‘Tighten laws on childminders’

PETALING JAYA: Most childcare centres and children’s care homes do not have a clear child protection policy or in-house mechanism to address the issue of abuse, experts say.

With the ugly spectre of child abuse statistics getting worse every year, experts say every premises tasked with the care of children must have clear sets of unique standard operating procedures (SOP) to address abuse.

Child rights advocate and Suriana Welfare Society chairman James Nayagam, who audited about 150 centres tasked with childcare in the past four years, said 80% did not have such SOP or risk management procedures.

“These SOP will allow instances when there is abuse by an adult on the premises to be dealt with, or even abuse committed by a child on another child.

“Although these care centres are registered with the government, they are not given these risk management guidelines and there is nowhere for them to go for training and be guided on running the home.

“So when abuse happens, they tend to deal with it according to their own understanding,” said Nayagam.

He also highlighted that some of these centres licensed by the authorities were unacceptable.

“Recently, a donor asked me to check on a children’s home which had been approved by the authorities but lo and behold, when I went there, the children didn’t even have beds, the kitchen was bad and the staircase was blocked.

“Elderly folks were living there and so were disabled persons although it was supposed to be only for children. Two maids were working there, and there were no qualified staff members.

“How can the authorities approve such a home? But this is the kind of thing that’s happening in this country,” said Nayagam, who called for the government to draft SOP to address abuse for these centres.

He added that non-governmental organisations working on children’s rights could help in drawing up the SOP and guidelines.

Association of Registered Childcare Providers president Anisa Ahmad said every year, there would always be high demand for childcare centres.

“Mothers need to work for economic reasons. So as long as there are newborn babies, there will always be a demand for childcare centres,” she said.

“At present, this is due to working mothers returning to the workforce amid the country’s transition into the endemic phase for Covid-19.”

She added that registered childcare centres were not only monitored by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry but also by the local authorities, the Health Department as well as the Fire and Rescue Department.

She said childcare centres and care homes were governed by two different Acts, which are the Child Care Centre Act 1984 and the Care Centres Act 1993 respectively.

“There is no guarantee that no abuse will happen at registered childcare centres but at least there are officers from the ministry and other government agencies who will go and monitor most of the registered childcare centres.

“Furthermore, the child minders and child educators working at the childcare centres must attend and pass the Permata Negara (KAP) Basic Early Childhood Care and Education Course,” said Anisa.

She added that the government must also make it mandatory for home-based childminders to register with the Welfare Department under the ministry.

This is because currently, the Child Care Centre Act 1984 only requires nurseries that accept four children or more, aged below four years, to register with and be certified by the department.

“Those who are running a babysitting business at home and taking care of fewer than three children are not required to register with the ministry and therefore this opens the law to abuse.

“There are cases of babysitters who take care of more than three children in their home and the officers do not have any authority to summon or check on them,” said Anisa.

Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) research and advocacy officer Anis Farid said all childcare centres must have child protection policies, aligned with international standards and continually updated to reflect global best practices.

All staff should receive training and regular briefings on these policies to ensure the standards of safety for children were maintained, she said.

Anis said early childhood care and education (ECCE) should also be professionalised to ensure quality childminders.

“Currently, there is a lack of childcare staff while there is a simultaneous desperate need for staff to meet demand.

“This means those who take up care jobs may lack formal training, which can lead to the safety issues we see.

“Professionalising the role helps extend benefits, which can help encourage more people to take up these jobs while also standardising the requirements for the job, thus setting a quality assurance for parents,” she said.

Anis, however, noted that current recruitment practices for carers also tend to require tertiary education, which disqualifies a lot of people who may be great at the job but may not necessarily have had access to formal education.

The creation of a new programme which could bypass this issue could increase the supply of qualified carers, for example, programmes designed to target lower-income, B40 single mothers, she said.

She also said there must be a specific allocation in the national budget to help expand the number of registered care centres and carers.

“This can be done by offering subsidies for registration, which currently, can be too expensive for some.

“Increasing the accessibility of courses or training to become a carer is also important, as current fees to receive certification may be too high, especially for certain groups with an interest in entering the field, such as single mothers.

“In WAO’s experience, single mothers demonstrate high interest in becoming a carer, but often cannot afford the fees for certification,” she said.

Anis added that the shortage of legitimate childcare centres and care homes also needed to be addressed to prevent reliance on their unregistered counterparts.

The Welfare Department, according to its website, has 1,900 registered care homes, including around 377 of those specialised for the elderly. Meanwhile data from the National Child Data Centre found that Malaysia has a shortage of over 80,000 childcare centres.

Anis added that it was highly possible that there was also a similar shortage with care homes, though there was currently no data on this.

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