Au pair debate: Are cut-price foreign nannies damaging children?

Drunk on the school run, dragging toddlers by the hair and never off the phone. Are cut-price au pairs damaging children

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UPDATED:

08:37 GMT, 28 March 2012

The screams at the other end of the phone line were unmistakably coming from Mars Webb’s children.

Just half an hour earlier, the mother-of-three had left them playing happily in the care of their au pair, Julia, as she headed out for a business meeting.

Panicked at what might be happening, Mars rang a neighbour and asked her to investigate.

Ignored: Some au pairs are too busy on the phone to give their little charges much attention

Ignored: Some au pairs are too busy on the phone to give their little charges much attention

‘She walked into our home and found my children locked in a room, crying,’ recalls Mars.

‘They were aged seven, four and two at the time, and the au pair claimed they’d been so naughty that she’d had to punish them by shutting them in a bedroom and bolting the door.

‘The call that had come through on my mobile was from my eldest daughter, Tess, trying to alert me after Julia had pulled her down the stairs by her hair and smacked her face.

‘Thankfully, my neighbour stayed with the children until I got home. I sacked Julia on the spot and called the police, but by the time they arrived she’d packed her things and disappeared.’

Abuse: There have been distressing reports of children being pulled down the stairs by their hair and smacked by foreign nannies

Abuse: There have been distressing reports of children being pulled down the stairs by their hair and smacked by foreign nannies

Mars is one of a growing band of working mothers in Britain who rely on au pairs to provide affordable and flexible childcare.

While there are 12,000 au pairs working officially in the UK — 20 per cent more than three years ago — it is believed that the real number is in excess of 100,000, according to the British Au Pair Agencies Association (BAPAA).

Around 80 per cent are understood to be from Eastern Europe and many are employed through agencies not registered with BAPAA, or recruited from websites such as Gumtree.

Au pairs used to be the preserve of the wealthy, but today they are the childcare option of choice for more and more middle-class families, where both parents simply have to work to make ends meet.

But what many do not realise is that these young women rarely have the training — or patience — required to look after young children.

The result Children can experience severe developmental delays, or, even worse, end up physically hurt.

Mars, 44, who, together with her husband, Patrick, 45, runs a chocolatier company, had hired Julia, a twentysomething Polish girl, through an agency seven years ago. She had worked for the family for just three weeks before the incident.

Tess, now 14, Tom, 11, and Poppy, eight, still refer to her as ‘the scary au pair’. Despite the scare, Mars and Patrick have, over the years, welcomed ten au pairs — most from Eastern Europe — into their home.

But since Julia, Mars has personally vetted each applicant by speaking to their former employers, rather than relying on agencies to do so.

While a trained British nanny may be preferable, a full-time, live-in nanny can cost up to 600 per week, compared with the 70 weekly allowance paid to most au pairs.

Unofficial: It is believed that many au pairs in Britain are employed through unregistered agencies or via Gumtree

Unofficial: It is believed that many au pairs in Britain are employed through unregistered agencies or via Gumtree

Mars, like many middle-income parents, admits she couldn’t afford the more expensive option.

Sarah Isaacs, co-director of Au Pairs Direct in Cheshire, says there are many more parents in a similar situation. ‘Some will say: “I have a three-month-old baby and want to go back to work. Can I have an au pair please” ’ she says.

‘But I explain the rules: it is illegal to supply an au pair to take care of a child under the age of two.

‘Au pairs provide an extra pair of hands around the house — they are not substitute nannies. And nor should they be stuck in a house five days a week babysitting because the family don’t want to pay nursery fees.’

'As the recession deepens, au pairs are
increasingly being left in sole charge of pre-schoolers, while parents
put in long hours, desperate to hold onto their jobs'

Nannies usually have childcare qualifications and are able to be left in sole charge of young children.

/03/28/article-2121373-0047DB9F000004B0-934_468x305.jpg” width=”468″ height=”305″ alt=”Unprepared: Many parents don't realise that au pairs rarely have the training or patience to look after young children” class=”blkBorder” />

Unprepared: Many parents don't realise that au pairs rarely have the training or patience to look after young children

Two-and-a-half years ago, Mars and Patrick became so uneasy about their childcare arrangements that they sold their five-bedroom South London home and moved to Northern Ireland.

Without a hefty mortgage to repay, Patrick now works during school hours and is able to devote more time to taking care of their children.

‘We found out the hard way that you cannot pay other people to care for your children,’ says Mars.

Child psychologist and author Oliver James believes many parents fail to recognise the extent to which a care-giver influences their offspring.

‘You’ll find two Oxbridge-educated parents, both high-achievers working very long hours, who are surprised when their children turn out to have behavioural or emotional problems,’ says James.

‘They think they have passed on intrinsically superior genes, when really that’s only a small part of it.

‘Whoever cares for your children in the first six years sets the emotional thermostat, dictating whether they are mentally healthy, clever, sparky, creative individuals.

'If you leave your child with an au pair
who spends a lot of time on her mobile phone, or on the internet trying
to contact people back home because she’s homesick, she is not meeting
your child’s emotional needs and that will impact on their development'

‘So if you leave your child with an au pair who spends a lot of time on her mobile phone, or on the internet trying to contact people back home because she’s homesick, she is not meeting your child’s emotional needs and that will impact on their development.

‘The person looking after the child doesn’t need to be qualified, just able to give as much one-to-one attention to that child as possible.’

Until recently, Suzanne Baum hired au pairs to take care of her sons Zack, 11, Leo, ten, and Jake, two, while she worked from home as a writer. But she fears her older boys suffered as a result.

‘My eldest boy didn’t speak until he was two and bottom-shuffled instead of crawling,’ recalls Suzanne. ‘I took him to a paediatrician because I was worried he was a late developer.

‘Looking back, I think the problem was that our au pair at the time, a Polish girl called Anna, would plonk him in front of the TV and put a dummy in his mouth whenever he cried, something that we allowed only at sleep times.

‘She would then chatter away in Polish to friends on her mobile phone. I didn’t think it would matter that her English was poor because the children were so little they were only just learning to speak, but I was mistaken.

‘She didn’t seem to understand the instructions I gave her, for instance to take the boys out into the garden and limit their daytime naps.

‘She would let them sleep for four hours in the day and then they’d be awake half the night.’

Neglected: Children require love and care in order to nurture their emotional needs

Neglected: Children require love and care in order to nurture their emotional needs

The most distressing memory of all for Suzanne, 38, is of the time Zack returned to their home in North-West London after a trip to the park, claiming Anna had smacked him.

‘I took no notice at first, never imagining that she would do that, but later when I was bathing him I saw a red handprint on his bottom,’ says Suzanne.

‘I waited until my husband came home from work to confront her. ‘She denied hitting Zack, but I’d seen the evidence so I told her to pack her bags and leave.’

In common with many working mothers, Suzanne, who had found Anna through the Gumtree website, feels guilty that her childcare arrangements for her older sons were less than ideal.

But because her husband, Lewis, 38, was only just starting out in his legal career, money was tight and nursery and nanny fees were beyond their means.

Hoping to avoid the same pitfalls with her youngest son, she now sends Jake to nursery in the mornings and relies on a more costly mother’s help — someone who doesn’t have childcare qualifications, but is usually older and has more experience with children — during after-school hours.

Gordon Milson, clinical psychologist at Applied Psychology Services in Manchester, says parents need to get good references and ensure their au pair is able to meet all their children’s needs before leaving them in sole charge.

‘We have a long tradition of au pairs coming to Britain from other countries and in most instances the experience is positive,’ says Milson.

‘As in all walks of life there will be a few bad ones, but that certainly shouldn’t mean we tar all au pairs with the same brush.

‘A key question when employing someone to care for your children, is: “How will you discipline them when things get tough” And you need to be satisfied with their response.’

Laura Witjens hired an English nanny for the first two years after her twins, Tessa and Sam, were born, and they spent the next two years attending a private nursery.

It was only when they started school, aged four, that the family began to employ au pairs.

Over the seven years that followed, Laura welcomed nine au pairs into her Surrey home.

‘I ended up being a replacement mum to most of them, dealing with hormonal teenagers who missed their parents and boyfriends and were inconsolable when they couldn’t get Skype to work,’ recalls Laura, who is chair of the National Gamete Donation Trust.

‘Their duties included serving breakfast, taking the children to and from school and helping with dinner and homework supervision in the evenings.

‘I was a very hands-on mum because I mostly worked from home, but I needed a bit of help.’

The arrangement worked well until two years ago, when a 19-year-old German au pair, Kerstin, who Laura, 47, had recruited through an agency, turned up on the doorstep of the family’s five-bedroom detached home.

‘She had a face full of piercings, which she hadn’t had in the photograph the agency had sent me, and they terrified my son when he saw her,’ says Laura.

‘She agreed to take them out, but within a couple of days she started to put them back in.

When I said anything vaguely critical to Kerstin she became very grumpy, and it was clear she had no idea what was expected of her, so I complained to the agency.

‘Then she started going out drinking and coming home in the early hours.

'She started going out drinking and coming home in the early hours. One night she didn’t come back at all,
meaning I had to take my children to school because I couldn’t risk her
driving while still drunk'

‘One night she didn’t come back at all, meaning I had to take my children to school because I couldn’t risk her driving while still drunk.

‘But the final straw came after just three weeks when Kerstin arrived home drunk at 5am, on a school day.

‘A couple of hours later, after hearing noises from her room, I went in to find her having sex with a girlfriend, while my children slept a few doors down the corridor.’

Laura called the agency and sacked Kerstin, but was too concerned for the safety of the teenager to throw her out before she’d found somewhere else to stay.

Laura and her husband ensured that there was always someone at home over the two weeks that followed, worried that Kerstin might take revenge by stealing from them or damaging their property.

‘I’m open-minded, but she really took the mickey,’ says Laura.

‘After she’d gone, my children admitted how much they had hated having her here.

‘I never felt that they were at risk from her because I was at home most of the time, but I shudder to think what might have happened if I hadn’t been.’

Put off by the experience, Laura managed for a year without an au pair until her children, now 13, went to boarding school last September.

So what can hard-pressed parents learn from these cautionary tales

Psychologist Gordon Milson reminds them that their number one priority must be their children’s safety and well-being.

‘These are very difficult times financially for people in most income brackets,’ says Milson. ‘But childcare should be the very last area in which we cut costs.

‘We need to feel confident that the people taking care of our children are up to the job.’

n some names have been changed.