How Hard Is It for a Centre to Be Closed Down When It’s Bad?

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A case study of an early childhood centre – Pitter Patter

The Ministry of Education (MOE) received complaints from parents as well as teachers about an owner-operated childcare centre – Pitter Patter in Feilding – in 2020. Complaints included locking children in sleep rooms as punishment, medicating children without parents’ permission, dirty bedding, children at risk of being burnt from very hot water coming from taps, bad food, poor ventilation, and the owner was violent to children.

This was not the first time that the MOE had received complaints against the centre.  “Former teachers confirmed MOE had visited the centre in 2018 to investigate parents’ complaints that the sleep room was being used as a punishment.”  Moreover, “staff had tried to raise the alarm about the centre, but said they were never listened to.” (Read more)

What this case shows:

  1. The interests of the service and the service provider can take precedence in the Ministry of Education’s current process for managing complaints and enforcing regulations.
  2. Parents and teachers need to be willing to stick their neck out and persevere to see that the interests of children are served.
  3. Complainants can receive no support. 
  4. It can take a long time to get a satisfactory outcome from making a complaint.

What happened

The MOE carried out an on-site assessment on Tues 17 November 2020.  On Friday 19 November, on behalf of the centre owner the Early Childhood Council emailed and phoned Ministry of Education staff to clarify the notice of licence suspension she had been given. The Ministry informed the commercial lobby group that Pitter Patter was being suspended on “only one breach” – GMA7A safety checking of children’s workers. The licence would be restored following the provision of documented evidence of safety checking in accordance with the Children’s Act 2014. The suspension took effect from Monday 23 November.

On Monday 30th the MOE issued a new licence suspension for breaches in the adult-child ratio, not being managed in accordance with good management practices, documentation and record keeping, and that there were reasonable grounds to believe there had been ill-treatment of children. However, on 13 December 2020 the Ministry returned the centre to a full licence. 

When questioned by Radio NZ if it was “appropriate for the ministry to reopen Pitter Patter Feilding after a 3-week suspension and while investigation was still underway”, the ECC chief executive said it was acceptable. He added that the allegations were not substantiated.  “If there was no substance then we need to be able to move on in a way that isn’t hanging people out to dry.”   (Note that the ECC had previously lobbied the ministry to disregard all complaints in its complaints recording system “from vexatious ex-staff with axes to grind or from disgruntled parents.”)

One condition that the Ministry of Education required Pitter Patter Feilding to meet to have its suspension revoked was that the owner-operator would not enter the centre during licensed hours and have no contact with children.

A second condition was that she would engage an independent person for parents to talk with and go to with their concerns. But the independent person was not what would commonly be defined as independent. She was engaged by the service owner – as allowed by the Ministry of Education.  She came from the ECC commercial lobby group, she had previously represented the centre, and had known the centre owner over many years. This combined with the ministry’s decision to allow the centre to remain open made it less safe for anyone in the small community of Feilding to say anything against the centre or service provider. Complainants were effectively silenced.

sad child with parent

On 8 February 2021 following a site visit to check on how things were going at the centre, the Ministry identified 33 separate breaches of the regulations and licensing criteria. But still, the centre’s licence was not withdrawn. The ministry allowed the centre to stay open and fully funded, only downgrading its licence to a provisional licence. The MOE has not revealed whether it knew that by allowing the centre more time to reach compliance and to continue operating, the owner had been able to sell the business

On 15 March 2021 the Ministry of Education received a change of ownership application for the licence of Pitter Patter Feilding. At this time the ministry was preparing to cancel the service provider’s licence and an ‘Intention to Cancel’ notice was issued on 19 March 2021.  Cancellation did not take effect until 1 April 2021.  The new owner was left to apply to apply for a new licence.

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