As early childhood centre manager Lynn Abraham, who smacked and force-fed children and washed a child’s mouth with soap is sentenced, (Monday July 31st, in the Auckland District Court), ChildForum chief executive Dr Sarah Alexander says the Ministry of Education needs to front up over its shortcomings in monitoring services to ensure children’s safety and responding to complaints.
Long-standing advocate for better quality childcare for children Dr Sarah Alexander says the Education system has let children and families down very badly over the case.
Lynn Abraham was found guilty of six counts of smacking, three counts of force-feeding and one count of washing a child’s mouth out with soap. She was acquitted of one count of taping a child’s mouth shut. She has been sentenced to five months' home detention.
Now Dr Alexander is calling for an inquiry of the Ministry of Education’s handling of complaints and an overhaul of the inspection and review systems for early childhood education services.
“The manager has been sentenced but organisational failure has allowed vulnerable children to be assaulted, and for that our education system must take responsibility”.
Dr Alexander says that the Ministry of Education may say once again that this is an isolated case, and she appreciates that the majority of those who operate early childhood services do so because they genuinely care about children. But she questions how the Ministry can really know what standards are if it does not do regular and unscheduled inspections of every early childhood service.
“Parents cannot currently rely on the Ministry of Education to ensure high-quality practices and care in centres – much is left to trust.
“There has been a horrendous breach of the trust that parents placed in the centre owner and employer of teacher Lynn Abraham as well as the Ministry.
“Responsibility must sit squarely with the centre owner and with the Ministry of Education which failed in its duty to ensure that the centre was meeting licensing requirements and regulations, even after receiving complaints about the centre and Abraham.
“An independent inquiry is needed into the Ministry’s handling of complaints against the centre and it should be broadened to look at the whole complaints process and Ministry actions and responses”.
What we know is:
- The offending occurred between 2011 and 2016.
- The centre was on a lower funding band for having less than 80% qualified teachers.
- It was licensed for 26 children with up to 16 under- two years of age – many from diverse cultural backgrounds and speaking languages other than English.
- ERO reviewed the centre three times in three years between 2011 and 2013 as it held serious concerns about it but the centre continued to operate and maintain its licence (ERO has no power to revoke a licence). In 2015 the centre’s review report read that the “Centre managers and staff have worked with external advisers to develop good quality teaching practices”. (Note that when reviewing early childhood services, ERO gives advance warning to services to prepare and it typically focuses on written documentation with a reviewer usually spending only a short time in the children’s play area to notice what happens in practice)
- The Ministry of Education had received complaints. A father has been reported as saying he heard Abraham threatening the children as walked into the centre one day and reported this to the Ministry in 2014. He approached the Ministry six months later to find out what action it had taken and was told the complaint had been dealt with. At least one other family had also complained to the Ministry but were told that it was okay as the centre had given an assurance that Abraham would not smack a child and felt strongly that it would not happen at the centre.
- However, the centre did not seem to be more carefully investigated until a Ministry of Education employee, who was working with a child who had learning difficulties at the centre, is said to have raised the issues with the Ministry and the police in 2016 leading to charges being laid.
- The centre, Bright Minds in St John’s was acquired the Parnell Trust in November 2016 which has made comprehensive changes.
Dr Alexander says that the Ministry’s lack of follow through on the initial parent complaints is not unusual. Back in 2012 an analysis of complaints made to the ministry against early childhood services provided to ChildForum under the Official Information Act showed that in many cases the Ministry simply contacted the service provider and asked them about the matter or referred the complainant directly back to the service instead of talking with other parents, staff or carrying out a full investigation.
Dr Alexander says that if she were the Ministry of Education she would now be putting in place a strong focus on how to do better by children and families in future. This would include:
- Lifting the veil of secrecy on complaints against early childhood services and providing a public record of findings following investigations.
- Making it easier for parents and teachers and members of the public to make a complaint, have confidence that it will be handled competently and followed though, and provide support and assistance for whistle-blowers.
- Instituting regular and unannounced inspections of practices and service compliance with health and safety and education standards.
- Desisting from giving parents assurances about the quality of early childhood services when it’s important for parents to also be involved and know how their child is being treated and what’s going on in their child’s service.
“With the participation rate as high as 96% and parents entrusting their children to early childhood services, the Ministry needs to take every step to ensure that children are safe and are not emotionally or physically hurt,” Dr Alexander says.
“Early childhood education services should be a place of care where children are safe and well looked after, and the Ministry needs to be taking responsibility for when this does not occur and do its utmost in keeping standards at their highest”.