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Getting Paranoid Over Au Pairs

News: Analysis & Commentary: CHILD CARE


The nanny trial shows up the pitfalls of the program

Shortly after British au pair Louise Woodward was convicted on Oct. 30 of killing the 8-month-old baby in her care, Rachel Underhill, an English au pair happily ensconced with a Bedford (N.Y.) family got an urgent call from her mother. With England in an uproar over Woodward's conviction, parents of au pairs working in America were calling "to bring the kids back home," Underhill says. "My Mum was terrified."

The Woodward case has terrorized both parents of au pairs and parents who use them. Suddenly, the au pair business, a $50 million niche in the vast U.S. child-care industry, is a tabloid tale--a saga of unspeakable horror.

NEXT CRISIS. "There will be a falloff" in demand for at least a while, says William Gustafson, President of Eurapair Intercultural Child Care Programs, an au pair agency in Laguna Beach, Calif. In Britain, the most important source for au pairs, applications are off. "Ours are down about 60%," says Paul Christianson, director of New York-based InterExchange Inc. "At some of the bigger agencies, they're off by up to 75%."

The industry is already bracing for its next crisis: On January 5, Au Pair in America, the nation's largest agency, will go on trial in the same Cambridge courtroom in which Woodward was tried. It's being sued for breach of warranty and negligence in screening and supervising Stefan Kahl, a German au pair who was deported in 1993 after pleading guilty to indecent assault and battery on the 7-year-old boy in his care. In a 1993 interview with police, Kahl admitted that he had had repeated sexual contact with the boy.

"We have successfully brought thousands of au pairs to the U.S.," says Au Pair in America spokeswoman Nancy Sterling, "and we expect [the agency] will be found not responsible when the jury hears the facts."

The irony is that the au pair system is one of the most highly regulated forms of child care in the U.S. On Sept. 1, as the Woodward trial neared, the U.S. Information Agency which sets the rules and monitors eight authorized au pair agencies, issued a set of stricter requirements. Now, au pairs must have 8 hours of child-safety instruction, and those caring for children under 2 must have at least 200 hours of documented child-care experience. Many child-care experts support the au pair concept. "This is one of the better programs" for child care, says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families & Work Institute.

Despite the horrific headlines, the au pair program is not particularly dangerous. Since 1986, nearly 60,000 au pairs have come to the U.S. In that time, three children are known to have died while under the care of an au pair, according to the USIA. Over the same period, more than 10,000 U.S. children have died from abuse, notes Christianson of InterExchange.

The U.S. au pair industry grew quietly but steadily from 200 au pairs in 1986 to 12,000 a year now. Most are European women who want a year in the U.S. "It's something I always wanted to do," says Underhill. Meanwhile, many American families see au pairs as affordable child care. Families pay about $12,000 a year--a fee of about $4,000 to the agency and $139.05 per week to the au pair--plus room and board--for up to 45 hours a week of work. That compares with $400 a week or more for a full-time nanny.

There have been perennial problems, however. The agencies concede that au pairs often get matched with the wrong families. "You probably have problems in 20% to 25% of the cases," admits Mike Bray, director of Au Pair Programme USA.

Usually, the au pair is placed with another family and that's that. But sometimes the problem is more serious. Kathleen Pierz, a Michigan marketing consultant who has used au pairs since 1989, recalls an 18-year-old Spanish woman who confided that she "hated children" shortly after her arrival. Among her many shortcomings, says Pierz, was her reluctance to change the baby's diaper. Pierz adds that at one point, "Public health authorities called to inform us she was spreading a sexually transmitted disease."

Inadequate screening is the central issue in the suit against Au Pair in America. Although the agency advertised that its au pairs were "fully screened," the suit alleges that the German screeners were paid only if an applicant was accepted. The suit charges that only "a single reference, of the applicant's choosing," was checked. Even more troubling, the suit alleges Au Pair in America failed to screen for pedophilia. An attorney for the company says it would be "inappropriate to comment on the case" but says that "our position is that the company has done nothing wrong."

One solution, say critics, is for Americans to stop using au pairs as cheap nannies. In Europe, an au pair is a "mother's helper"--expected to work just 25 to 30 hours a week doing light domestic tasks and some babysitting. But in America, land of the two-career family, such reforms may be little more than wishful thinking.By William C. Symonds in Boston, with Michael France in New York and Heidi Dawley in LondonReturn to top

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