Thursday 22 August 2019

Fiona Ness: 'Instinctively, parents know crèche system isn't working'

Anger: Residents from Ballybough at a protest outside Hyde and Seek crèche on Tolka Road in Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren
Anger: Residents from Ballybough at a protest outside Hyde and Seek crèche on Tolka Road in Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren
Fiona Ness

Fiona Ness

Trust your instinct, they said, when choosing a crèche for your baby. Your instinct is the best indicator of whether your baby will be loved, educated and cared for in this crèche, for 10 hours a day, five days a week, in her formative years.

But what about the instinct that, excellent or otherwise, a crèche is not the best place for a baby at all? When did we stop trusting that?

Earlier this week, a Dublin crèche chain emerged at the centre of a damning undercover exposé, and is now under investigation by the Garda Child Protection Unit.

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Vile. Abhorrent. Disgusting. We were appalled by what we saw.

Hyde and Seek crèche was portrayed in Wednesday night's 'RTÉ Investigates: Crèches, Behind Closed Doors' as a baby battery where every decision made was about improving the bottom line of its owners.

"We are hiring!" Read the sign in the Hyde and Seek window. "If you are passionate about children and their personal development, then we would like to hear from you…"

On the other side of the windowpane, a deluge of casual cruelties. Babies deposited into cots as if chunks of butcher meat. Chubby wet faces forced into pillows or distraught and abandoned in a high chair. A toddler berated and segregated for an innocuous transgression.

Ireland responded with unbridled outrage. But were we really, truly surprised the crèche system leaves our children open to systematic trauma? Possibly not.

On the back of the investigation, the Government has pledged to excel in offering quality, affordable childcare to working parents. If this is all it seeks to do, then it is a lost opportunity.

The crèche investigation should give us the opportunity to debate fundamental questions about how, as a society, we want to raise our children. Questions such as what recognition we want to give to the role of parenting for families and societies.

Where are the creative solutions being sought for raising our children, that put the child before the economy and their parents' work imperative?

When the childcare model puts parents in the position of abdicating our responsibility - and it is our responsibility - for our babies for more hours in the week than we spend with them ourselves, then of course the best we can do is try to make sure the people to whom we entrust our small charges are doing their job: offering babies the chance to form a strong bond with a kind and loving primary caregiver, within a safe, caring environment that presents opportunities to flourish.

But beyond the Government hyperbole promising quality, affordable childcare for all, is the reality of a private crèche sector staffed by mainly young women, employed on minimum wage and often with minimum qualifications.

Workers with a high churn rate who, besides being charged with caring for and educating our offspring, will also double up as cleaners during the course of their working day, who are working long shifts with sub-optimal staffing ratios.

Can we truly blame them if they are then less than caring towards our kids? In such a scenario, which one among us would behave better?

Parents who use crèches are not neglectful, but nor are they blind.

Years after my first daughter finished up at crèche, I met a lady who lavished her with love and attention as a baby in what had been a well run, happy and transparent environment.

She told me that for the first month of her full-time care, my then 10-month-old daughter had sat by the wall, banging the back of her head off the radiator.

The information had come eight years too late but the guilt and self-anger I feel will last a lifetime.

Armed with this knowledge back then, what would I - a young mum and family breadwinner with no wider family network on which to lean - have done? Probably nothing. And yet I don't blame the crèche. I blame me.

I felt at the time my daughter wasn't happy and I continued to bring her, hoping that it would become the new norm and she would acquiesce. Another casual cruelty.

One of the arguments for crèche-based childcare is that it affords children personal, educational and social development beyond that which can be offered by a home environment.

But what of their emotional and psychological development? Research on the raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol in children in daycare has been interpreted as showing that for many infants and toddlers, the crèche system is out of whack with their needs.

This study supports the expert view that, regarding social skills, children have to be over two-and-half years old before they benefit from a quality, structured environment with a small group of peers.

Parenting expert Steve Biddult argues that placing children younger than three in crèches risks damaging their mental health, leaving them depressed, angry and unable to develop close relationships in later life.

In Norway and Sweden, countries with leading international childcare models, mental disorders among children and adolescents are rising rapidly, with research in Norway showing up to 20pc of children between three and 18 years old have disorders such as anxiety, depression and behaviour disorders.

Half of these - or about 70,000 children, - will have such severe symptoms they meet the requirements for a psychiatric diagnosis. Links of these mental health issues and the country's childcare system are now being explored.

"Oh she loves the crèche! She has so many friends there!" many a newly returned-to-work mother has exclaimed. But believe me, her instinct is telling her otherwise.

Irish Independent

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