Demands of balancing cost, care

In these tough economic times, many parents are voting with their purse when it comes to child care, said Avril McMonagle manager of the Donegal County Child Care Committee.

In these tough economic times, many parents are voting with their purse when it comes to child care, said Avril McMonagle manager of the Donegal County Child Care Committee.

For example, a parent may know a woman who lives down the road and has been working as a childminder for years. The childminder’s services are less expensive than the cost of child care. However, that childminder may also be unregulated, Avril said.

Most childminders in Ireland are unregulated, she said. The national advocacy organisation Start Strong estimates that nearly 50,000 young Irish children are cared for by childminders every day. Childminders are encouraged to register with the Health Service Executive (HSE) -- which would subject them to certain regulations, health and safety requirements and Garda vetting -- but they are under no obligation to do so.

There are more than 350 childminders in Donegal, and 19 of Donegal’s childminders have registered with the HSE, Avril said. Those 19, “are on the legislative radar, they have Garda vetting and they have certain requirements that must be met”, she said.

Start Strong estimated that 1 percent of paid childminders nationally have registered with the HSE. Avril is a director of Start Strong, which advocates high-quality care and education as a right for all young children in Ireland.

Avril emphasised that she was not suggesting parents chose childminders “because they think any less of their child”.

“I don’t think they understand the differences between regulation and non-regulation,” she said. “The reason I would love to see it regulated is that I think it is a really important part of the child care infrastructure.”

She also said regulation of childminders would offer protection to the service providers themselves. She said that without the agreed criteria and requirements that registration requires, childminders “are open to allegations of anything”.

The Donegal manager also understands the financial pressures parents face. “Ireland has the second most costly child care in Europe,” she said. “That’s a fact. That’s where we’re at.”

The cost of child care means that many parents are choosing the less costly childminder option. Avril said the decrease in the sector has coincided with the years when the recession really started to bite: The sector saw a fall-away from child care in 2008 and by early 2009, “80 percent of the after-school services in Donegal were no more,” Avril said.

At the same time Avril defended the prices Irish child care providers charge -- an average of €160 for a full week of day care. She pointed to the high overhead costs child care providers pay here, from trained staff to insurance, as significant factors in the cost. Childminders do not have those overhead costs and so can regularly charge less than regulated child care services, she said.

“We have built a great child care infrastructure, but we never dealt with the cost of child care,” Avril said. She wanted to look more closely at the system of tax credits offered to parents in the UK and Scandinavian countries.

“We don’t have it,” she said. “The cost of child care is prohibiting women from returning to work.”

The Donegal manager also stressed that she was not seeking to regulate to casual care arrangements. “It’s not that we’re looking for every grandmother in Donegal to be regulated,” Avril said. Rather, she said, she was referring to situations, “where money is changing hands, where it is set up like a business and where people are minding children for a profit”.

The Child Care Act 1991 exempted three categories of carer of pre-school children from regulation: A relative of the child or the spouse of a relative; anyone who cares only for children from one family in addition to their own; or anyone caring for three or fewer pre-school children from different families. Start Strong said the exemptions covered the majority of paid childminders.

Childminding “was a sector in Ireland before any other -- informal child care,” Avril said. “It evolved then into something less casual.” But regulations never caught up to the growing practice.

According to HSE criteria, childminders are not supposed to care for more than five children at any one time. But childminders are not required to be subjected to Garda vetting, nor are anyone else in their house, Avril said. There are no mandatory health and safety checks in the house of a childminder who has not registered with the HSE, no qualifications that childminder must hold and no demands on those childminders to provide activities for the children in their care, she said.

“It’s not about saying we don’t want childminders. We need childminders as another choice for parents,” Avril said. “But they must come up to the same standards as other child care services.”

A new HSE focus on the development of the new Children and Family Support Agency has also diverted resources from the 2002 childminders initiative. Donegal’s childminder advisory officer was made redundant last month, and by the end of this year there will be no childminder advisory officers with any county child care committee in the country. The advisory officers worked with childminders on an informal basis and also tried to encourage them to register with the HSE.

Despite what Avril said has been strong lobbying from child care advocacy groups, changes to the childminder criteria are not in the government’s current child protection head of bill.

“Basically, they have no intention of making changes,” she said. Avril added, “When it comes to children, they’re not necessarily the priority that people say they are.”