Georgina Ablett said she started taking her twins, Grace and Alexander, to occasional child care to give herself an opportunity to improve her mental health. The mother, from Chelsea south of Melbourne, suffered post-natal depression after the twins were born.

Ablett says she was attracted to a community child care centre near her home because she knew the staff would take care of her own mental health, and because of the flexibility occasional care provided.

“Grace also has cerebral palsy, so I also have to run around to a lot of appointments for her,” she said. “So it is good to have the flexibility too, if I want to leave [Alexander] here to take her to an appointment.”

The non-profit centre was slated to close at the end of the year after a withdrawal of Commonwealth and state funding for occasional child care. Ablett, who paid $30 for five hours’ care for both twins, is unsure what she will do once it does eventually close.

“At the moment I’ve been looking to go back to work,” she said, “so I certainly won’t be doing that if I can’t get them into a long day care that I can afford, which doesn’t look possible, because it will be over $200 a day.”

Ablett’s children’s centre — and hundreds of others like it around Australia — were jointly funded by the federal and state governments until mid-2010. In the 2010-2011 federal budget, all funding to neighbourhood-based occasional child care was cut, for a saving of $12.6 million over four years.

In most cases the relevant state government picked up the federal government’s previous share — in some cases temporarily. In Victoria, all funding is due to cease at the end of July.

The federal budget papers stated neighbourhood-based occasional child care was “not subject to quality controls, standards or learning outcomes”.

In the same budget, more than $210 million was provided to nationalise quality regulation of early childhood education and care, including the creation of the MyChild website — similar to the MySchool portal — which publicly rated childcare centres.

Minister for Workforce Participation and Child Care, Kate Ellis, told Crikey it was agreed by federal, state and territory governments that the national quality framework would initially only apply to certain types of child care services — not including occasional care — but that this may be reconsidered in the future.

The move followed several reports by the National Childcare Accreditation Council which found health and safety failings in the long day care sector. A 2007 review of occasional child care, conducted for the previous federal government found occasional child care was “highly effective in ‘filling the gaps’ in child care provision”.

Barbara Romeril of Australian Community Child Care Services told Crikey she was concerned about the decision to withdraw occasional child care funding.

“Ultimately occasional care will be included [in the national quality framework] so it does seem cruel to be withdrawing the funding simply because it’s taking time to design a quality system that will make sense for occasional care,” she said. “And certainly in Victoria occasional care has been regulated for a very long time, so there are some standards set, so it didn’t really make sense in the Victorian context to be using that as the justification.”

Earlier this year, Victorian Premier Ted Bailleu’s request for Commonwealth funding for occasional childcare to be reinstated went unfulfilled.

Ellis says the federal government’s early childhood reform agenda has “seen a rebalancing of the shared responsibilities between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments”. She points to other areas where state and territory governments are receiving additional Commonwealth funding, such as more than $210 million for kindergartens over the next five years.

“I hope that the Victorian government follows the lead of other states and commits to ongoing funding for neighbourhood model occasional care,” the minister said.

But this seems unlikely after Bailleu last month said occasional child care had only received a temporary funding top-up: “We have made a judgement about this program, and indeed the federal government has made a judgement about the program.”

Romeril says occasional child care has an important function in many communities, especially in rural areas with small populations where it is difficult to sustain long day care centres. “Communities need well-funded child care of various types, and this bunfight between Commonwealth and state over who’s going to pay for it is really unhelpful,” she said.

A month before the 2010-2011 budget, the federal government announced that the plan to create 260 new community child care centres would cease, leaving only 38 built. The decision was based on the desire not to inject additional competition into the sector after the collapse of ABC Learning Centres, a statement from Ellis said at the time. The Commonwealth also provided a $15 million loan to a coalition of non-profit organisations to purchase almost 700 ABC Learning Centres.

Romeril says the decision was appropriate, but that circumstances have now changed: “That was sorted out and there’s really no excuse now — the Commonwealth should be reinstituting that commitment to build the 260 centres.”

As for Ablett, she says she’s continuing to look for other affordable child care.

Asked about the quality of care her children received, she said: “My gauge is really my own kids, and whether or not they want to come, and whether or not they’re happy when they get here. Even if they have their two minutes of crying, they’re fine two minutes later.”

Peter Fray

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