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Child death and serious injury in early childhood education – Let’s get it out in the open

Thought piece
By Dr Sarah Alexander(1) 

early childhood education providers and the Ministry of Education could be doing more to ensure children's safetyThis isn’t about what’s happened to children in the last twelve months. And it is.

This article is to highlight that some important aspects are known about cases that haven’t been discussed. It is a thought piece and not an analysis. 

As a mum myself, I find it incredibly difficult to think of the children who have suffered and the pain and loss of their parents and siblings.

Tears flowed as I re-read stories and case notes to write this article. I would sooner have thought about happier things; it is difficult to write about this. I want to stop writing at this point.

But a great disservice is done to children and to families if we in the early childhood sector minimise, deny, or remain hush about such things as death, serious injury and neglect of children happening.

Anyone who has been in ECE as long as I have will be aware that the two cases this article focuses on are not isolated incidents. Other cases have come before with outcomes being that nothing was changed in our early childhood system.

No one should feel that it would be out of line to question the adequacy of monitoring and enforcement of standards, deterrents, and penalties, and neither should they be chastised for doing so. 

The two cases in the last 12 months this article focuses on are:

  • Child 4 ¾ years died playing on a plastic slide with stilts at Angels Childcare in Takapuna, Auckland. (Private business, licensed for 70 children)
  • Infant 5-month-old left with brain injuries, a broken arm and detached retinas inflicted by an educator working for PORSE in Christchurch. (Private business, nationwide service)

Two further past cases briefly referenced to give a little more context are:

  • Infant 8 months horribly burned while being bathed at Bright Sparks Childcare in Mangere. (Private business, licensed for 134 children including 40 babies)
  • Infant 4 months left alone for more than 3 hours by an educator working for PORSE in West Auckland while she took her own child to the doctor. (Private business, nationwide service)

 

All is good – nothing can go wrong

Dropped off by dad at 1.30 pm for a lovely afternoon - within 45 minutes no longer breathing.  Hearse arrived at the centre just before 4.30pm.

The most fundamental practice change to be made is that every day we need to assume that something could wrong – instead of a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.

Why not, instead of thinking you’ve got a safe service and everyone will be going home alive and unharmed at the end of the day, think: “I must be open to the possibility that something may go wrong, so what can I do to help make sure nothing does?”

 

It was an unavoidable accident

Centre owner … told NZME he was told by investigators there was no way of knowing that wearing stilts on the slide could have put anyone in danger.  Another child alerted two nearby staff, but efforts by staff and paramedics to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.

Here’s an idea - enforce that stilts are only to be used as stilts and not used on a slide. 

Here’s another idea – don’t have stilts (but that's a quick solution to a problem only and not the best one educationally). 

Better still enable staff to be involved in children's play as part of the early childhood curriculum and their teaching practice. Make sure staff are in a position to provide proper supervision and are not distracted with other tasks or chatting with other adults leaving children unnoticed, unattended and not actively supervised. 

 

Leave for tomorrow what needs to be done today

She was young and immature in a job where she was seriously out of her depth: "You simply didn't cope with the responsibilities placed on you", the judge said to a home educator who is also a mother who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and panic attacks.

How long is too long for it to take before adequate changes are made in who can be selected to work as a home educator under a licensed Home-Based ECE agency?  How long is too to wait for a review of the level of support, back-up and supervision required of agencies to give to home educators? (Remembering also the 2010 West Auckland case of a PORSE educator so stressed and without back-up support that when she went out to take her own child to the doctor she left behind an infant for several hours?)

Back in August 2014 the Education Review Office informed Angels Childcare that it did not have sufficient play equipment suitable for children. Could the ERO have acted at this time, before the child’s death, and done more in regard to identifying equipment that was not suitable or not safe? Worksafe confiscated the plastic slide following the 4 ½ year-olds death. Angels is now installing a new $40,000 playground, the owner says, but why have improvements been such a long time in coming?

 

What good are regulations and health and safety requirements in early childhood education if not adhered to?

Shouldn’t potential strangulating apparatus be inaccessible to children and not present near slides and climbing frames, etc.?  If available, then shouldn’t it be standard practice that an adult actively supervises and guides children’s use of these?

Why not fix the faulty water temperature valve immediately or inform all staff of the hazard?  Why not provide a style of management where teachers are supported to come forward with concerns when something is not going well or there is a problem?  How about showing anyone who has responsibility for bathing children what a safe way to do this is and not allowing them to do this unsupervised until they show safe bathing practices?   

What about doing a proper daily hazard check and working as a team with all other adults in deciding which hazards to eliminate, which can be fixed immediately, and how those that aren’t or can’t be eliminated, can be controlled?

Why aren’t the Ministry of Education actively monitoring standards?  Why is so much left to trust in the providers? 

How can the Ministry of Education say, as it has done, with any truthfulness that 98% of all early childhood services operate in full compliance with standards because it would seem that it really doesn’t have any real idea and just hopes that it doesn’t find out due to a complaint being made against a service or an incident of child harm that involves the Police and/or Worksafe?

 

ERO’s and the Ministry of Education’s role in protecting and looking out for children’s welfare and safety

ERO reviewers wrote in August 2014 that Angels Childcare had some major issues – it “requires support to improve the quality of the programme, leadership capability, governance and management in order to improve positive learning outcomes for children”.  Could not ERO follow-up at least one or even two years later and check and report if Angels Childcare was indeed following through on its recommendations?  It’s now November 2017 why has ERO still not followed up?   

The Ministry of Education had earlier received more than one complaint about standards and the quality of care provided to children at Angels Childcare – why did it treat each of these separately and not consider after receiving the second or third complaint that maybe there was a need to do some actual regular unannounced inspections?

Here’s a thought – neither the Ministry of Education nor the Education Review Office inspect the homes of home-educators and talk with these providers/ contractors but wouldn’t this show that they are looking out for children’s welfare and safety if they did?

 

The public and taxpayer pays

Following a major incident the Ministry of Education does a licensing review, or at least a review of how well a service is complying with regulations specific to the incident itself. But don’t worry about costs. A service is unlikely to be told to close or lose its license completely and the Ministry will organise and cover the cost of professional help for the service provider (under its Strengthening Early Learning Opportunities (SELO funding grant scheme). Public funding covered 75 hours of support from Astute Education to Angels Childcare.  Bright Sparks childcare also received substantial publicly funded professional support at no cost to itself.  

Isn’t this unfair on other ECE service owners and providers that are operating well and have put in the time and met their own costs to ensure they are operating in full compliance with regulations?

Here’s a thought – should not the service owner be billed the cost of support under such circumstances? 

 

Early Childhood Council centre revelations

It may be coincidence or it may not?  Angels Childcare was using policies prepared by and still with the logo on of the childcare centre business private lobby group, ECC. That the ECC more than likely then represented Angels Childcare, was not it seems declared by either party to the media or public or reflected in reports following the child’s death yet the ECC issued commentary on the case. Bright Sparks airport Childcare is owned by a long-term senior member of the ECC team, advising other childcare, and was the location of ECC board meetings for many years.  

Following the serious / fatal incidents the Ministry and SELO contractors found that Angels and Bright Sparks centres had been operating with major deficiencies and placed the centres on provisional licences until these were corrected through the professional help of SELO contractors for policy writing and review etc., and investigations were completed.

How about the Ministry of Education join up the dots and take preventative action now, to save costs later, and inspect all centres that make up the Early Childhood Council group?  If it is just a coincidence and not indicative of other centres in the ECC group then it would be helpful for those represented by and using the advice of the ECC for the Ministry to confirm and give confidence to individual centres following inspection that they are fully compliant.   

 

Rubs salt into the wound

Parents additionally suffered from having the finger pointed at them for their child’s injuries in the Bright Sparks Childcare and PORSE Christchurch cases

Concerning the parents in the PORSE Childcare case the Judge said “It must have been frightening and humiliating to find themselves being investigated, before (the educator’s) admissions to police” after police re-interviewed her.

Bright Sparks Childcare didn’t seek medical assistance for the severely burned infant. The infant was dressed after the bath and left in pain for the whole day. His parents were not phoned or informed. It wasn’t until at home the mother started to undress him that she discovered his injury.  And if the centre hadn’t already put her son through enough after rushing her son to hospital she and her husband faced scrutiny because the centre had failed to own up to and immediately report the incident.

Then there’s the agony of not only being given your child’s lifeless body but also not knowing how your child died, and not being able to understand how it could have possibly happened. Angels Childcare kept the family in the dark – being told only that the death occurred in the playground and not how it happened.   

The mother pleaded for information according to newspaper reports: "Every time when I went to pick him from childcare, I always saw him sitting inside watching TV or drawing. I hardly saw him playing outside.  That's why we are wondering how it happened and how we lost our little one."

Angels launched a Givealittle page for the family, raising $3,610 from the public. But here’s a thought – what about at the least reimbursing all fees paid?  And even better what about some good pure honesty and openness and friendship with the family – that would have gone a lot further if the media reports are anything to go? 

 

Workers hit hardest

At Angels Childcare the owner reported that two staff left following the child’s death.

The Bright Sparks teacher who turned on the tap not knowing that the temperature control was not working as it should have been was reported by the Centre owner to the Education Council and either resigned or was sacked from her position.

The South Auckland Porse Educator who left an infant at her house for more than three hours was fined $200.00 by the Court in 2010.

The Christchurch PORSE Educator who inflicted major injuries on an infant was given 12 months home detention and 200 hours community work by the Court in 2017.

All three services, Angels, Bright Spark, and PORSE had the full support of the Ministry of Education throughout to maintain and ensure participation of children and they continue to have this. Worksafe and the Police decided to take no action. All of the services have stood by their safety and quality before and after the incidents, and haven't publicly expressed any responsibility. 

 

In the interests of children and our early childhood education sector

What other questions do we need to ask and get out into the open? 

Are there other issues or topics that we don’t we want to write or talk about?  

 

Footnote

(1) This is an opinion article for discussion purposes only. The interpretations are my own. Other people may hold alternative interpretations. Drawing on material that has been reported, previously recorded and material obtained through Official Information Requests, the details are as is known. Should anyone have further information that show any details to be wrong I am happy to receive the further information and make corrections if needed.

 

Information you may be interested in

Keeping children safe and one educator's story of support in home-based ECE

Supervision of children in ECE

ECE daily hazard checklist

ECE electrical safety checklist

Serious Food-Related Choking Incidents and How to Reduce the Risk of a Child Choking when Eating in the ECE environment

SIDS and infant sleep practices and policies for centres and Home-based ECE

Child-proofing homes in NZ - a guide for parents, caregivers and educators

Inadequate monitoring of standards can lead to danger for children in ECE  

The Ministry of Education’s early childhood education complaints system 

The Code of Conduct for ECE Services - An early childhood service that has voluntarily embraced the Code of Conduct gives parents and others an indication that it is very serious about acting ethically, openly, and doing the very best it can do for children, families and their community. 

Code of Children's Rights in Early Childhood Education and Care - Every infant, toddler and young child has rights as participants in and users of early childcare and education services (as made plain by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1992 and the New Zealand Human Rights Act 1993)

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