Childcare workers who send tantrum-throwing toddlers
to "time out" risk hefty fines under national childcare laws to come into
force next year.
New regulations will expose childcare centres to
penalties if children are required to take part in religious or cultural activities,
such as Christmas tree decoration or Easter egg hunts. And family daycare providers will
have to carry out criminal checks on neighbours, friends or relatives who visit their
homes more than seven times a year while children are present.
Childcare supervisors risk personal fines for the
first time, under the national legislation being adopted by state and territory
Centres could be fined as much as $50,000, and
supervisors $10,000, for failing to ensure children are adequately supervised, or for
using "inappropriate discipline" to keep order. Centres will be banned from
using any form of corporal punishment, as well as "any discipline that is
unreasonable in the circumstances".
The Education and Care Services National Act, which
has been passed by Victoria as the "host jurisdiction" and will be replicated
by other states and territories, does not define "unreasonable" discipline.
But draft regulations with the legislation show
childcare supervisors risk $2000 fines for "separating" children.
Supervisors must "ensure that a child being
educated and cared for by the service is not separated from other children for any
reason other than illness or an accident", the regulations state.
Children cannot be "required to undertake
activities that are inappropriate, having regard to each family's family and cultural
values, age and physical and intellectual development".
The childcare industry yesterday demanded greater
clarity, warning that staff could be fined for putting a toddler in "time out"
or asking a child to help decorate a Christmas tree.
The Australian Childcare Alliance, representing
private centres, called for a definition of "separation", noting that each
state and territory could interpret the law differently.
"One state might say you can't leave a child
outside the door, another might say you can't take a child from the group,"
alliance president Gwynn Bridge said.
Childcare centres had banned smacking, and no longer
used the "naughty corner" technique of isolating children who were violent or
disobedient, she said.
But the regulations left the way open for a
supervisor to be fined if a litigious parent objected to a child being taken out of a
group for hitting other children, or throwing sand.
"There is time out but naughty corners went out
years ago," Ms Bridge said. "You move a child a short way from the group and
talk to them about their behaviour.
"But we don't know the meaning of the word
'separate' - is it distance? We would assume it's about separating a child from sight or
hearing, and putting the child in a position where he or she feels marginalised.
"But this needs clarification, otherwise people
will be in breach without realising it."
Early Childhood Australia, a lobby group representing
young children, said "separation" meant putting children in isolation.
"They're not talking about separating children
who are fighting," ECA chief Pam Cahir said. "Physical punishment is out.
Staff need to sit with children and talk through the situation."
Ms Cahir said childcare centres would use
"common sense" to decide if activities were culturally appropriate.
"If you have a centre with a high Muslim
population you're not going to be asking them to decorate a Christmas tree. I think
common sense should prevail."
The regulations also require family carers, who
normally look after a handful of children in their homes, to ensure regular visitors are
"fit and proper persons".
Criminal checks would have to be carried out on any
neighbours, friends or relatives who visit while children are present on more than three
days in a month, or seven days a year.