Last year, in a small town in New Zealand, teachers and parents came forward to make complaints about a childcare centre - Pitter Patter Education Centre in Feilding.
Complaints included locking children in sleep rooms as punishment, medicating children without parents’ permission, dirty bedding, children at risk of being burnt from very hot water coming from taps, bad food, and poor ventilation.
When children’s safety and health is at risk the right thing to do is to speak up. Children and their wellbeing must come always come first.
The Ministry of Education initially suspended the licence of Pitter Patter for three days from 23 – 26 November 2020 for breaches under the Governance, Management, and Administration licensing criteria.
It then suspended the licence from 30 November before restoring it to a full licence on 13 December. The reasons for closing the service were non-compliance with legal requirements under the Education (ECE) Services Act for adult-child ratio, being managed in accordance with good management practices, documentation and record keeping, and because there were reasonable grounds to believe there had been ill-treatment of children.
This month a licensing check of the centre resulted in the identification of 33 non-compliances. Yet, it remains open to children and the owners continue to receive full funding when other centres have been closed down.
In 2018 a childcare centre in Thames (Sealey Street childcare) had similar allegations made against it, and its licence was suspended and then withdrawn following investigation. This month the ministry’s office in Canterbury closed Blueberries Nursery following 23 licence breaches and evidence that it would struggle to comply.
But with Pitter Patter in Feilding the ministry seems to be struggling as to what to do.
It would appear to be under pressure to keep the centre running and this could explain why it seems to be looking for a much higher threshold of evidence, along with assistance from other agencies before making any decision on licence withdrawal.
The Early Childhood Council business group represents Pitter Patter's manager Pauline Murphy who owns the centre along with daughters Karen and Michelle.
When questioned by Radio NZ if it was appropriate for the ministry to reopen Pitter Patter after a 3-week suspension and while investigation was still underway, spokesperson for the business group, Peter Reynolds said it was acceptable. He added that the allegations were not substantiated. “If there was no substance then we need to be able to move on in a way that isn’t hanging people out to dry.”
The business group has previously called for the ministry to disregard all complaints in its complaints recording system "from vexatious ex-staff with axes to grind or from disgruntled parents."
There are just 11 childcare centres in Feilding - 10 of which are privately owned. The service providers of at least 5 of these centres including Pitter Patter are part of the ECC business group.
Because of this and because it is a small town, other job opportunities for currently employed teachers are limited should they be seen as a ‘nark’, or if they show that they agree with a complainant. While the ministry asked Pauline Murphy not to be in the centre at the same time as children and her staff as a condition of allowing the business to re-open, it has not been revealed if the same request was made of teacher daughter and part-owner Karen.
By keeping the centre open and continuing to allow the owners to receive public funding, the Ministry of Education provided present families with assurance that standards were sufficient for keeping children safe and for quality learning and teaching.
The parents of children currently attending may not see what parents who have left the centre now see. And if they do, chances are they could be made to feel they are wrong or feel the weight of social pressure not to speak up.
The ministry asked the centre to tell parents that another teacher was stepping into Pauline’s place as manager and who they should talk to if they had any concerns. Parents with any concerns or questions were referred to talk with Sue Kurtovich (formerly Sue Thorne), a life member of the ECC business group, who has known Pauline Murphy for many years.
The ministry's decision not to keep the centre closed while its investigation was ongoing has made it more difficult for anyone to speak up. And Feilding is a small community so this makes speaking up even harder for parents and past and current staff to do.
Community support is important for parents and teachers who have spoken up. ECE sector support is needed for present teaching staff to feel safe to talk and not hide the truth.
There is a lot going on and no doubt we’ll be hearing more about this case.
* If you feel you can't make a direct report to the Ministry of Education, another option is the My ECE confidential online form at https://www.myece.org.nz/report-early-childhood-education-service
Any corrections are also welcome