Child minders: Keeping our children safe

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Copyright: paylessimages / 123RF Stock Photo

The issue of keeping children safe in the hands of child minders is something we have been discussing for some time now. There are 2.6 million Malaysian children under four years old (source: Department of Statistics, Malaysia 2018). Many young parents work to meet the needs of their families; hence both the father and mother may be employed and require a child minder.

Under the Child Care Centre Act 1984 (Revised 2007), a “child care centre” is defined as any premise that receives four or more children under the age of 4 years to be cared for a fee. Such centres must be licensed and registered with the Social Welfare Department. The Act does not cover child care by relatives. More importantly child minders looking after 1-3 children are currently exempted from registration.

There are four categories of child care centres outlined in Section 5 of the Act: home-based, work place-based, community-based, and institution-based. A fifth category is a child care centre for children with disability (source: Director of Child Division, Social Welfare Department, Malaysia). Most are defined as looking after 10 or more children except for the home-based centre (4-9 children).

In 2016, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry stated that only 4,240 nurseries and 1,650 child care centres were registered with the Welfare Department. No one knows the real number as most operate quietly and parents are in need of services. If we consider the 2.6 million children under 4 years and take a very conservative approach and assumptions:

1. Assume that 50% of women work (underestimation, 54% in 2016).

2. Assume that 50% of those who work use their relatives to look after children.

3. Assume that most child care centres are large (~10 children; an overestimation as most child minders of young children under 2-3 years run small centres).

It would suggest that there are at least 65,000 child care centres or nurseries operating and some are unregistered. Many child minders of course are looking after 1-3 children, hence exempted from registration.

Registered Child Care Centres are expected to have a good curriculum and be monitored by the Welfare Department to check on staff qualifications, safety, quality of care, ratio of staff to children, nutrition, etc. Apart from the role of the Welfare Department, the Association of Registered Childcare Providers Malaysia has worked hard to try and elevate child care services in the country.

I would like to outline some major challenges and offer some suggestions to improve safety aspects when it come to engaging child minders.

Firstly, there has been a call for more legislation but it may not be a major solution. The existing laws and regulations are comprehensive but laws are rarely preventative in nature; they often act after the fact. One possibility is to look at the Child Care Centre Act 1984 (Revised 2007) and consider if we need to include registration of child minders looking after 1-3 children. These are often the most vulnerable and require a solution.

Secondly, it must be recognised that the Welfare Department is extremely short-staffed. It has a very wide scope of work and can barely cope. It has been recognised that monitoring and enforcement by the Welfare Department, of even registered Child Care Centres, is limited. There is a need to dramatically improve the staffing of the Welfare Department so that it can support the many social needs in the country. While we work to increase numbers, the quality of staff also requires serious improvement. We need to invest in large numbers of trained social workers and not depend on those who have to learn on-the-job after leaving school.

Thirdly, there must be a mechanism to report all unregistered child care centres and child minders. While it would appear logical to enforce the law and shut down all unregistered child care centres, finding the thousands of them may be an issue. Parents, desperate for child care, tend to keep quiet. Many centres do not register due to the need to meet the requirements of training and standards.

Perhaps we can work nationally with both the Association of Registered Childcare Providers Malaysia and the Welfare Department to upgrade these unregistered centres progressively. That is, offer an opportunity to meet requirements over time and not all at once. In addition, offer support to obtain training (reduce the cost of training).

Finally, the best child minder is a parent. Our young parents both work to make ends meet in the face of the rising cost of living. Employers need to invest their profits into the employees and not just into the major shareholders. Many industrialised countries pay better wages to allow only one parent to work. Others offer longer periods of paid support to parents to be off work, even up to 2 years.

We, as a nation, need to invest in our young families and their children. The growth and success of our nation cannot be measured by its financial success alone but also of the wellbeing of its people.

Thank you.

Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh
Senior Consultant Paediatrician