Friday 20 September 2019

Sarah Caden: 'Kill off our creches and we risk making bad childcare choices'

Everyone's fast to jump on creches as baby farms, but they are the happiest choice for many, writes Sarah Caden

OPTIONS: There needs to be choice in childcare. Stock picture
OPTIONS: There needs to be choice in childcare. Stock picture

Sarah Caden

My children are many years past the preschool stage, but I found myself last week defensive of sending them to creche in those years.

Everyone can, rationally, grasp that the carry-on in the Hyde & Seek business - as revealed on RTE's Prime Time Investigates - appears to have centred very much on an individual, and is not indicative of the creche system in general, but still.

It doesn't take much to make parents question the choices we make for our children, and even less to stimulate our sense of guilt. No matter how happy we feel with the childcare choice we make for our children - and most households make one choice or another these days - there is a lingering sense that we could be doing better.

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Would the kids be better off if we were at home? Will this do them good or harm? Do they know they're loved? Do I really trust the people in whom I have placed the greatest trust there is?

There are always better choices we could make for our children. That's just life. It's not perfect. There are always worse choices we could make, too.

In the aftermath of Prime Time Investigates, as we listened to the Tusla report to the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, many parents had their faith shaken in their choice of a creche for their children.

We heard about how it took many months for Tusla to close down a completely unregistered creche facility. We heard that Tusla has identified 37 creches across the country as being on the "critical list". Still operational but of serious concern. Still minding someone's children and we don't know who they are.

Trust is such a fragile thing, particularly when it comes to our children. The parents of children in Hyde & Seek wouldn't have left their children there if they'd been worried about them. And it's that which makes everyone else wobble. If they believed in that creche, what does it say about my faith in my child's creche?

It only takes one bad story to stir our fears. And the fears stirred by the revelations of the last week are that creches are loveless baby farms, overpriced pens devoid of love, operating unchecked once doors close behind parents in the mornings.

What are we doing, I heard more than one parent say, corralling our children into these places?

It got my hackles up. Not just because I felt defensive of my decision to use a creche for seven years in total, over two children. Also, I felt defensive of all the creches who are doing it correctly, with love at the heart of all operations, who are not to blame for those who do it badly.

Nor, it should be added, should they take the flak for Tusla's powerlessness when it comes to shutting down those who are doing it badly.

Those who jumped on this scandal as an opportunity to wag fingers about sad kids spending long hours in group childcare poke at a tender spot for parents. Suggestions that they might be better off in their own home, with a childminder, getting one-on-one attention, are not too far off saying they should be with their parents. It stings. It makes those who choose creche feel like they're farming their kids out.

Also, it suggests that the creche choice is the thoughtless one. You're choosing an establishment, not an individual, as you would be in the case of choosing an au pair or a childminder.

It suggests that parents' choices when it comes to a creche are less rooted in emotion and more in logistics - where is it, can we afford it, are there enough cots, do they get hot meals? Put it like that, and it all seems very impersonal. Except that in most creches around the country there is love.

We had huge love in the creche we chose for our daughters. Everyone there, down the years, gave them their all. They knew them and cared for them. The creche owner took time out of a wedding the day my younger daughter was born with Down syndrome, to phone my husband and tell him she was also welcome there, and to counsel her staff, who were at the creche with my older daughter that very day.

They had never had a child in the creche with DS before, but they went that extra mile for her, and more. That place remains close to my heart, though I no longer know any of the girls who work there when we go back to visit the owner.

Some of the girls who used to work there remain in our lives. One texts to ask if she can come up from Offaly and spend the day with my daughters, sometimes letting us go away for the night. Another still babysits for us. They're part of the fabric of the family.

They and the owner, with whom we remain friends, say that times have changed since then, however. Despite what we have heard from Prime Time and from the Oireachtas committee this week, it's more difficult to be a childcare worker and operator now than it was when I started looking at creches nearly 12 years ago.

There are fewer students of childcare, and fewer going to the higher grades.

Staff are not only hard to get, but they need to be paid more in order to be able to afford today's rents and living costs. Adult-to-child ratios have risen in the last year to one adult to every 12 children and as more creches decline babies - who must be in a one-adult-to-three-babies ratio and who don't get the ECCE funding - there is more pressure on those creches who continue to take babies.

There is, one creche owner told me last week, some sense of desperation in parents these days. The fear of finding nowhere for your child is not conducive to good choices, but we still make those choices from a position of trust.

The problem now isn't the creches, per se, or the way a lot of us are electing to send our children to group childcare.

The problem is the way it is being overseen and the inability of Tusla to act fast in bad cases.

While we wring our hands about creches, however, we should stop to think about the other options. The fact that Hyde & Seek was allowed to continue operating, the fact that 37 other "critical" creches are still up and running is a worry, but who is overseeing all the other childcare options? Who is in the home ready to blow the whistle or bring in Prime Time for your individual childminder's behaviour?

Can your not-yet-verbal child blow the whistle on them? Can your child tell you that granny's not really able for rearing another generation of kids and is regularly frazzled and cross? At least, in a creche, there are people around to shout stop, as has happened this time with Hyde & Seek.

A creche owner last week told me that the outcome of all of this that they would fear is that a consensus would grow that the creche model is no longer what people want and that this would cause cuts in government support and changes in structure.

Faster action on bad creches is crucial, but if we kill the creche off, then that leaves parents with even fewer options and a greater sense of desperation, out of which no good choices can come.

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