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Flemish childcare agency ‘a mess,’ committee urges change in management

15:34 13/07/2022

The committee tasked with evaluating the agencies responsible for childcare in Flanders issued a scathing final report after holding 10 hearings and examining thousands of documents. Its calling for a change in management, just one of 75 recommendations to restore trust in the sector.

The investigative committee was formed after reports broke of serious safety violations and child endangerment issues, including one in which a six-month-old girl died from injuries sustained while she was being cared for in a Ghent daycare centre. 

It was later revealed that the crèche concerned was allowed to remain open despite multiple complaints and inspection reports that rated it poorly. 

“There is an urgent need to intervene in the organisational policy and management of the Agentschap Opgroeien in order to restore confidence in Kind en Gezin,” the final report from the committee reads, referring to the Flemish agencies involved with child welfare. 

Childcare inspection system criticised

The committee cited structural problems in the enforcement and inspection policy of the childcare sector, VRT reports, explaining that certain procedures were not followed well enough and management “did not react adequately and with the appropriate sense of urgency”.

It had sharp criticism for the procedures themselves, along with Opgroeien’s file management system, saying that the latter “can be described as 'a mess'.”

Apart from a major intervention in the management of the agency’s operations, other recommendations include improved handling of complaints with one central contact point, a reform of the inspections procedure and a reduction in the maximum number of children per supervisor. 

Currently, there is one supervisor for every eight or nine children. While the committee says this number should be lowered, it did not provide a concrete number. 

It also recommended that changes be implemented in order to allow for quicker intervention on even a precautionary basis when there are suspicions of problems or risks.

“The precautionary principle should always prevail so that the safety of children in childcare is maximised,” the report explained.

Committee members said there is also an urgent need for a better flow of information when it comes to criminal convictions and prosecutions. During the hearing, the agency indicated that it was not always informed in a timely manner about criminal cases involving crèches or their employees and as a result, was not always able to take the appropriate measures. 

Blame targets former welfare minister Wouter Beke

The committee assigned some of the blame for the childcare sector's shortcomings directly to Wouter Beke (CD&V), the Flemish minister for welfare, public health, family and poverty reduction, saying that his role called for him to adjust the administration if things were clearly amiss. 

“In this respect, minister Beke failed and only intervened after the tragedy in [the Ghent crèche] due to his too great and too long-standing trust in his own administration,” the report reads. 

Beke accepted responsibility during the hearing held by the committee, acknowledging that he and the agency he managed should have been quicker to react to mounting complaints. Beke resigned from his post not long after the death at the Ghent childcare centre, saying the tragedy weighed heavily on him but also adding that a lot of the criticism against him was unfair.

Hilde Crevits (CD&V) took over Beke’s role as the agency was in full crisis mode, and has promised changes that include a revamp of the filing system that the committee described as a mess.

Photo: Investigative hearing into Opgroeien in April with Ariane Van den Berghe, Katrien Verhegge and Karine Moykens © Belga/Laurie Dieffembacq



Written by Helen Lyons