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Bermuda’s childcare system... and how it can improve

Duty of care: we can all agree that children are valuable, precious and vulnerable. They need to be loved, nurtured, guided and protected. They rely on adults for the majority of their needs from birth onwards (Photograph courtesy of Utica National)

Imagine the first day of daycare for a 12-week-old infant. Leading up to that moment, the parents have interviewed the childcare provider, conducted an in-person site visit at the daycare location, asked questions about sleeping arrangements and feeding, and asked for referrals from other parents. Bottles have been prepared, the diaper bag has been packed, and the route from home to daycare to work and back has been mapped out.

You drop off your precious bundle and try to get your mind focused on returning to work. Before picking your infant up as planned, you receive a call that your child is not breathing and you must come immediately. You arrive and your child is lifeless with the minder desperately attempting to resuscitate and emergency responders on their way.

Your child’s first day of daycare was his last. This tragedy is heartbreaking and devastating. This incident, along with previous infant fatalities, existing complaints against childcare providers, and recently publicised lapses in child-safety measures, has spurred us to encourage all stakeholders to participate in the advancement of the childcare system in Bermuda.

As a community, we can all agree that children are valuable, precious and vulnerable; children need to be loved, nurtured, guided and protected. Children rely on adults for the majority of their needs from birth onwards.

At present, we have an amorphous childcare system that straddles multiple government departments and ministries, including social development and sport, health, and education and workforce development. There are many qualified professionals within these ministries who have knowledge about the required components of a comprehensive childcare system and its implementation.

There is legislation and guidelines to provide guidance for childcare provision. The Bermuda Children Act of 1998 states that the Chief Medical Officer shall ensure that:

• Operators of daycare are qualified

• Operators have a licence

• Facilities are safe and in compliance with regulations

The Act also provides the Chief Medical Officer with the authority to cancel, suspend or refuse a licence. In terms of inspections, the Act states that the minister responsible for the Department of Child and Family Services can “appoint persons to act as inspectors” and these inspectors can include education officers, environmental health officers, health visitors and child development project officers.

The Act also states that the minister can set regulations regarding programme requirements, standards, facilities, safety requirements and staff-to-child ratios. Additionally, the Daycare Centre Regulations of 1999 outline staff-to-child ratios, safety expectations, and includes a section about inspectors visiting and inspecting daycare centres at “any reasonable time”.

Other government resources are available to support childcare professionals and to help parents navigate the childcare system.

Childcare Standards 2017, developed by multiple stakeholders and published by the Ministry of Health, provides a comprehensive road map for daycare provision, including licensing, standards, professional development, developmental guidelines and activities for young children, supervision, health and safety.

There is a specific section on sleep that is essential for anyone caring for an infant — infants should be placed on their backs to sleep on a firm surface to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Also, the Childcare Standards of 2017 specifically state that parents should be notified of accidents or injuries. These standards align with international standards on childcare provision that require:

• Adherence to health and safety guidelines

• Hiring and training of highly qualified early-childhood professionals who are adequately compensated

• Provision of age-appropriate environments

• Maintenance of optimal ratios

• Provision of affordable, high-quality daycare

The Department of Health has also created a checklist that parents should use to ask questions when interviewing providers and when conducting site visits. Parents who have children in daycare should also review the checklist, observe the centre and ask questions. Parents should feel comfortable to discuss any concerns they have with their daycare providers. Also, complaints about violations should be shared with the environmental health Personal Care and Childcare Safety Programme within the Department of Health.

Parents and guardians are encouraged to advocate on behalf of their children. Review the Childcare Standards. Know what questions you should ask daycare providers. Trust your instinct. Inspect your children at pick-up. Ask them questions about who they played with, what they did, and how they felt about their day. Listen to your children — follow their non-verbal cues, too. Ask questions. Children should be treated well. Every parent wants their child to be safe. Every parent wants their child to be alive when they go for pick-up.

Recommendations for strengthening the early childhood and childcare system:

1, Dedicate an agency — a one-stop shop — that manages all childcare issues such as implementing standards, professional development, licensing and violations. It will encourage a more unified approach to early childhood

2, Update and develop distinct legislation that specifically addresses all childcare settings that provide care for children from birth to age 5. The legislation should clearly outline: (a) early childhood education standards; (b) a clear definition of quality; (c) staff-to-child ratios by developmental ages and stages; and (d) a more established inspection system

3, Incorporate the Childcare Standards 2017 into legislation and/or regulations

4, Provide one online site where parent, guardians and caregivers can have access to checklists, standards, legislation, guidelines, a list of providers, and contact information for reporting violations or concerns

5, Establish a minimum number of annual inspections for all childcare settings to ensure that centres are in compliance with health and safety regulations

6, Consider dedicating an inspector or two to focus only on childcare. Inspections should incorporate a review of health, safety and programme delivery. Inspectors should have some background or training in early childhood education service delivery

7, Increase the pool of highly qualified early childhood development professionals — use financial incentives

8, Mandate continuing professional development for employees at daycare centres who provide direct care to children

9, Consider developing an accreditation system to establish ratings of daycare centres so parents and guardians can make informed choices

10, Community stakeholders, share your stories, both positive and negative — with the community, with legislators, with the department responsible for environmental health if there is a violation, and with friends. Issues can be addressed only if they are known

11, Establish scholarships dedicated to the advancement of early childhood providers — it is a sound economic investment. Parents will focus more at work if they are confident that their child is safe and learning in a centre that provides high-quality daycare and employs highly qualified early childhood providers.

12, Share your knowledge about childcare and early childhood development with other members of your community — it can help to improve the lives of children and families.

Terrylynn M. Tyrell, DEd is the Development Director at the Youth Empowered Society in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr Tyrell, who earned the degrees of Doctor of Education from Johns Hopkins University and Master of Education and Counselling from McGill University, is a former Bermuda educator, has been committed to education reform and social justice throughout her career, and has worked with children and families for 20 years. She can be contacted at dr.t.tyrell@gmail.com