Child breaches attract big fines

It was early afternoon when a four-year-old boy wandered out of his Balga childcare centre without carers noticing.

He used a planter box to climb on to pool fencing and undo the latches before walking through a gate left open by a gardener.

The boy then got over the centre's perimeter wall by clambering up a compost bin left next to the wall.

For up to an hour, he roamed the streets until a passer-by found him along a road under Reid Highway and took him to a nearby medical centre until police arrived.

In May, the Salvation Army (WA) Trust was fined $6000 by the State Administrative Tribunal and ordered to pay $1500 court costs over the incident at the Balga Early Learning Centre in September last year.

It was one of 16 breaches of regulations relating to young children leaving a care service that have been logged by authorities in less than two years.

Not all cases involved such audacious "escapes" by young children.

A two-year-old boy was simply able to get into a lift and leave Buggles Childcare in Brookfield Place in Perth's CBD in July last year.

He ended up in an underground carpark, where he was found by a security guard and returned to his carers.

ES5 Pty Ltd, which runs the centre, was also fined $6000 and ordered to pay $1500 in court costs in March this year.

The disappearance of a child from day care is a nightmare for parents, who entrust their safety to a paid service.

In its draft report on child care, the Productivity Commission said 100,000 more full-time care places will be needed over the next 12 years as demand for child care increases.

The industry is subject to more laws and regulations than ever before, but providers can struggle to cope with the demands placed on them.

Latest figures from the State Government, which oversees WA childcare services' compliance with the law, show the number of WA centres recording one or more breaches has more than doubled over the past year. WA Community Services Minister Tony Simpson said the State Government had increased the number of inspection officers over the past year to catch more childcare centres breaking the rules.

"We have changed our inspection routines so that all care centres will have at least one inspection a year," he said.

As well as inspections, care providers are obliged by law to notify authorities if certain incidents, such as a child leaving the premises unsupervised, occur.

Rory Vassallo, who owned 22 WA childcare centres until four months ago, said increased mandatory reporting was good and necessary, though it made it appear childcare centres were breaching the rules more than they used to when that was not necessarily the case.

"I don't think centres are getting any worse," he said.

"My centres were running like clockwork when we sold. It was the best it had ever been. In this industry, things change every day."

Childcare Association of WA executive officer Rachelle Tucker said there had been many changes in the industry, including the introduction of National Law and Regulations in WA at the end of last year, introducing early childhood teachers and changes with the National Quality Framework and Standard.

"We had always advocated for a high-quality sector and we work hard to make this happen, but like anything you pay for, the better the quality the higher the cost and unfortunately with the current system for families, the cost is making it hard for families, in particular the middle- income family," she said. Corporate activity in the childcare sector has increased this year, particularly in WA.

After 10 years in the industry, Mr Vassallo sold his 22 childcare centres to Queensland company G8 Education for $65 million earlier this year.

He said he believed operators needed to either work on a very small scale with one or two centres, or be a corporate giant with at least 50 centres to be able to manage all the regulations, changes and costs, and make money.

G8 Education, which has just under 400 centres nationwide, has reportedly bought 68 WA centres this year, while the smaller Affinity Education, which has 104 centres nationwide, has also bought into the Perth market. Mr Vassallo estimated the split was 80 per cent small operators to 20 per cent corporates, with each offering parents a different childcare experience.

He said it was "definitely a risk" that big commercial operators could pursue profits at the expense of quality and service.

"I think the Government has got the power now to find out anything they need to know to try to forecast another ABC," he said.

ABC Learning collapsed in 2008, owing creditors $1.6 billion, forcing the sale of 1200 childcare centres and the Federal Government to contribute $22 million to prop up centres.

As for finding the right centre, Ms Tucker said parents had to first decide what kind of service they wanted for their child.

"A parent's instinct when it comes to their children is usually spot on and so parents should trust that instinct," she said.

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