big mother’s watching

🕔Sep 07, 2005

A stranger approaching the fenced yard of a daycare in downtown Prince George is challenged first by the barking of a tiny white dog. But Kirby, the resident bichon frise, isn’t the only fixture providing security for a dozen small children playing outside with daycare staff.

The whole scene—the stranger, the white dog, and the kids at play—is also being captured by a webcam surveillance system. And parents logging in from computers at work are keeping a close eye on what’s happening at the Land of Laughter Early Childhood Enrichment Program. Along with nutritious snacks, story circles, and a sand table, the licensed daycare is the first in northern British Columbia to promise parents high-tech video surveillance monitoring.

In the daycare’s basement office, Jennifer Johns nurses her own baby. The Land of Laughter’s co-owner glances up to watch a split-screen TV filled with images beamed in from around the daycare. Embedded in the ceiling of every room is a web camera that looks like a crystal ball. Eight cameras are recording everything. “The security of these kids is my biggest concern,” explains Johns, who opened her doors at the end of January. “Parents know we’re not hiding anything.” And so, the children, at play and at rest, are captured endlessly on tape, from every angle. Parents with a special password can log on to the daycare’s website to watch—or even zoom in on—their kids.

“It’s a real sense of security,” says Krista Day, whose four-year-old son was one of the daycare’s first customers. “You’re putting your child in the hands of strangers. So, to be able to look in on them is a big relief.”

Day and her husband were at a party when they met a man who told them he was installing a surveillance system at a new daycare in town. “I told him—‘My God, you have to find me the phone number!’” says Day. In fact, Day was so impatient to sign on, she sent her mother out trudging through the snow to find the daycare building, a stucco house on a busy residential street. Day says she was impressed by the daycare’s trained staff, which all have Early Childhood Education certification, by the convenient location—and by the web-cam. “I think it’s a great idea,” she says. “If you go on the computer, you can check in on your kid without disturbing their day. It gives me a sense of confidence in the caregivers. They know they’re being watched. And the kids know they’re being watched, too—so it brings out better behaviour. I think it should be mandatory in all daycares.”

On the split screen TV in the daycare office, Johns is now watching images of kids eating fruit loops and drinking juice at colourful tables. They’re surrounded by animal murals that Johns painted on the walls herself, and by alphabet rugs, bright purple clocks, and road safety signs. Johns says parents watching from work get to share more of their children’s day—watching them eat, nap, and play, and even catching a glimpse of developmental milestones. The only area parents can’t observe is the bathroom. Johns says that’s to protect the children’s privacy. But that restriction alarmed at least one parent. “One mother worried that because the staff knew the bathroom wasn’t under surveillance, they’d go in there to hit the kids,” says Johns. “She was worried about abuse.”

Indeed, Johns says her daycare opened amidst “a growing anxiety among parents.” And so, the webcam system stores up to seven years of images on a hard drive, just in case. “It makes us accountable,” she says. “If anything ever happens, if there’s questions, it’s all archived. We can play the tape back. The staff doesn’t object, because it helps them as well…if there are false accusations. So many times, there have been false accusations [in other daycares.] Yes, things happen, but kids also have a great imagination. We’re all properly trained, so it’s extra protection for us.”

That extra protection comes at a price. Johns says the surveillance system cost $5,000—a price she knows many cash-strapped daycares can’t afford. There are now hundreds of webcam daycares across the United States and a handful in Canada. But Land of Laughter is the first one in northern B.C.

“It’s a bit of a unique case,” acknowledges Mark Karjaluoto of the Northern Health Authority, which licensed the childcare centre. So licensing officials in the North checked with their colleagues in other parts of B.C. They soon discovered that video surveillance falls outside of provincial childcare legislation. “This aspect of the daycare is outside of our jurisdiction,” explains Karjaluoto. “But we recommend anyone considering a video system seek a legal opinion about obtaining informed consent and guarding people’s privacy.”

Professor Annie Booth says privacy is an important issue in daycare surveillance. She teaches ethics at the University of Northern British Columbia. Booth says parents are watching not only their own children—but other people’s children as well. “The kids aren’t being asked if they want to be watched by strangers. How do you weigh their right to privacy against the parents’ need to ensure their kids are safe?”

One childcare advocate questions whether video surveillance actually makes kids any safer—or parents any wiser. Martha Friendly co-ordinates the University of Toronto’s Childcare Research and Resource Unit. She’s worked in the field for more than thirty years, and put her two children in daycare. Friendly says it must be tremendously stressful for parents to have “one eye on your work and one eye on the daycare camera. What if the webcam shows your kid is crying? You can’t tell why he’s crying. And you’re stuck at work.”

Friendly believes video surveillance is a threat to quality childcare. “The relationship with your child’s caregiver is so important,” she says. “So the idea that you’d have to leave your child with people that you don’t trust and that you have to spy on is alarming to me. I personally find it revolting. It’s all about the fear factor. Rather than trying to build good, accountable daycares that are in the public view, we’re putting parents in the position of having to monitor everything themselves.”

Back at the Land of Laughter daycare, the kids are getting ready for their afternoon nap. And Johns is ready to defend her webcam daycare. She rejects the notion that she’s playing into parents’ fears. If anything, she says, some parents need to ask more questions and look even more closely at the people who are taking care of their children.