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Spying on the nanny: Parents peek into that secret world

November 19, 1997

The baby was cranky and sleeping poorly. The boy’s mother, who works, had a hunch. So the father left the camcorder running all day _ and confirmed their worst fears on videotape.

``The nanny was yelling at the baby, ’You’re miserable! You’re miserable!‴ recalls Glenn B., the father. ``She ignored him while he cried. We were shellshocked.″

More and more parents are using hidden cameras to find out what goes on when the baby sitter is alone with the children.

Despite the murky legalities and ethics of such spying, detectives and electronics shops are expanding into the business. Specialized agencies with names like Nannyvision or Baby-Safe are springing up.

And after each new headline involving an abusive nanny _ most dramatically, the trial of English au pair Louise Woodward _ fretful parents turn to spying.

``Do you have to have your kid really hurt to find out the facts?″ asked Glenn B., a New York City-area financial adviser who last week bought a $1,500 miniature camera, partly because of the Woodward case.

``The Woodward case is extreme, but I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t make sure,″ said Glenn, who wouldn’t give his full name because he didn’t want future nannies to find out he might tape them.

Of the 13 million children in the United States whose mothers work, 5 percent are cared for by nannies, au pairs and other non-family caregivers at the child’s home, according to the government.

``The heck with the ethics. When the person is alone with your child, you don’t really know what’s going on,″ said Sheri Ader, a New York City mother of two who recently rented a camera to screen a prospective nanny.

Improving technology and falling prices for miniature cameras have helped spur the nanny-watching business. Cameras sell for as little as $50 and rent for as little as $25 a day in some parts of the country.

The case of Ms. Woodward, convicted in the death of an 8-month-old Massachusetts boy, ``got us up and running,″ said Monte Salot, whose new nanny-watching business, Micro Video Products in Westminster, Calif., is getting 20 calls a week.

Secret videotaping _ whether in the office or home _ raises red flags for privacy and civil rights advocates. Two types of recordings are generally considered illegal: taping other people’s private conversations at work and taping in bathrooms or at other grossly intrusive times.

``Parents who exercise good judgment in the location of their camera are probably OK, but there’s no guarantee. We don’t know what a judge or jury would do,″ said Lewis Maltby, director of workplace rights for the American Civil Liberties Union.

At the same time, videotaping is no substitute for thorough reference checks and interviewing.

Amelia Georgiana, a live-in nanny in Princeton, N.J., said she would quit if she found her employers were taping her. ``If they do it, the circle of trust is totally broken,″ she said. She added that parents who are so suspicious that they would consider taping should fire the nanny.

Au Pair Homestay USA, one of the largest au pair placement agencies in the country, believes taping violates the trust needed in au pair arrangements, in which young foreigners live with a family and baby-sit for a year or two. But the group is also studying whether to allow taping if both the host family and the au pair agree, director Pamela McCloud said.

Some parents who have used hidden cameras are happily surprised; they see their nanny giving good care on tape. Other tapes have led to arrests.

In Charlotte, N.C., last year, a nanny was convicted of child abuse after a camera hidden behind a Christmas tree filmed her stifling a crying baby with a blanket.

``There is some guilt in this. You do feel you’re invading and being sneaky,″ said Karen T., a California mother who bought a camera last week to tape the first sitter she has had since she filmed her nanny hitting her 6-week-old last year. ``You never want to think of yourself as being like this. But what are you going to do?″

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