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RTÉ accused of neglecting child safety in war of words with Tusla ahead of Hyde and Seek exposé

The RTÉ documentary about the Hyde and Seek chain was broadcast on 24 July.

Image: Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com

TUSLA ACCUSED RTÉ of not prioritising the welfare of children during a war of words in the days before an exposé into practices at a Dublin creche chain aired, new documents show.

The RTÉ Investigates programme ‘Creches, Behind Closed Doors’, which was broadcast in July, found instances of poor staffing, breaches of fire safety and rough handling of children at three creches operated by Hyde and Seek over four months this year.

The revelations came about after undercover reporters, who were garda vetted by RTÉ and had appropriate qualifications in childcare, were hired by Hyde and Seek and had hidden cameras placed on them as they carried out their duties at the creches.

RTÉ launched the investigation after it heard from concerned parents who had raised issues about the standards of care in Hyde and Seek creches with Tusla.

It also came after the broadcaster learned that one of the creches involved in the documentary operated for more than a year without registering with Tusla, which is against the agency’s regulations.

The documentary aired on 24 July and led to Hyde and Seek owner Anne Davy’s resignation, while representatives from Tusla were subsequently called before an Oireachtas committee to answer questions about the regulation of early childhood services.

Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act, seen by TheJournal.ie, now reveal the heated exchanges between Tusla’s director of quality assurance Brian Lee and RTÉ ahead of the airing of the documentary.

Tusla role ‘impeded’

The correspondence began when investigative journalist Aoife Hegarty contacted Tusla on 15 July to seek responses to a number of allegations about Hyde and Seek.

On 19 July, Tusla responded to Hegarty, telling her that the agency was not able to comment on individual cases because doing so could limit any investigations it was already pursuing.

However, subsequent correspondence on the same date from Lee to the broadcaster’s corporate health and safety manager, Andrew Dunne was the first in a series of fraught exchanges between the agency and RTÉ.

In an email to Dunne, Lee began to ask RTÉ whether it would share information about Hyde and Seek before the airing of the documentary.

He also demanded to know why revelations about Hyde and Seek uncovered during the production of the documentary were not passed on to the agency.

“Why hasn’t this information been shared with Tusla as both the regulator of the early years services and the state agency for child protection?” he wrote.

After receiving no reply from Dunne, Lee escalated his queries to RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes on July 22, when he asked whether the RTÉ Investigates team had access to experts or advice about child protection during the making of the documentary.

He also claimed that RTÉ’s lack of response until that point was “impeding” Tusla in performing its regulatory duties.

“As previously advised, it is imperative that RTÉ give immediate priority to responding to my correspondence dated 19 July, 2019,” he said.

A subsequent response from Doyle on the same date confirmed that the documentary makers had access to “very qualified and experienced care experts at all times”, and that the team had spoken to parents “to minimise any anxiety” concerning their children.

Researchers directed to prioritise children

In another email on 22 July, Managing Director of RTÉ News Jon Williams told Lee that the broadcaster took its child protection responsibilities “extremely seriously”.

He hit back at a claim by Tusla that RTÉ did not prioritise the well-being of children who attended Hyde and Seek.

Said Williams:

At no point did RTÉ “put the safety and wellbeing of children ahead of the production of a television programme” as you suggest…
The researchers were directed, at all times, that the children in their care were to be their first priority.

He also took aim at Tusla’s process for dealing with complaints, telling Lee that the RTÉ Investigates team was approached by parents who felt that concerns they had raised with the agency “were not taken seriously and did not appear to be addressed”.

Williams justified his decision to hire undercover reporters as a matter of public interest, suggesting that Tusla’s inspection process was inadequate to deal with the concerns raised by parents about Hyde and Seek.

“The issues they raised are issues that may not even be identifiable via an announced or unannounced TUSLA inspection – going ‘undercover’ was a decision taken in the public interest of potentially vulnerable young children,” he said.

‘Not best served’

Lee subsequently sent another email response to Dee Forbes on 22 July, when he informed the broadcaster of its responsibilities to report any concerns about the well-being of children to Tusla.

He hit out at the broadcaster’s child protection policy, saying it was “majorly non-compliant” with the Section 11 of the Children First Act 2015, which requires certain services to have appropriate child safeguarding statements.

Calling for RTÉ to update its child protection procedures, he said:

The actions of RTÉ during this investigation have not best served the safety and wellbeing of the children attending these services…
I respectfully suggest that you would seek assistance of an appropriately qualified person or organisation to assist you review RTÉ’s current child protection practices and without delay put in place procedures that are congruent with the Children First Act 2015.

Responding to Williams’ comments, Lee also defended Tusla’s inspection system, saying it had assessed all of the information it received from parents regarding Hyde and Seek and referred them to the Tusla social network department when necessary.

He refuted Williams’ claim that the concerns of parents about Hyde and Seek were not taken seriously, insisting that Tusla assessed and acted on every issue that was raised with the agency.

“Failures to comply with directions of the Early Years Inspectorate is the responsibility of the provider alone, such failures are fully pursued by Tusla, again within our remit and authority,” he added.

The documentary aired two days later, before Lee appeared before an Oireachtas Committee to answer questions about Tusla’s inspection regime on 31 July.

Would you like to know more?

We want to examine in depth the standard of care at every creche that falls under the responsibility of child and family agency Tusla.

We will be looking at nationwide trends in non-compliance, wait times for issues to be resolved and other factors that could mean the industry is not delivering on its promise to parents.

Help support that project here – all contributions are welcome.

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