In brief - All organisations that transport children or vulnerable people should be aware of the risks involved and implement stringent processes and procedures to manage those risks
All too often we see toddlers being left on buses by childcare providers, sometimes with tragically fatal consequences. As recently as February 2020, a child lost his life after being left on a childcare bus.
It might be tempting to think that such risks only occur in childcare settings. This is not the case. The lessons from recent events should be understood by any organisation which transports children or vulnerable people.
Goodstart Early Learning incident in 2020
On 18 February 2020, a three-year-old boy was not removed from a bus following the arrival at a childcare centre in Edmonton, Queensland. He subsequently died.
Centre Director, Michael Lewis, was driving the bus on the day of the incident and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment with a non-parole period of 18 months.
Former childcare worker, Dionne Grills, was found not guilty of the manslaughter of Maliq Maok-Malamoo. It was found that she did not have a duty of care.
Goodstart Early Learning also pleaded guilty to charges following the death of the child and was fined $71,000.
Do we need childcare buses?
Banning childcare buses is one way to manage the risk, but the Australian Childcare Alliance, Queensland, is calling for families not to abandon bus services and for such services to remain in place.
For many toddlers childcare is a valuable introduction to education. In instances where their parents are unable to transport them, bus services provide a vital link to early education.
Laws have been changed in Queensland requiring centres to have written procedures in place for transporting children. The change has been supported by a 'Look before you Lock' campaign, which the government claims has greatly reduced the number of children left on buses.
Such changes, however, were not sufficient to prevent the most recent incident.
Le Smileys Early Learning Centre incident in May 2022
On 4 May 2022, there was the failure to remove three-year-old Nevaeh from a bus following the pick-up and drop-off to a childcare centre in Gracemere, Queensland.
Nevaeh was reported to have arrived at the centre at 9am on the morning of the incident, and was only discovered at approximately 3pm that afternoon, still secured in her seat, and unresponsive. Thankfully she survived. However, the community and family are left asking the reasonable question "how could this happen again?".
Identifying and managing transport risks to children and other vulnerable people
While state governments have introduced measures to address the risk, it is our view that such requirements have long been in place through the operation of child protection and WHS laws and regulations.
Those laws require risks to children to be identified and managed.
Where the risk of leaving a child in a bus is apparent (as has happened twice in recent years in Queensland alone) centres should at least have in place:
Written policies for ensuring the safety of children on childcare buses.
Regular training for staff who drive the buses and who receive children at centres from buses. At the same time, confirmation should be sought from families that children have arrived home safe and well.
A double check mechanism for checking children on and off buses. Children who are being picked up to attend childcare should be checked onto the bus and signed into the centre. That is the first check.
Before the bus is locked and keys returned, the bus should be double checked, including each seat and under each seat. The check should be monitored to ensure that it is done and should be double signed to ensure that it has been done correctly before keys are returned at the commencement and at the end of the day. That check should be done by the bus driver and by someone else to ensure a double check.
Child check alarms can be fitted to buses. If the alarm is not deactivated after a trip, it will sound, prompting the bus to be checked.
Separate recording of absences to ensure that such records are correct and that all children are accounted for.
Disciplinary procedures for failures to follow checking processes. Where a driver or carer fails to follow a bus check process, they should face disciplinary action. If they do not embrace a safety mindset, then they may not be the right person for the job.
Organisations should also be aware of the risk of errors occurring when a new child is added to a pick up roster, where a child is unexpectedly added to a roster or where someone becomes complacent about processes.
For this reason, additional checks are required for each child, each day.
Child safety is paramount and risks must be managed
Such processes should be applied to schools, after school and vacation services, disability support services or any organisation which transports children or vulnerable people for any reason.
Such processes and mechanisms increase work. However, when the risk is understood - both to the child (of being left on a bus) and to the worker (of jail, reputational damage and the risk of having a child injured), the cost can't be considered unreasonable from a child safety perspective.
This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2023.