Flanders is working on a system to take action against questionable nurseries more swiftly if the health and safety of children are in jeopardy, even if there is no hard evidence of abuse.
The announcement comes after a six-month-old child suffered serious brain trauma, which later resulted in her death, after being mistreated in a childcare centre in Mariakerke, Ghent. Inspection reports showed the nursery had a long history of complaints and had been on the radar of Kind en Gezin (child health agency) for abuse.
The head of the agency Opgroeien, to which Kind en Gezin belongs, said that the organisation did everything that was legally possible, but that such incidents often concern cases that put the organisation in a "grey zone."
Opgroeien's spokesperson Nele Wouters confirmed: "we want to be able to take action based on reports of abuse alone. This means that if there are, for example, repeated reports of a child caretaker being heavy-handed, we can call on this person to leave the nursery, even if we have no concrete evidence," she told The Brussels Times.
Improving past systems
In the case of a child being wounded at nursery (for example bruises or bite marks), Opgroeien asked parents to bring the child's doctor in contact with the organisation's consultant doctor to verify whether the injury can be attributed to nursery malfeasance.
Since 2020, this system was improved, and an expert team consisting of a doctor, a lawyer, a psychologist and a coordinator was assigned. The Confidential Centres for Child Abuse can also give an opinion
But despite this enlarged group of experts, it can sometimes still be difficult to record and prove cases of abuse, giving rise to a "grey zone," meaning that no concrete action can be taken.
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According to Wouters, a case was opened following a complaint of several parents against the nursery in Mariakerke, but the inspection at the start of February pointed at the pedagogical quality of staff being of a high standard.
"Unfortunately, when there is doubt, the inspection is not always enough to formally establish abuse. We now want to be able to take action based on multiple claims and the opinion of the file manager alone."
Swift response and precautionary measures needed
This statement comes in light of opposition parties calling on the competent authorities to act more diligently and swiftly in possible cases of child abuse following the death of a young child who was injured by nursery staff.
The left-wing Vooruit party and the Groen party demanded that Flemish Welfare Minister Wouter Beke immediately investigate any daycare centres where the safety of children is uncertain and instigate a system of precaution.
Far-left PVDA party's Jos D'Haese said that on Wednesday, the inspections of children's nurseries will be debated in the Flemish parliament.
"I hope that Beke shows honesty there and puts forward real measures. Because supervision has to improve, but now the damage is also done to those thousands of crèches where nothing at all goes wrong."
Vooruit's Hannelore Goeman said on Twitter there is "no such thing as a grey zone when it comes to the safety of our children," and argued that the organisation doesn't seem to be aware of what nurseries are in the grey zone. "It is simple: either such a crèche is safe and can stay open, or it is not safe and has to close immediately."