The Flemish authorities often do not sanction Flemish daycares in case of serious acts of abuse or neglect, even if there is clear evidence, according to research by a Flemish newspaper.
In 2018, the Child and Care government Agency received 41 complaints of unacceptable behaviour, neglect or mistreatment at a daycare or in a crèche, among which a baby being forced to eat until he gagged, cats sleeping in children’s beds, and a toddler who was put in the garden entirely naked after he had peed his pants.
In only one of the 41 cases did such a complaint lead to a sanction. In all the other 40 cases, there was no sanction. Even in crèches where the Health Care Inspectorate found evidence of abuses or serious breaches of the rules, no sanctions were imposed, according to research by Het Laatste Nieuws.
“I myself have already received signals that the Health Care Inspectorate sometimes establishes facts, but then almost nothing comes from it,” Professor of Family Pedagogy Michel Vandenbroeck (UGent) told the newspaper.
“However, I had no idea that it happened so often and with such serious cases. It is difficult to understand that there is hardly any response in some cases,” he added.
In the past, the Child and Family government Agency often stated that it had very few options to intervene, according to Vandenbroeck. “Or they had to close a crèche immediately, or they had to turn a blind eye to everything.”
“Since 2014, however, we have had additional opportunities to impose sanctions, but now we see that they are hardly being used,” said Vandenbroeck.
“If any of these things happen in a family context, we call it abuse. In a professional context, the facts weigh just as heavily,” said child psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens, who said that the findings were “appalling.”
“In some cases, the dossiers show clear neglect or even abuse. Such matters should not only be answered through conversations or coaching, but clear conditions should be set, monitored by independent health professionals and, where necessary, sanctioned,” he said.
“As a government, you have to send an unambiguous signal that you will not tolerate this kind of behaviour,” Adriaenssens added.
He argued that such matters can have a serious impact on babies and toddlers. “A baby’s ’emotional memory’ is already formed at birth, and it stores all the experiences associated with emotions. Certainly negative ones,” he explained.
A child who is regularly exposed to abuse or neglect in a daycare can still experience the consequences of this at a much later age. “The first thousand days of their lives will help to determine how that child interacts with adults later in life,” Adriaenssens said. “And later – as an adult – these experiences can still have an impact as well.”
If the rotten apples are not removed, the reputation of the whole sector will suffer in the long run, according to Adriaenssens. “It is in the interests of all organisers in the childcare sector that strict action is taken,” he said.
In a reaction, the Child and Family government Agency said that it “certainly did not turn a blind eye to serious situations.”
“A purely numerical analysis does not say everything. There is no one-to-one relationship between a complaint and a heavy sanction,” the agency stated. “Every complaint is first thoroughly investigated and the approach is tailor-made. A sanction such as a suspension or closure of the daycare is just one of the steps.”
“Parents give their child to a daycare and expect that the child is looked after correctly,” Adriaenssens said. “As a society, we must ensure that this is indeed the case. There should be not the slightest doubt about that.”