Shortage of staff in childcare causes risks to children

The staff crisis in the Dutch child care sector, first reported in 2022, is increasing the risk of child safety, according to a government minister and a lawyer associated with previous abuse scandals. Last year it was estimated that the child care sector needed an extra 32,000 employees to cope with rising demand over the next five years, and a serious solution to this shortage has yet to be implemented.

In 2012, Robert M. was sentenced to 20 years (later downgraded to 19 years plus involuntary commitment) in prison for a multitude of sex crimes against an estimated 87 children. Across four years, Robert M. worked in various daycare centres in Amsterdam, where he repeatedly abused children until his arrest in 2010. The case caused shockwaves throughout Dutch society, not only due to the horrific nature of the crimes but also because Robert M. had previously been convicted of the possession of child pornography videos while working in a childcare facility in Germany in 2003.

This case led to numerous reforms in the childcare industry; these reforms generally revolved around the physical interaction between children and day care professionals. The Dutch government introduced the carer-child ratio – a system designed to limit the number of children a child carer can supervise on their own.

While these numbers vary across age groups, any ratio must still adhere to the Four Eyes Principles. This rule compels childcare facilities to not let any carer interact with children without supervision. This principle can manifest in different ways, most importantly by having more than one carer in the room. Glass walls, CCTV or listening devices could be used if it is not possible for there to be two carers present at all times.

While these rules were a well-intentioned (and, one could argue, necessary) response to the Robert M. scandal, they have inevitably created their own problems within the industry. Most importantly, these requirements are now causing a breakdown of the childcare system’s ability to function during staffing crises.

Karen van Gennip, State Secretary of Social Affairs and Employment, has expressed serious concern over the current situation. In a statement she reaffirmed her commitment to the Four Eyes Principle: ‘I do not intend to let this go, as ensuring the safety of children despite the staff tightness, is a priority.’ She also stated that it is up to childcare facilities themselves to guarantee the safety of children: ‘If they are in doubt as to whether the safety of children can be guaranteed, they should act sensibly and, in extreme cases, close groups.’

Richard Korver, a lawyer who represented many of the families in the Richard M. case, is more strident in his criticism, describing the situation as ‘dangerous’. He blamed what he termed ‘poor prioritisation’ and that ‘research shows that the risk of abuse and maltreatment of children increases if supervision is not in order. So, this is a bad idea. As a result, childcare organisations run an increased risk.’ He claimed that the risk of child abuse is high and the only safe response to staff shortages is to take in fewer children at childcare centres. He added that potential abusers have ‘a serious abnormality and will do anything to make their move in places with children’.

While Secretary Van Gennip agreed with Korver’s concerns around child safety, there was no ‘simple solution’ to the problem. Indeed, many other sectors are facing similar staffing issues. Two proposals thus far are to campaign for people in similar fields to retrain as childcare assistants and reduce the amount of training hours it takes before a new recruit is allowed to interact with children.

Ultimately, the staffing shortages in the childcare sector form part of a wider social unrest in the labour market that is affecting the Netherlands and most countries in Europe. Until there is a significant reconfiguration of pay and conditions across all sectors of society, crises such as these may become a permanent feature of European life.

Written by James Turrell