Minister for Children usurping parental rights

By Margaret Hickey

New mother Ruth Davidson cited personal reasons as the primary reason for resigning as leader of the Scottish Conservative party. The care of a small baby and fulfilling a demanding public role didn’t combine well for her.

But then every young parent knows that even ordinary, run of the mill jobs are challenging when there are young children to be cared for. In fact challenging is probably an understatement.

Small children ideally need the kind of care that is best delivered by familiar, loving adults who know them, and deepen rapport with them, day by day and week by week as they develop. Continuity, consistency, familiar surroundings, most of all unrushed, familiar, loving voices create the milieu in which small children learn how to relate to others in love and trust. It is how they develop a sense of security and a sense of self.

Is there any new research that points to different conclusions? We know children do not do well when left for long hours in institutionalised care. Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone should be well aware of this. Parents know this. But the Irish State purports to believe otherwise. Katherine Zappone and the government are quite prepared to place babies as young as 24 weeks into full time creche care. Full time creche care for commuting parents can be from 8.00 in the morning to 6.00 in the evening. The few hours left in the waking day are swallowed up by travelling home and catching up on domestic chores. There is little, if any, time and energy for quality parent/child interaction during the working week.

It is out of economic necessity that the majority of young parents both work. Most of them don’t have careers that offer high levels of fulfillment and exciting prospects of promotion. The very least they might expect to get from the State is support for their choice of childcare. Whatever happened to trusting parents ? Why can’t they chose the kind of care model they want for their own children with equal State support?

Given choice, many parents favour relatives, neighbours or family friends who may already have a relationship with their children. Given the shocking Prime Time revelations about the mistreatment of children in Dublin creches, why does Minister Zappone want to extend even more oversight responsibilities to Tusla which has problems of its own? Are parents not better placed to vet the people they trust with their own children ? Does the State have a right to abrogate that choice from them?

Katherine Zappone now wishes to use subsidies to regulate informal child care in a way that will make it difficult if not impossible for the home based care many parents prefer. A childminder, who had cared for children in her home for fifteen years, spoke at the launch of the National Children’s Scheme of the costly, onerous regulations and intrusion into her home by Tusla that led to her decision to de-register with the agency. She felt she was being forced into the creche system with unrealistic demands to adapt and upgrade her home.

But is not that the whole point of the government’s new policy ? It is obviously impossible for Tusla to vet and monitor many thousands of home based childminders when they can’t manage to do that effectively for creches. So the informal, parent chosen options must be forced out. Priced out. Regulated out. And yes, prosecuted out. One compulsory system. No choice for parents because it suits the government.

Parents should be supported irrespective of what model of care they chose for their children. Whether they chose to care for them in their own homes, in the homes of relatives or others they consider suitable and trustworthy should be a matter for them to decide.

Of course this isn’t about children at all. Nor their parents nor what benefits either of them. It’s the economy stupid once again. Home based minders are not in the tax net per se apart from the ninety or so who have registered with Tusla. So the status quo may be an unquantified, unapproved form of de facto subvention. But then, on the other hand, parents can’t claim tax relief in these situations either. Re-setting the balance between taxation and benefits, between taxing childminders appropriately and enabling parents to pay them is both feasible and fair.

But the government knows that. So it may not be only about the economy after all. With Katherine Zappone in charge, it’s very likely to be about ideology too.