Calls for assault charges to be brought against the childcare workers exposed in last night’s RTE Prime Time programme are not only missing the point, but obscuring it. The programme focused on a small sample of crèches. Not all crèches operate according to the same cost model as Giraffe or Little Harvard, but many of them do, with workers forced to cope in stressful, under-equipped and poorly supported conditions. Therefore it would be highly unlikely if the same pattern of violent abuse and degradation of infants were not replicated in many other crèches across the country, and the problem is not therefore one of the actions of particular workers, but a systemic violence perpetrated against small children, in the interests of profit.
One of the things that struck me about last night’s programme was the over-arching concern with parents’ fear that their own children might be subjected to such a regime. Such a concern is of course important, but why should this be presented as primarily a matter for parents? The programme exposed gross violation of children’s human rights: that is a political matter for society in its entirety. At one point an expert was asked: who should pay for the improvements to care? She responded, in rather clumsy language: “we, as a state”. What she meant, I think, was that everyone, and not just the parents, has a responsibility to ensure that children grow and learn in a safe, nurturing and happy environment.
However, stated government priorities fly in the face of such a responsibility, and seek to dismantle it. Ruairi Quinn, the Labour Minister for Education, said he wanted to pay for an additional year’s child care out of the existing social welfare budget, proposing to do so by abolishing the universal nature of child benefit, citing how that payment was used by some parents as part of the ‘holiday fund’. Thus he was plainly saying that it should be parents –and parents alone- who ought to fund an expansion in (sub-standard) child care, and implying that wider society bears no such responsibility. When you have affluent Labour Ministers who act out of principles that are destructive of both collective solidarity and respect for the work of raising children, small wonder that you should find poorly paid childcare workers who end up treating defenceless children like throwaway objects.