Parents more likely than childcare workers to neglect children


COMMENT:The story of an Irish nanny charged with assault in the US plays on parents’ fears, writes our family columnist

News of serious injury of any kind to a child while in the care of a nanny, whatever the circumstances, sends a particular chill down every parent’s spine – and working parents especially so.

It resonates with suppressed anxiety and guilt about handing our children over to someone else to mind. If any harm, accidental or otherwise, were to befall them while we weren’t there, we would always think it would have been different if they had been in our care.

Reports this week that an Irish nanny has been charged in Boston with injuring a year-old child, who later died, come less than three months after a mother walked into her New York apartment to find two of her children dead in a bath, and their nanny seriously injured after an alleged suicide attempt.

Aisling McCarthy Brady, who is 34 and from Co Cavan, has denied any involvement with the death of baby Rehma Sabir. In New York, Yoselyn Ortega, a 50-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, has pleaded not guilty to the charge of murdering Lucia and Leo Krim, who were six and two, last October.

Cases such as these recall memories of the British au pair Louise Woodward, at age 19, standing in a US court in 1997 charged with the murder of eight-month-old Matthew Eappen while he was in her care at his home in Newton, Massachusetts.

Her conviction for murder and her 15-year sentence were reduced on appeal to conviction for involuntary manslaughter and a sentence of 279 days in jail – the time she had already been in prison, so she was released immediately.

The media coverage of such incidents reflects the depth of feeling they evoke. Parents want to know what happened, to reassure themselves it could not happen to them and their children. Either the circumstances are not comparable, or they would not have made the same decisions in a similar situation.

If a nanny’s involved, well that’s why they use a creche. If it’s an incident at a creche, well that’s why they go to the expense of hiring a nanny. And the grieving parents are judged from afar to see if they have brought the tragedy on themselves.

But cases of children being seriously injured or killed while in childcare are very rare. Children are more likely to be harmed while with their parents than by somebody outside the family.

US figures show that it is most often a child’s own parents who are responsible for abuse and neglect. A study found that 79.4 per cent of child abusers were the parents; the next most likely offenders were unmarried partners of the parents. Forty per cent of child victims were abused by their mothers acting alone; 17.3 per cent were abused by both parents.

But, because we believe we can vouch for ourselves as loving parents, fear of the unknown trumps all. Few mothers (with no apologies for the gender distinction) will forget the first day they left their baby in childcare, be it with a nanny or a childminder or in a creche. Separation anxiety works both ways.

While the battle for the right of mothers to work has been fought and largely won, the war still rages in the hearts and minds of women. We agonise over the right thing to do, weighing up the trade-offs of being an employed or a stay-at-home mother. Many choose a bit of both, in which case the worry is we do neither properly.

Undoubtedly more men are discovering, through choice or necessity, the joys as well as the hard graft of being stay-at-home fathers. But nobody does guilt like a mother. And the price of a career is entrusting a beloved child to someone else.

Sheila Wayman’s column appears in the Health + Family supplement on Tuesdays

Rocking the cradle Finding the right nanny

The 1992 box office hit The Hand That Rocks the Cradle played on parental anxiety about a trusted nanny turning out to be not what she seems. So what precautions should you take when hiring somebody to come into your home to mind your children?

Susan Dunn, the owner of the Belgrave Agency in Dún Laoghaire, is a former nanny, has used one as a mother and has 17 years’ experience of placing childcare workers with families.

Here is her advice on what to look for:

  • Childcare qualifications: Get a copy of the certificate. Check where the course was done and whether it was full-time.
  • Completion of a paediatric first-aid course, so that the nanny has up-to-date knowledge. First-aid certs are valid for only two years, and need to be refreshed.
  • Written reference from a previous employer, with name, address and landline. Don’t just take a name and mobile number and not know who you are phoning.
  • Photo ID: Driving licence or passport.
  • An up-to-date CV, from the time they left school, making sure there are no gaps.

Bear in mind that Garda vetting can be sought only by an organisation registered with the Garda central vetting unit, not by an individual.

Even when Dunn has completed all the reference checks on behalf of a client and is happy, she always suggests parents speak to a previous employer. After that, “you have to go on your gut instinct,” she says, stressing that there are “so many lovely, lovely” women in childcare.

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