Tusla has revealed to RTÉ News that it recently agreed to report specific fire safety concerns in crèches and other early years services to local fire authorities.
The development emerged as the regulator responded to criticisms from a mother that it took ten months to complete an inspection process at a Dublin crèche from the time she made a formal complaint after withdrawing her baby from the service.
A Tusla inspection report triggered by the complaint warned that overcrowding in a sleeping area could compromise the safe and timely evacuation of pre-school children in the event of a fire.
A few days ago, after covering a HIQA report on Tusla, I was approached by a mother who said she was extremely frustrated about her ten-month wait for Tusla to give her and the public a definitive response to a complaint she had lodged about alleged breaches of standards in a Dublin crèche.
In early October 2017, the mother, who is a teacher, says she withdrew her two-and-a-half year-old son from the Chestnut Daycare facility in Crumlin after using its services for the previous year and after raising questions to which she was not getting satisfactory answers.
Weeks later, she filed a formal written complaint with Tusla, the statutory Child and Family Agency, expressing serious concerns about the Crumlin service, for instance, that it was too small, had a poor child-to-carer ratio and gave unsatisfactory responses to her complaints. She also alleged that inappropriate behaviour management practices were employed with younger children.
In correspondence we have seen between the complainant and Tusla, the regulator says her letter triggered an unannounced and focused regulatory inspection of the Crumlin facility which took place in January 2018 - three months after the complaint was filed.
At the time of the inspection, the service had a capacity for 40 children aged from six months to six-and-a-half years.
The inspection focused on four areas. It found that the facility was, "non-compliant with" 17 unfragmented sections and sub-sections of regulations which had been introduced by the Government in 2016 while it complied fully with 23 of them.
In the case of most of the non-compliances, Chestnut Daycare outlined Corrective and Preventative Actions, providing documentary and sometimes photographic evidence that they were in fact being implemented.
This back-and-forth process of proposed remediation and Tusla assessing its adequacy and monitoring its implementation took place over a seven-month period.
The detailed outcomes of this extended dialogue between the facility and the regulator in the inspection report is available on the Tusla website.
But the report shows that the Crumlin centre proposed no corrective or preventative actions to address non-compliances which were found under the heading Minimum Space Requirement.
The 2018 inspection report indicated that there was simply not enough space in the Toddler Room to meet requirements on the day.
Inspectors' measurements indicated that the floor area of the Toddler Room was 29.5 square metres as opposed to the 35.6 square metres. By my calculation, inspectors’ measurements show the facility would have had to have expanded the room’s floor area by 17% to meet that day’s requirements.
Between noon and 2pm, 12 two- and three-year-olds slept in that room and, the report stated that "there was insufficient space for staff to freely move between the beds and supervise children".
It added the warning that the lack of clear floor space could compromise safe and timely evacuation of pre-school children in the event of a fire in the building.
When we asked Tusla if it had told the local fire authority of this shortcoming and if so, what the fire chief had said in response, we were told that Tusla does not comment on individual cases.
So we asked if it was the regulator’s policy to report to the local fire authority all such non-compliances.
Tusla’s spokeswoman responded that "specific fire safety concerns are required to be reported under a new process agreed with the Association of Chief Fire Officers in Ireland".
Inspectors found that not enough adults were working directly with the children in the Toddler and Montessori Rooms. And they said this same breach was discovered when inspectors had called in late 2016.
During the most recent spot-check in January 2018, the 13 children in the Toddler Room were in the charge of two adults but the inspection report said "three (adults) were required given the ages of the children concerned".
The report added that during a designated nappy-changing and sleep period, only one adult remained in the room and that he or she "also had to perform admin duties and manage the service entrance at collection times".
In two instances, one in the Montessori Room, and the other involving a group of nine pre-school children at lunchtime, one staff member was doing the work which regulations required two to do.
The report then outlined that the registered provider of the service, a Ms Laura Higgins, who was also the Designated Person In Charge of the facility, told Tusla that, one week after the inspection, she had advertised for new employees.
She said the service was in the process of interviewing and was awaiting garda vetting disclosures. Ms Higgins also undertook that "the necessary number of adults to care for the children in the service would be maintained at all times".
But the inspection report threw cold water on these proposals, saying they "did not rectify the non-compliances". It continued that "these non-compliances were found on a previous inspection on the 16th of November 2016", 14 months before the 2018 inspection.
So the part of the report dealing with Staffing concluded that two sections of a regulatory requirement (Regulation number 11 (subsection 1 and 2) were not met. And as stated earlier, regulatory requirements under the heading Premises and Space Requirements were not met either.
Seven months after the inspection, on 24 August last, Chestnut Daycare in Crumlin was re-registered. However, it was with four conditions attached concerning staffing levels, space requirements, management and recruitment, and complaints.
The mother who had complained was not happy with Tusla's response.
Despite having removed her toddler from the facility, and despite having been assured by Tusla that an administrative process which followed the inspection could continue for some six months, as the process stretched into its seventh month she wrote to the regulator that, "if this is what taking a matter seriously looks like to Tusla, I despair of the system in place for child welfare and protection in Ireland".
But Dr John Maguire, the executive responsible for Quality Development in Tusla’s inspectorate who she was addressing in that email, responded that "Tusla... engages with providers to promote compliance with the 2016 Early Years Services Regulations, providing the necessary time required".
As for Chestnut Daycare in Crumlin, their spokesman who is also their solicitor, told this programme that of the 11 allegations the mother we spoke with made, only three were upheld and one was partially upheld.
Tusla correspondence with the complainant shows that the regulator fully upheld complaints related to staff ratios, inappropriate management of the behaviour of younger children, and the facility's inadequate response to the mother's complaints while the one that was partially upheld related to two areas in the facility being too small.
The facility’s spokesman added that his client had been found "to have fully co-operated with Tusla at all times" and had responded appropriately to all of the issues raised by implementing changes "where necessary" and had "done everything in their power to comply with the regulations, improve the service and provide warm caring and welcoming childcare facilities".