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Time-out and other punishments to be banned in Australian childcare

From: The Australian

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 governments.

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.

Attachment Parenting Research