THE RTÉ PRIME Time investigation into the mistreatment of children at three creches in Dublin and Wicklow has shocked the country and prompted a wave of reaction today.
The programme, ‘A Breach of Trust’, aired last night and showed the mistreatment of children at a number of Irish childcare facilities, but RTÉ has taken the decision not to air the programme again or put it on its on-demand RTÉ Player service after a request from parents.
If you missed the programme, TheJournal.ie has put together an in-depth account of what was broadcast in an attempt to inform those who may not have had a chance to watch last night’s programme.
Introducing the programme, Prime Time presenter Claire Byrne warns that viewers can expect “upsetting scenes and strong language” from the start as we then see excerpts of a creche worker swearing at a child, a child being forced to lie down and, in another clip, a child being forced to sit into their chair.
Reporter Oonagh Smyth appears on camera to introduce the programme and says it will investigate childcare in Ireland and ask “if the system of regulation that upholds standards of care is good enough”.
The programme points out that a huge amount of child development takes place between birth and three years of age, making these early years crucial to a child’s development.
It says that 75 per cent of childcare facilities are privately-run and introduces the childcare regulations that are enforced by the HSE. It says that two of these regulations concern the quality of care.
The programme says that most pre-schools are inspected once every 20 months and says that experts complain that the childcare regulations are too basic and poorly enforced to ensure good services across the country. It cites its own examination of HSE inspection reports which show that breaching of childcare regulations is “widespread across the country”.
We are then introduced to the undercover researchers – all qualified or studying in childcare practice – who worked in five creche chains, acting on complaints made to RTÉ or made previously to the HSE.
We’re told that in three chains the programme “saw breaches of a serious enough nature” to warrant inclusion in programme. “We did not witness any instances of violent or sexual abuse,” Smyth, the narrator for the programme, definitively states.
Giraffe creche in Belarmine, Stepaside
The programme says that there were two inspections of Giraffe facilities in 2010 in which there were repeated breaches of regulations identified. Last year the HSE found these issues resolved.
We’re told that both good care and bad care were observed by the undercover researcher with some examples of bad care including:
- One worker shouting at children
- The researcher frequently observing a failure to provide enough staff meaning the facility was in breach of adult/child ratio guidelines.
- The strapping of infants into chairs for lengthy periods with children getting restless and trying to walk with chairs on their back.
The programme says that some children were strapped for periods of at least an hour even though the creche guidelines are that children should only be strapped in for meals and table activities and this should be for 15 minute periods.
In practice, the children were strapped in for on average two hours a day, the programme claims. Professor Sheila Greene, a developmental psychologist from Trinity, says that it is not necessary to strap in a child at any point if the child is managed properly.
She describes the practice at Giraffe as “very, very inappropriate” and “bordering on abusive” while Dr Catriona O’Toole (below), developmental psychologist from NUI Maynooth, says that children’s natural instincts are to be on the move.
Strapped into a chair
In another incident we see a boy, aged 21 months, strapped into his chair and facing a fridge, an incident which Greene says is clearly in breach of regulations and “harmful” to the child. A different childcare worker admits to strapping in children saying that although they are not allowed do it the children “understand exactly what you’re saying: ‘If you do that again, you’re going to be put in a chair.’”
In the case of the 21-month-old strapped into the chair the researcher takes the child out after 40 minutes to get some food but the other worker says that he must be strapped back in for his snack. The child starts to cry as he strapped back in. As the researcher tries to get the child a book, the other worker tells the researcher not to give the child anything.
“It’s his own fault,” the worker says before trying to give him the snack. As the boy continues to cry he is taken out of the chair and brought to the ‘baby room’. The woman returns to the room with the child and puts him back into his seat. The child – still distressed – indicates that he will eat his snack and is left by the worker, who walks out of the room.
“I found it very disturbing footage,” says Nóirín Hayes, a professor of early years childhood care and education, who says the child was strapped for a long period of time, the response of the adult is “one of threats, it’s very negative”.
On foot of a complaint from the undercover researcher, management at Giraffe began an investigation into the incident, the programme says.
‘Breach of trust’
The programme then focuses on what the creche tells parents in contrast to what actually happens with one manager – not involved in the day-to-day running of Belarmine – meeting with a researcher posing as a parent who is told about diaries being kept of children’s day-to-day activities at the creche.
“Every day their mummies and daddies know everything,” the manager is recorded as saying but the programme states that diaries are often fabricated and shows one example where by 1pm, while the child is napping, the entire day of that child has already been documented in their diary.
Records on food allergies are also not adequately kept with one chef recorded as saying that if the HSE saw his list of food allergies for children at the facility, the creche would be shut down as the list is out of date and from last year.
More footage shows that there are no cots for young children during their nap time and no heavy blinds which can be brought down to keep out the light. One worker takes up to 45 minutes to settle children while another is shown trying to force a child to lie down.
“We’re not going to have anymore silliness,” the worker says as the child begins to cry. “Go asleep,” the worker repeatedly says. More undercover footage shows a worker attempting to get a child to lie down and sleep by covering their head with a blanket. Hayes (below) says this is “very degrading behaviour” while Greene describes it as “emotionally and physically harmful”.
The programme points out that management acted on foot of complaints by the undercover researcher and introduced more support into the creche. A complaint to the HSE was also made. But the programme says that the most recent inspection reports reports show that:
- 5 of Giraffe’s 15 branches breached regulation 5 in relation to child welfare
- There were inadequate sleep facilities in eight other giraffe branches.
- 11 branches had problems with safety issues.
- All 15 branches breached regulation 8 in relation to staff background checks and adult child ratios.
- There were incidents of fabrication of diaries found in other two other branches.
The programme says that Giraffe had over €1m in state funding last year and will have nearly the same again this year. In addition it had €360,000 last year for capital investment with €40k going to Belarmine alone.
A statement from Giraffe says that it is profoundly sorry for the distress caused and says one staff member has been suspended. It says it will take whatever steps necessary to provide quality care to children and it remains dedicated to maintaining the highest possible standards.
Little Harvard in Rathnew, Wicklow
Next, the programme focuses on Little Harvard, a small chain of five creches in Kildare, Wicklow and Dublin. It says there have been two recent complaints about branches in Bray while in Rathnew its branch there breached nine regulations including the regulation on child welfare and development.
We’re told it costs €823 per month for full time childcare there and that again there was both good and bad practices observed by the undercover researcher.
“Some staff had very little interest in the children due to an obsession with mobile phones,” the programme says with footage showing staff members on their phones at various points. Hayes points out there is “virtually no relationship or interaction” between adults and children in this footage.
The programme’s undercover researcher also identifies other problems at the Rathnew branch including:
- Breach of adult/child ratios
- The curriculum of activities often not being followed
- Workers writing up paper work and leaving children to play with little supervision.
- The discovery of leftover building materials in a play area by the children which is only picked up on by the researcher because staff have not paid attention.
- The faking of register records for children in order to qualify for Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) funding.
Behind closed doors, left in highchairs
Children are also supposed to be checked regularly during naptime but the undercover footage shows that those in the cot room are not checked regularly and once the researcher does check them infants are found crying. The researcher also discovers a 20-month-old boy who has been put in a room beyond the cot room with the door shut.
“To put a child behind two sets of closed doors is potentially dangerous in that you don’t know what’s going on with the child and it’s also distressing to the children,” Greene (below) says.
Putting children behind closed doors is a common practice at Little Harvard, the programme says, citing one case of a little girl kept behind a door for three minutes before being let out. This is a breach of regulations that is described as “very disturbing” by Hayes.
Other footage shows infants left in high chairs for prolonged periods, unoccupied while staff work on other activities such as cleaning.
In one incident a little girl is kept in her highchair continiously for two hours while on other days infants are left in highchairs even longer. This is “absolutely inappropriate” according to O’Toole.
In a statement to the programme, Little Harvard says these were isolated incidents which fell below standards. “This programme has drawn untrue and incorrect conclusions from those incidents,” the creche company is quoted as saying, adding that an in-depth investigation is being carried out.
The programme points out that many of the issues it raises were raised by the HSE’s own inspection report two years ago. It says that overall Little Harvard received €433,000 in ECCE funding last year and €30,000 more this year.
HSE Inspection reports
The programme’s second half begins by focusing on the HSE inspection reports, reports that it has promised to publish but has not done so. Having exclusively obtained the reports from last year an examination of them by RTÉ shows that in the case of pre-schools and creches:
- 75 per cent of pre-schools and creches are in breach of the childcare regulations
- 34 per cent are in breach of five or more regulations
- 57 per cent of Dublin creches had 5 or more breaches while 86 per cent did in Kildare had 5 or more breaches last year
- One-in-five creches in Roscommon breached 10 or more regulations last year
- In Kildare almost a quarter of creches breached 10 or more regulations
- 48 per cent of creches were in breach of regulation 8 concerning the adult/child ratios and staff background checks
- 29 per cent of creches were in breach of regulation 19 concerning the overcrowding and upkeep of premises
- 41 per cent of creches were in breach of regulation 27 on measures to provide a safe environment
- One in seven creches nationally were in breach of regulation 5 concerning the welfare of children
“I am surprised that the non-compliance levels are so high,” says Irene Gunning from Early Childhood Ireland adding that it is important to differentiate between minor breaches and more serious ones.
Some within the sector complain the HSE does not do more to raise standards and the programme says that the HSE declined to participate. But it does quote from what it says is a “highly sensitive internal document” regarding the childcare inspectorate in a regional area.
This document outlines concerns about children being put at risk in that area and says that the culture of “light touch regulation” has come “at the expense of children’s rights”.
The programme quotes from a HSE statement in which it says that while every effort is made to maintain a complete inspection schedule “it has not been possible to do so in all areas, at all times”.
Links Childcare in Abington, Dublin
The programme switches back to its case studies with this childcare facility observed on foot of complaints to the programme by former members of staff and a month after a HSE inspection found it was “generally compliant” with regulations.
The facility is one of ten across Dublin, costing €945 per month for a child in full time care. The programme says that CCTV cameras are located in every room of this creche.
Again there were many examples of good care found here but the undercover researcher also witnesses what is described as a “disciplinarian approach” towards very young children.
Some incidents include:
- A child spilling something on themselves and then the worker walking away, saying: “He can sit like that. I dont give a s**t today.”
- Infants being harshly spoken to during circle time with one incident showing a worker grabbing a toy from a child and shouting: “It’s not play time.” Hayes says that grabbing something from a child suggests “very little affection for the children”.
- The programme also says there were frequent breaches of the adult/child ratios at the Links creche and the fabrication of records about children’s activities and development.
- In one piece of footage a worker admits to spending the whole day shouting and wondering what if the parents heard, ”they’d be disgusted,” the worker says. These workers are undervalued and underpaid, says Greene, who adds that she has some sympathy for them.
‘Children being slammed into chairs’
In one of a number of similar incidents, an 18-month-old girl is recorded getting out of her chair before being put back into the chair by a worker. This happens again a short time later where the child is recorded getting out of the seat before being forcefully placed back into it by the worker who shouts: “Stay in your seat.”
“It’s very hard to watch children being slammed in to chairs,” says Greene.
At meal time a girl is shown eating with her hands but this is not allowed and the worker pulls her hand back and shouts at the girl: “Don’t put your f**king finger in it.” The programme says that Links senior management were informed of these incidents and an investigation has been undertaken.
In one other piece of footage a boy in Montessori group is, we are told, in need of a nap. The boy is put in a corner to sleep as the group continues its activities, the boy acts up and his mattress and blanket are taken away. The boy continues to cry. “Let him cry himself to sleep,” a worker says.
The boy is being “humiliated” according to Hayes.
‘They’re all little bullies’
In another incident nap time for toddlers is observed by the undercover researcher. The programme tells us that staff get a break when the children are asleep. In the footage, a staff member is heard to say: “Don’t be afraid to, like, be tough with them cos you have to be, cos they’re all little bullies.”
One piece of footage shows a child who will not settle being picked up off their mattress and slammed down the other end of the mattress before a blanket is thrown over them. Another child is then grabbed by the legs and dragged down the mattress by the same worker.
“You see the children being manhandled, being flipped and thrown, they’re like little ragdolls not living children,” Greene says. “They’re being treated as objects not as children and it is quite disturbing.”
The undercover researcher made a complaint to management at Links. A complaint was also made to the HSE. We’re told that inspection reports found that four Links creches breached regulation 8 on staff checks and ratios while four out of five Links branches breached regulation 27 on safety measures.
Links said that one member of staff has been dismissed and another has been suspended, while a new manager has also been appointed. All staff are being retrained across the chain, the company – which made a €1.6 million profit last year – said in a statement to the programme.
Ireland fares badly in early years care
The programme concludes with some damning observations of childcare in Ireland stating that international research shows that this country fares badly when it comes to early years care and is behind most other major EU countries.
Advocates argue that the government is not spending enough on childcare and that not enough people working in the sector are appropriately qualified. Irene Gunning (above) says there needs to be targets set down on qualifications and on quality.
The programme, perhaps crucially, points out that the €234 million in early years funding and the €176 million on the pre-school year is not tied to quality standards with public funding going to services which are variable in quality.
Inspections are infrequent in some counties with just one in five creches inspected in the Cavan-Monaghan area last year compared to 95 per cent in Longford-Westmeath. Just over half of creches were checked last year, according to the national average.
“Tonight we have seen disturbing evidence of how very young children can be badly treated in creches,” the reporter Smyth says adding that the need for reform is “clear”.
O’Toole notes that parents should be aware that what happens in the home is more important to a child’s overall development than what happens in a creche. But Gunning says the programme and its revelations should be “a turning point and maybe a wake up call to parents, services and the government”.
If you were affected by issues in the programme, you may wish to contact Barnardos at 01 – 454 9699 or the ISPCC at 01 – 6767 960.
Pictures: Screenshots and Photocall Ireland