Analysis of Complaints Made Against NZ Early Childhood Services to the Ministry of Education

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More than 200 complaints made against early childhood education services last year (2012) can be revealed, these included child abuse, children ‘escaping’ from an ECE service to main roads, inappropriate behaviour by adults, and children being excluded from a service.

Among the complaints listed were:

  • A parent who complained that “her child had been bitten and had her hands and arms twisted by the teacher at the service and that she has been verbally abused”.
  • Parents who were not informed that their child had fallen off a slide at an ECE service. The child also had to wait for medical treatment.
  • A student on teaching practice at a centre who observed staff smacking children and the person in charge dragging children by the arm.

Nationally there were 247 complaints made to the Ministry of Education about services in the ECE sector in 2012. Of these complaints 43 were not upheld because allegations could not be substantiated – however this does not mean that a complaint may not have validity.

Most of the complaints were against early childhood education and care centres which need to have only a minimum 50% qualified staff. However, at least 11 complaints were filed against public kindergartens that are fully staffed by registered teachers. Groups with high levels of parental involvement such as Playcentre and Te Kohanga Reo were least likely to have a complaint lodged against them.

Concerned about the lack of reporting of complaints, Dr Sarah Alexander asked the Ministry of Education to supply full details of the complaints and the services against which they were made.

In response, the Ministry supplied brief details of each complaint, often in general terms, such as “concern about health and safety issues” and a short description of any action that was taken. The names of services were provided in a separate document listed alphabetically. This made it difficult to determine which complaints were made against which service and to ascertain whether some services had more serious complaints than others, if some had multiple complaints, or whether complaints were grouped in a particular location.

Several complaints were a result of children being hurt or injured while attending an ECE service. These included:

  • A child who was left in a swing to go to sleep and ended up with rope burn and bruising to the forehead. The centre was allowed to continue to care for children but had its licence downgraded for a while until the Ministry was satisfied that it was no longer in breach of the regulations.
  • A child who sustained a serious injury while in care. The service continued to operate but the Ministry says it monitored it until assured practices had changed.
  • A child who was left asleep in the sun for some time and a parent complained about other health and safety issues at the service. The Ministry monitored the service until assured by the service practices had changed.
  • A complaint was received about child abuse by a teacher at the service. The Ministry worked with the service over an 8-month period to resolve the matter. The Ministry did not refer the abuse to the police. CYFS were advised by the Ministry but could intervene.

Investigation of Complaints

As in the example above, some of the complaints were referred to other agencies including CYFS, Public Health, and the Department of Labour. In one instance, it was noted that the Ministry was awaiting a report from the Education Review Office before closing the matter. However, in this case, the Ministry had already restored the centre’s full licence.

In many of the complaints filed last year, it appears that the Ministry referred the complainant back to the service in question or simply contacted the service by telephone about it. 

Examples include:

  • A parent who complained to the Ministry about unsafe teacher ratios was told to contact the service. No Ministry follow-up was seen to be necessary.
  • A parent who complained to the Ministry about a service her daughter was attending because it had several dogs in the same area as the young children. The parent was told to complain to the service. The parent withdrew her daughter from the service and so the Ministry considered the matter resolved.
  • A relief teacher at a centre observed teachers to be unhappy and poor teaching practices. Instead of visiting the centre and talking to staff and observing teaching, Ministry staff phoned and wrote a letter to the centre management and concluded that there was no problem.
  • The Ministry was told about the bullying treatment of staff and children at the service by the service owners, but the complainants were told to follow the service’s complaints procedure, i.e. to complain to the service owners.
  • A mother who withdrew her daughter from a centre with suspicions of physical abuse. She complained to the Ministry but was told to complain to the service and the matter as far as the Ministry was concerned was resolved.

In many cases, it appears from the information supplied about the complaints and how they were dealt with that the Ministry is focused more on supporting the ECE services, than in supporting individual families. In several instances, services seem to have been allowed to continue operating despite complaints about health and safety of children, and the Ministry puts the emphasis on services to be responsible rather than stepping in itself.

A common theme in the actions taken by the Ministry in response to a complaint was to rely on the word of the service provider. For example:

  • A member of the public phoned the ministry with safety concerns for children. The Ministry phoned the service and decided the matter was resolved.
  • Despite a complainant saying she was not happy with how her complaint about a teacher had been dealt with, the Ministry referred her back to the centre. The Ministry contacted the service and determined the matter to be resolved.
  • A parent complained about the lack of response by a service to the on-going biting by the same child over the past few months. The Ministry contacted the service and considered the matter resolved.
  • A complainant reported that staff were smoking on the premises and there was misuse of fundraising proceeds. The Ministry contacted and asked the service and the allegations were not upheld.

By not naming services and not making reports of investigations publicly available parents and teachers who have concerns about a service cannot find out if it has previously had problems or how they may have been resolved and parents cannot learn from the past experiences of others.

In February this year a nine-month old boy was left in a cot for about one hour after a Porirua centre had closed. He was heard crying by neighbours and rescued. This incident was reported by a member of the public to the Dominion Post newspaper and made national headlines.

What was only discovered as a result of the Office of ECE’s request was that another incident that sounds like it may have been similar occurred just months earlier in December 2012.

In this case, a child was left asleep at a centre as it was being closed for the day. The Ministry’s response to the December 2012 incident was to put an action plan in place for the service and consider the matter resolved. Had this first incident been made publicly known and used by the Ministry to remind all services about the importance of active supervision of children (sleeping and awake) then perhaps this might have been sufficient warning to the Porirua centre to make sure it did not make the same mistake of neglecting a sleeping child.

The Ministry often refers parents to the Education Review Office report of their child’s service for information but this will not tell them about complaints. Nearly all of the services against which complaints had been laid have reports showing that ERO is happy with their performance. The normal cycle of review visits is every three years for ERO and this is now being extended to every four years for services that ERO considers to be very well placed to support children’s learning.

Further Examples of Complaints

Other major complaints

  • A child not actively supervised by staff had ‘escaped’ from the service.
  • A child was found wondering on the street and the centre was unaware that he was missing.
  • Two children ran from a service alone and out on to a road. (Some other complaints were also about children climbing fences or leaving and going out on to a road.
  • A child was locked “accidentally” in a shed on the service’s property.
  • A child was locked in a room after a biting incident.
  • A van driver for a service left children in the van alone while she was in the post shop. (One of a small number of complaints relating to children being left in service vehicles).
  • A child was hurt several times at a service and locked in a room by himself.
  • Children were having multiple accidents each day due to low staffing ratios and a cramped sleeping area.
  • A parent could not initially find her child when she arrived at the centre to collect him and the supervising adult in the sleep room had already left for the day.
  • A parent complained about two children’s behaviour and lack of supervision at the service.
  • A teacher slapped a child on the hand on his first day at the service.
  • A parent complained about a teacher slapping his son.
  • A student on teaching practice observed two unqualified staff at a centre smacking children and the person in charge dragging children by the arm.
  • A parent complained about the physical isolation and antagonising of her child.
  • A parent was concerned with the lack of concern shown by a teacher for a distressed child in her care.
  • A parent complained for the second time to the Ministry of Education and asked if her complaint about her child always coming home sick could be investigated.

Complaints about exclusionary practices

  • A grandparent complained about intimidating behaviour by staff at the service towards parents.
  • A parent complained that a centre refused for Te Reo Maori to be spoken to their child.
  • A parent complained that she was told there was no longer a space for her child at the service but was told by the Ministry to follow the service’s own complaints procedure.
  • A parent of a child who attends a service every second week has been told he can no longer have a permanent place.
  • A parent was told she would have to withdraw her son from the centre as the centre said it was ‘not suitable for him’.
  • A parent complained about her child being asked to leave a service for behavioural reasons.
  • A parent complained that a service had approved their enrolment and then notified them that the children’s places were no longer available.
  • A parent’s confirmed enrolment was cancelled by the service after she advised that she would not be paying the optional charge for 20 Hours ECE.
  • A service said it would not continue to take a child if the optional charges owing were not paid.
  • A parent was told by the new owner of the service that if she did not agree to optional charges then she could not access 20 Hours ECE.
  • A parent questioned the service about overcharging for hours used and now his child has been asked to leave the service.
  • A small number of services were reported by parents to have withheld their children’s profile books (profile books provide details of children’s activities, learning and assessments).

Some of the other complaints included

  • Food was being withheld from a child.
  • Older children and OSCAR programme children were attending ECE services during school holidays.
  • No alternatives were offered to parent who could not afford to pay additional cost for child to go on excursion during the time her child was booked into childcare.
  • Staff were not giving a child his prescribed medicine at lunch-time.
  • Concerns about safety of outdoor play area.
  • Lack of nappy changing table.
  • Infant’s nappies were not being changed and infant nappy rash resulting.
  • Families were not being told about their child’s injury at the service (several complaints about this).
  • Problems with general hygiene, health, and safety (many complaints in this general area that the Ministry did not provide details on).
  • A service continued to operate with a burst water pipe.
  • A problem with drainage in the playground.
  • A service was not consulting with parents effectively.
  • The main gate of a service remained broken allowing children to potentially access a main road.
  • A service complained that a staff member was involved in drug taking.
  • A service was claiming for government funding for the hours of 3pm – 5pm when the child leaves at 3pm.
  • A parent was asked for ‘overdue’ payments for her child on 20 Hours ECE funding when fees could not be charged.
  • Parents were charged fees for more hours than they wanted/used.

This article was first published on October 10, 2013. Today, the Ministry does not release details on the specifics of complaints. It controls the release of information by publishing its own high level summary report of complaints and incidents. It also still refuses to identify services for which it has upheld serious complaints.

You may also like to read:

Articles and research on the complaints system in early childhood education in NZ

Newspaper article – Childcare Horrors revealed

Newspaper article – Ministry of Education process stifled complaints of abuse – childcare staff

How to make a complaint against an early childhood service and options.

One Response

  1. This is sad. I have just been given a email saying I won’t know the outcome of my complaint of abuse against my child!! If this was me abusing my child in the same manner, I would be charged!! I’m ece trained and am ashamed. We trust our children to these people and the organizations…. then we are left in the dark. I witnessed an abusive episode. Still this head teacher hides under her collective employment contract whilst my child has ongoing fear. It’s disgusting.!!!

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