Ulster parents with children who have special needs are struggling to access proper daycare services, new research out today has said.
The report, commissioned by childminding organisation NICMA, found that parents of children with both physical and learning disabilities are struggling to obtain daycare services which could provide them with badly-needed respite care and enable them to go out to work.
Co-author Teresa Geraghty, of the National Children's Bureau Northern Ireland, said there was a pressing need for more resources and a more flexible and co-ordinated approach by all agencies responsible for daycare.
She said: "There is a real mismatch between the needs of disabled children and their parents, and the services which are currently available to them.
"Childminding, in particular, has enormous potential as a flexible and individually tailored daycare service which can provide much-needed respite care for parents, and also, in many instances, enable parents to enter employment.
"Those childminders who already offer special needs childminding services are performing an invaluable role - but there are not nearly enough of them."
The report suggests that 20% of NICMA's members are, in principle, prepared to care for children with special needs, but the reality is far fewer are willing to take on the responsibility.
NICMA's director, Bridget Nodder, called for services to be expanded and improved.
"We know that many parents are unable to find a childminder who is prepared to take on a child with special needs.
"This is partly due to a lack of confidence on the part of many childminders in their ability to care adequately for children with special needs, and partly due to a lack of resources to enable us to offer training on a sufficiently wide basis.
"That's why we will be establishing a taskforce, with representatives from all the relevant government and non-governmental agencies, which will seek to address effectively the important issues raised in this report."
Portadown childminder, Karen Black, who looks after a seven-year-old with Down's Syndrome who is also partially sighted, said her work was rewarding.
"I would really encourage any other childminders who are thinking about taking on children with special needs to go for it," she said.
The research report has been welcomed by the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley.
She said: "It is clear from this report that far too many parents cannot find appropriate child-minding services for their special needs children.
"I hope that the actions of NICMA - and the voices of families struggling in difficult circumstances - are a spur to urgent action."