This morning I have had a good old cry. Sometimes the frustration I feel at seeing bad practice with supposedly good intentions is overwhelming. Stamping out really bad practice is, as I've discovered in many years of blowing whistles, a little harder than just reporting breaches of regulations.
And so at risk of making your blood run cold if you have a child who's cared for by others, I feel a need to vent about some bad practice I've seen over the years and what happened in a couple pof cases when I tried to change things for the better. And in the interests of you being able to sleep at night, I'll also volunteer some ideas on signs that your child's centre might be engaging in poor practices.
Centre 1 in the list was guilty of a number of instances of child abuse. Tiny toddlers were shouted at and shut in a dark cot room for throwing tantrums by one vile-tempered staff member, who took any child's resistance to her 'charms' as a carer personally. Children under four years of age were yanked into the air by one arm and swung around to remove them from corners where they were hiding from another 'old-school discipline' staff member, whose two modes of communication with the children were 'furious roar' and 'saccharine sweet' (the latter when any parents were present).
Those two carers were NOT typical of the centre staff; on the whole they were good women with a genuine love of children who were trying to do their best in difficult circumstances. Many were single mothers facing huge financial difficulties and desperate to keep their jobs, who had to balance the value of reporting the abuse against the fact that the director, who had a vested interest in having an easy life, would without doubt make their life hell until they resigned as punishment for rocking the boat.
There was one other brave staff member who had complained to the director on several occasions about breaches she had seen. She was 'messed around'- her shifts changed, her hours reduced- but she kept blowing the whistle. Complaints were trumped up against her to the point where she was given her 'final warning' and resigned. Every staff member watched that process and remembered it.
Would you sacrifice your own child's welfare for the welfare of other people's children? Don't judge them too harshly.
Some other staff members were very young, unqualified and inexperienced, and were themselves terrified of being bullied by the boss. They needed mentoring, but they weren't getting it. And some worked in other rooms where they were completely unaware of the abuse, and assumed it was just evil gossip circulating. Bad workers can be clever. They know how to get away with bad practice.
I was desperate for income myself when I started working at this centre, but at least I didn't have a dependent child. So I reported the second staff member to the director the moment I witnessed the behaviour personally (I only saw the end result of the first woman's work- a truly terrified toddler- not the incidents which created the fear).
Result? I was told it was my word against that woman's, and she had also complained about me (scurrilous work by a truly villainous person who had sensed my disapproval at the time). Oh yes, and there had been 'several complaints by parents about my behaviour' (none of which could be verified by time, date, place or witnesses- all were entirely manufactured on the spot).
So I cut to the chase; I resigned and reported the centre to DoCS, in the process divesting myself of almost all the positive relationships I'd formed while working there- nobody else was prepared to stand witness or even associate with me.
DoCS put the centre and the woman in question under surveillance, but of course it was impossible to catch her in the act and no other staff member was prepared to 'dob' for fear of making their own position untenable. DoCS stayed in touch with me for some time- they were trying- keeping me updated on the progress of the investigation, but in the end nothing could be done as there wasn't enough proof to prosecute.
The woman I reported was made the room leader in the infants' room the following year. Last I heard, she was caring for babies from 6 weeks to walking age, often on her own.
Mothers and fathers, know your baby! If your child has screaming night terrors, clings to you screaming when you go to drop her at care, acts out violence towards others (even dolls), makes up scripts which involve extreme punishments (which you know YOU have never inflicted) when playing with dolls or toy animals, has constant tantrums over tiny things... SMELL A RAT. Something may be very wrong, and however inconvenient it might be, it's your job to investigate and advocate for your child. It mightn't be at day care. But maybe it is...
The good news? The little girl who was being locked in the cot room was a changed child after I managed to intimate to the parents via a friend of a friend that all was not well, and they moved her to the centre where I next found work. Her tantrums immediately reduced to the normal frequency for a 2-year-old. Her relatives commented on the sudden positive change in her whole personality and outlook. That was the best I could do without laying myself open to charges of libel; the rest was in the hands of DoCS.
Are you feeling sick yet? I still do.
Centre 2 in my list also suffered from having a director whose priority was an easy life. On the surface, this centre was a great place to leave the kids for the day- lovely room staff who did really care, excellent meals, good hygiene, pleasant facilities with lots of room to play.
All those things can be undone by a director who doesn't do her job. Because she was constantly out of the building prioritising her own social life, she ran the regulations by the 'lip-service' method. The most dangerous example of this was the fact that there were never any fire drills run. There was no back-up if there was a glitch in staffing (like a worker becoming ill) because she was so often not there, and her attention to accuracy in the rosters was abominable, so ratio was often compromised- in other words there weren't enough staff to adequately supervise the children. These are just two examples of her negligence.
It's not that the staff didn't bring these things to her attention- it's just that she had a nice line in bullying happening to keep things under control. Staff were constantly demoralised, insulted, reprimanded and undermined. I'm telling you, these were good staff members. They kept their faces brave and they did a great job caring for the kids, but by the time I resigned (the day she undermined me for the last time) two of us were on antidepressants due to work-related stress and the rest were struggling to maintain self-esteem, well-demonstrated by all of them being overweight, in debt and feeling hopeless about their lot.
Yep, I reported her to her superiors in the company- a first step before contacting DoCS for breaches of safety. They did nothing, but fortunately she resigned a few days after I left, possibly having seen the writing on the wall. I hope it was a happy ending for that centre.
So again, I was out of a job. It's hard having principles in childcare.
What can parents learn from that? Know your regulations. Drop in unexpectedly now and then. Count the children and staff. Know your ratios. Ask when the last fire drill was. And when the next one will be. Come to that, ask lots of questions; it keeps the centre honest and aware that they're being watched by the most important people in the BUSINESS relationship- the person who's PAYING. Form relationships with your child's carers- and that means taking the time to talk to them, not just dropping or grabbing your kid and racing out the door; they may be trying to drop you a hint about something, because YOU have the ultimate power to complain- way more than they do. Keep your eyes and ears open.
And that brings me to Centre 3, a firm believer in child-directed care; the adults remain in the background somewhat, interacting with the children still but 'helping' them only when the children request it. They also believe in making the children's care as 'normal' as possible, and if that means a few germs, well, that's not so bad for their immune systems. Everything is seen from the child's viewpoint, and the word 'no' is not uttered. This is, I'm told, the way childcare is headed with our new EYLF national curriculum and play-based syllabus.
Now, normality within childcare is something that I lean towards myself in many ways- for example see my post about physical challenge versus physical safety - but at some stage I believe a line does need to be drawn between letting the children have autonomy and compromising their hygiene and safety. So let's look at snapshot- 'a day in the life' at this centre- and check the balance.
Would it be okay with you if a child who had just had three bouts of diarrhoea in his nappy and then vomited was returned to the mat to sit with the rest of the kids, including perhaps your kid, for group time while he waited for mum to arrive? I'm sure that's where the child felt most normal. I'm sure he would have been somewhat upset to be isolated. Our new childcare regulations forbid us to isolate a child for punishment, don't they?
But actually, health regulations and common sense suggest he IS meant to be isolated. Upon a protest, the child was moved to the other side of the room, where he immediately vomited again... at which point another child ran over to play with a toy he'd spotted and almost put his feet right in the vomit (remember, don't ever say 'no')...
Where is the common sense? Lost in ideology, I fear.
Another snapshot. At lunchtime, the children pass the food around and help themselves. Carers are actively told NOT to serve them. Two children sneeze right into the bowl of food before it has done the rounds. Looking across to another table, we see another teacher serving a child sandwiches with ungloved hands.
Is this okay? The children are learning self-help... and the manner of serving by the teacher is like what happens at home...
No, it's not life-threatening, but I find these images disturbing and they contradict everything I've learnt about centre hygiene. Should a whistle be blown? Several carers feel uneasy about the state of play. Discuss...
So what can parents learn from this if the scenario worries them? Think back over the last few months, the last year... How many illnesses has your child brought home from childcare? It's normal to have an absolutely terrible time for the first 6 months or so. (That tells me that being in childcare at all is all that's needed to boost immunity, without extra exposure to germs.) After that, if your child is constantly sick it's time to wonder about the hygiene practices in that centre. It's a very hard thing to check on, but perhaps you could drop in at lunchtime one day and watch what happens. And if you have to pick your child up because he's become ill, where was he waiting for you? In isolation, or with all the other kids? Think about it.
Talk to other parents. Talk to parents from other centres. Create a basis for comparison. It may be worth thinking more analytically about your centre's practices, if you can see any of these symptoms of something awry in your own child.