More than two years ago, the sudden, unexplained death of their 16-month-old daughter, Arianna, left Jozef Maragol and Anet Eyvazians shattered and searching for answers.
- A date for a coronial inquest into Arianna’s death has been set
- The NSW Department of Education has laid charges against Berry Patch Preschool and owner Helen Jacobs following an internal investigation
- But Arianna’s parents say serious questions still remain about the department’s actions to date and the continuing safety of its policies
No-one from the childcare centre in Sydney’s west where Arianna had spent that day, the Berry Patch Preschool at Kellyville Ridge, called or contacted them to explain what occurred — and still haven’t. An autopsy was inconclusive.
Now, in a case with potentially far-reaching consequences for the childcare sector, the NSW coroner has set a provisional date next year for an investigation into Arianna’s death as well as that of another baby who died in similar circumstances.
In addition, as revealed by 7.30, a damning investigation by the Department of Education has led to 10 charges being laid against the Berry Patch Preschool and six against its owner, Helen Jacobs.
The charges for breaches of the Education and Care Services National Law and Regulations include failing to adequately supervise Arianna, and failing to protect her from harm.
But the family told the ABC questions remained about why their daughter’s death had taken so long to investigate, why Berry Patch’s rating was improved from “meeting” to “exceeding” standards after the death of a child in its care, whether sleep policies were sufficiently clear and consistent, and whether the ongoing monitoring of the standards of the sector was rigorous and effective.
Report sheds light on unexplained hours
As first reported by 7.30, Mr Maragol dropped Arianna off at the childcare centre shortly after 7:00am on August 24, 2018.
She was put to bed just after 9:00am and — although she had never previously slept for longer than two hours during the day at the centre she had attended since January — she was left to sleep for three hours.
At 12:06pm she was found to be unresponsive.
Shortly afterwards, she was taken to the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, where she was pronounced dead at 1:21pm.
The findings of the internal investigation the Department of Education completed in May this year — a copy of which was obtained by the ABC — were damning.
It found that after she was put in her cot, Arianna was left to sleep for three hours without being physically checked at any stage.
According to CCTV footage of the cot room, Arianna’s last movements were at 10:17am — almost two hours before staff found her unresponsive.
The report found that from 10:13am, the face of the little girl — who was lying on her stomach — was in the bedding, and she appeared to be struggling. Four minutes later, she stopped moving.
The investigators wrote: “A cot check at this point may have resulted in early intervention.”
At 10:50am, Ms Eyvazians had called the preschool to check on her daughter — as she often did — and staff told her she was fine.
The Berry Patch sleep policy required staff to conduct and record checks on sleeping infants every 10 minutes.
However, the policy did not require staff to physically check on the children and the common practice was to look at a black and white CCTV monitor.
Calls for all sleep checks to be physical
In 2017, a year before Arianna’s death, the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) revised its national standards following an inquest into the death of five-month-old Indianna Hicks who died suddenly and unexpectedly in care on the Sunshine Coast in 2012.
The standards mandated that staff were “always within sight and hearing distance of sleeping and resting children so that they can assess a child’s breathing and the colour of their skin”.
Jane Wiggill is the chief midwife at Australia’s leading authority on safe sleep and safer pregnancy, Red Nose, and is responsible for setting the best practice sleep guidelines that ACECQA relies on.
She told 7.30 the quality of the checks were crucial.
“They need to be close enough to hear and see these children.
“In my opinion, it’s not sufficient to check a baby through a monitor or a viewing window or a doorway.”
Red Nose is calling for the national standards to be changed so they clearly state all sleep checks must be physical.
‘There is a risk of another tragedy occurring’
The NSW Education Department’s internal investigation concludes other children may have been at risk at the Berry Patch Preschool, stating:
On 24 August 2018 enrolled children were unsupervised inside a cot room for periods of 42 to 56 minute intervals.
Cot checks were being conducted by use of CCTV and an audio monitor. Two children in the cot room were not visible on the CCTV and enrolled child Arianna Maragol died following a prolonged period of inadequate supervision.
Evidence indicates similar practice had been occurring at the service for several years.
Berry Patch staff have said they are now physically checking sleeping children every 10 minutes. But the NSW Education Department report flagged that, given there had been no official change to the centre’s policy, children could still be at risk.
“There is a risk educators will revert to using the CCTV for cot checks. There is a risk educators will not enter cot rooms for around one hour and use black and white CCTV monitors (that do not display all the children) to conduct cot checks.”
The report concludes that, given there have been no amendments to the centre’s policy, “there is a risk of another tragedy occurring”.
Despite the fact the Education Department had not yet investigated the incident, and the coronial inquest was possibly pending, in August last year, Berry Patch Kellyville Ridge childcare centre had its ACECQA rating increased from “meeting” expectations to “exceeding” expectations.
Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Learning, Jodie Harrison, said it was unbelievable.
When contacted by 7.30, Berry Patch responded: “We decline to make any comment at this time as the matter is going through court proceedings and we are defending all charges.”
Parents concerned for other children
As the charges against Berry Patch work their way through the courts, Mr Maragol and Ms Eyvazians have been advised by the Crown Solicitor that the coronial inquest has been provisionally listed to begin on June 7, 2021.
Arianna’s case is due be heard in conjunction with that of another child’s, a six-month-old whose death at a daycare centre in Randwick in March last year raised “similar issues”.
Mr Maragol remains concerned other children may be in danger, given the lack of consistency and clarity about the nature of sleep checks and what he believes to be a lack of enforcement of policies.
Ms Harrison says while “the structure of the early learning and care sector is complex and runs across all levels of government”, with one in five providers not even “meeting” the national quality standards, “there needs to be urgent reform”.
Department expresses ‘deepest sympathies’
The NSW education department declined to answer detailed questions while the case was before the courts, but a spokesperson provided the following statement:
We express our deepest sympathies to the Maragol family for the tragic loss of their daughter. The health, safety and wellbeing of children in education and care services is the department’s highest priority.
As the regulator of education and care services within NSW, the Department of Education has commenced proceedings against the service under the National Law and Regulations. We will fully cooperate with the NSW coroner who will conduct an inquest in 2021.
All service providers are required to have sleep and rest policies and procedures informed by best practice. The NSW Regulatory Authority can and does request that services provide their sleep and rest policies and procedures at any time as part of compliance monitoring and assessment and rating.
The NSW Department of Education provides guidance to education and care services around sleep and rest policies and procedures and partnered with Red Nose in 2019 to deliver free sleep and rest training to NSW education and care services. Training resources are available on the department’s website.