Reader query on family-friendly conferences

A reader writes:

I wanted to report something that I believe has cropped up in attempts to be at least somewhat helpful to people who need childcare in order to attend conferences.

As part of a conference I’m currently co-organising [at Scottish university], I asked the university admin person in charge of the registration site to include a part where people could report that they would possibly need childcare and express an interest in our helping them to find some. We made no promises about what we could provide but were intending to use university and local contacts in order to try and find suggestions and recommendations, thus saving would be attendees from blindly googling. Despite the university administrator initially being happy with this they then unilaterally removed this question, saying that we shouldn’t get involved in organising this. At the time I thought that this was just officiousness. Then someone else organising a conference (elsewhere) mentioned that they were not even allowed to recommend or point people in the direction of local childcare, on the grounds that this would make the university liable in case something went wrong.

There seem to be at least these two possibilities (I’ll leave aside the possibility that this is a convenient myth intended to reduce the workload for conference organisers):

(a) the university would be liable in such an event
(b) universities sincerely but falsely believe that they would be liable

Knowing which of (a) and (b) is true makes a big difference to how this obstacle to making conferences more family-friendly can be tackled. Sadly, I have literally zero expertise in this area but I thought it would be good if someone who does could advise whether, and when, universities would be liable in the event of something happening to a child in childcare that had *in some way* been suggested/recommended by the conference organiser.

I’m pleased to report that at my own UK university, the conference people will be including on their form for conference organisers a query about whether they’d like a “mobile creche”. If organisers want it, the university nursery will (for a fee) provide onsite childcare to all conferences held at our university. So I know that it is possible in the UK to do this. However, this is England, so there may be different laws. And of course universities my take different views of the law. Anyone else have information/anecdotes to offer?

5 thoughts on “Reader query on family-friendly conferences

  1. If you provide driving directions to your event, and someone has a crash on the way, is the university liable, since you told them which route to take? If you suggest a local restaurant for dinner, and someone gets food poisoning, is the university liable, since you suggested the restaurant? If you suggest a hotel for participants to stay at, and it burns down during the conference, is the university liable, sine you suggested the accommodation? Of course not.

    In the US, conferences for other fields routinely have childcare options available (I was just at a vision sciences conference which had childcare options listed on its website) and hotels and resorts routinely recommend local childcare providers to guests.

    I think claims that the university might be liable are (at best!) confused, since conference organizers suggest all sorts of resources, and childcare is no different than anything else in this regard. And given that hotels, etc. suggest childcare providers (and these businesses tend to be risk-averse), that also suggests that liability fears are unfounded.

  2. And even if it is somehow an issue, can’t that issue be solved by a simple disclaimer along the lines of “we are listing local childcare options for your convenience but we have no responsibility for them”? (I’m sure a lawyer can phrase it better but it doens’t seem that complicated.)

  3. The APA has refused to provide childcare or childcare resources for years due to liability issues. Though hotels will often provide information. We even have had resistance on the SWIP list organizing co-op childcare between members because some people were anxious about liability. (!) In many cities in the US, however, there is an organization like Parents in a Pinch: that provides childcare “in a pinch”. We used it when traveling to MIT before we were employed here. MIT actually has a contract with the company to offer emergency childcare/eldercare for sick family members so faculty can get into their labs/teaching. You still have to pay, but MIT pays the registration fee and there is some other aspect of the deal I can’t recall.

  4. I wonder whether the APA’s resistance is based on legal advice they received, or whether it is simply something they are afraid about. Since other conferences in other fields offer child care options, this is puzzling. It’s also worth noting the difference between a conference that actually provides the childcare itself as opposed to a conference that assists parents in finding child care providers that the parents can enter into a contract with.

  5. I strongly suspect that so long as UK conference organisers only provide/recommend/make arrangements with licensed childminders/nurseries, there wouldn’t be a liability issue.

    Admittedly, this is a view from the armchair. But doesn’t liability have to do with risk assessment, and one can show that one has taken due steps to mitigate possible risks by using licensed folks?

    (Amazing how many things one can work out a priori from first principles :P

    Presumably, someone with actual empirical knowledge will be along shortly.)

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