannot deregister a service for a conviction that took place before 2016. This was the case with the provider who featured on the programme last night.
As a result of our new registration process, a provider who has been convicted of a relevant offence since 2016 can be removed from the register and not be allowed to operate a service.
If Tusla believes that a registered provider is not willing to take the necessary actions to keep children safe, then it can deregister the provider after giving it 21 days' notice. During the notice period the provider can appeal to the District Court.
Five services were deregistered by Tusla in the past 18 months.
One hundred and thirty eight early years services closed in 2018. While many of these were for personal reasons, some found the quality standards too onerous, and saw the writing on the wall. Quality standards are high and so they should be.
If a service indicates a willingness to work with Tusla to make necessary improvements, then Tusla can apply conditions to its registration.
This year Tusla has attached conditions to 95 early years services. When Tusla attaches a condition, it follows through intensively to ensure compliance with the conditions. I will make it compulsory for early years providers to display the details of conditions imposed by Tusla prominently on their premises so that parents are fully aware.
In order to ensure better quality services for children, my department is now funding 130 mentors and specialists who work with early years providers to advise them on good practice. All staff working with children must be Garda vetted. This is a legal requirement. My department funds Barnardos and Early Childhood Ireland to help service providers with applications for Garda vetting. I have increased this funding due to increased demand.
Government has increased the number of inspectors in Tusla from 37 in 2014 to 58 today. In 2018, it carried out more than 2,500 inspections, almost double the number it conducted in 2014.
Last year, Tusla established an "unsolicited information" office. It receives information about services from staff, parents and the public. Tusla examines and risk-rates all unsolicited information it receives. Depending on the information Tusla may carry out unannounced inspections. Last year, Tusla received 413 pieces of unsolicited information. This was valuable information and led to more inspections taking place in certain services.
I will continue to examine additional safeguards to root out the despicable behaviour we saw on our TV screens last night. As a country we have been playing catch-up after years of underinvestment by successive governments in quality, affordable childcare. Despite the very disturbing revelations this week, we are catching up. We will catch up and eventually excel. This is my promise to children.
Katherine Zappone is Minister for Children and Youth Affairs