It’s a parent’s worst nightmare – and for Rachel* it came true.

Rachel left son Stephan, aged 23 months, at his centre at 8am. The phone call came an hour later – “there’s been an incident and you need to come and drive Stephan to the hospital”. No details. No explanation.

“When I got there they said he had burnt his hand. They didn’t really explain. They had put his hand in cold water.

“But when we started driving to the hospital then I realised how much pain he was in. It was terrible for him. He was crying and crying.”

In fact, Stephan had a second degree burn. He was in hospital for the day, and then closely monitored for 10 days because of the high risk of infection. Six months later the wound is still evident.

More stress

Rachel, who migrated from France to Auckland seven years ago, and Italian husband Giorgio haven’t been able to find out exactly how the accident happened.

Giorgio was told Stephan had put his hand in a bowl of boiling water. But the burn was on the top of his hand and on two fingers. He wonders whether another child did it.

Rachel discovered Stephan was with an unqualified staff member, who was preparing clay, in the over three’s room when the accident happened, but details are unclear.

Both parents work full-time, and with no family support and limited leave, they thought Stephan would have to go back to the centre.

“I asked for assurances they would be a part of his recovery,” says Rachel. “Monitoring the wound. He couldn’t get wet or anything like that. I wanted him to be in the babies’ room, in the under twos. But they gave no assurances.”

Luckily they were able to find another centre with a vacancy and moved Stephan immediately.

Ministry complaint

Then Giorgio made a complaint to the Ministry of Education. He says the report came back giving the centre the all clear, and stating staff were aware of health and safety requirements. There was no breach of the legislation, the centre had been visited, and the “teacher” had been given an informal warning.

“I was shocked,” says Giorgio. “I work in event management and if anything like this had happened there, I know, all hell would break loose.”

He rang the ministry. “This is what she told me – she told me, ‘the rules are there but the only thing we can do is suspend the licence. And for that the kid needs to die, pretty much, or be very close to it.”

On the phone and months later, Giorgio still sounds astounded. “We need to protect our kids better than this.”

An ERO report published earlier this year found that only 43 percent of services met current health and safety requirements.

* Names have been changed