Childcare in Ireland – has anything changed?

toddlercrying_largeFollowing the screening, on Tuesday 28 May 2013, of RTE’s investigative programme ‘Breach of Trust’, which raised serious concerns about the standards of childcare in Ireland, based on evidence gathered from HSE Inspection reports, internal HSE documentation and undercover filming in three crèches, people in Ireland felt shock and horror. Staff were shoving toddlers to sleep, forcing them to eat, leaving babies to cry for long periods, strapping children to their chairs for up to two hours… The programme that demonstrated that standards in three crèches were in breach of HSE regulations and childcare guidelines, was followed by an investigation by the Health Services Executive and the Garda, upon complaints by parents about the mistreatment of their young children.

I went back to Who’s Minding the Children?, a book I co-wrote with Geraldine Niland (and Stella McMahon on Northern Ireland), published by Attic Press in 1980.  Many of the issues highlighted by RTE were covered in our 1980 book. Here I quote from the final chapter, ‘The future and what needs to be done’ to demonstrate that while our demand to introduce day care has been met, largely by private operators, some things have not changed in relation to childcare in Ireland, a country obsessed with protecting unborn children, but apparently less concerned with children after they are born. Some things have changed, of course. In 1980 crèches were few and far between, today there  clearly is  a wide supply; our demand for a Department for Children has been met; finally, today I would not insist that childcare is a women’s issue – it’s clearly a parents’ issue. However, some things have not changed, particularly in relation to standards, training, inspection, and fair wages to staff; and reading the 1980 conclusion is interesting :

‘At the time of going to press the government’s task force whose brief it was to examine and recommend reforms within the child care services has not finally reported. It is likely that the provisions of day care facilities for the under fives will not score highly on their list of priorities. However, one provision which could come out of their recommendations is the registration of child care facilities outside the home. At this stage it is debatable whether private child-minders would be included, as they are in Britain and Northern Ireland, under the Nurseries and Child Minders Regulation Act… When and if regulation becomes law, it may not be implemented effectively…

As we see it, child care is the women’s rights issue of the eighties, and to quote from our introduction, it is our hope to stimulate demand. You can help… Women’s groups can campaign on all our behalf and trade unions, also, would – we think – welcome moves towards day care provision, even if it comes from employers as opposed to the state. The important thing is that day care becomes a reality. And if we cannot, ourselves, ensure the supply, let us at least ensure that:

•    Registration is effective: enough public health nurses, health inspectors, social workers. At present, all these are overloaded, and unless additional staff are taken on, they cannot be expected to carry out supervision of child care facilities adequately. And it should be flexible. It should not matter how many square feet or how many loos there are per child; the criteria should be the quality of care.
•    Training includes more full-time courses and more easily accessible courses at local level.
•    National planning includes the setting up of a special department dealing with child care services… It should also mean attracting something like a rider clause to Planning Permission for new factories and housing schemes which would ensure a compulsory supply of child care facilities. Meanwhile we must look again for flexible working arrangements for parents; part time jobs; flexitime; job sharing; better maternity leaves and paternity leaves in case of a child’s illness. Other important introductions would be some form of emergency care service, and after school care…’

In 1980 there was little official response to the book but since then, with the surge in the number of working mothers, many changes have been made in terms of flexitime, job sharing, part time etc. Note however, that child care standards, training, regulation and inspection remain a huge issue. Community crèches seem to be better places than the nurseries shown by RTE, but many of them are strapped for cash, while private nurseries, which cost up to €1,000 euro per month, seem to be money-making vehicles for their owners. Beyond Garda investigations and closures, and beyond pushing women back into the home, in 2013, like in 1980, we again demand quality child care, at reasonable cost, run by well trained, and above all, caring people.