Nation pays price for dangerous indifference
THOSE who have followed the Louise Woodward trial in Boston may well wonder what on earth the parents of eight-month old Matthew Eappen were thinking when they hired an 18-year old British au pair with no experience, training or qualifications and left her alone with their eight month old son for nine hours at a stretch.
Who were they expecting? Mary Poppins? They got instead Louise, who early today was convicted of the second degree murder of their son.
Deborah Kappen and Sunil Eappen, Matthew's parents, are both specialist doctors and have the financial means to handpick the best available childcare.
At the agencies that sell childcare to upper income bracket American families, they were offered a fresh-faced stranger who was no more experienced than a regular babysitter. Yet they eagerly employed her. Were they negligent? Or is Louise Woodward and her ilk the best they could get?
To the well off couple, the quality they value above all else is continuity of care.
Only 3pc of families can afford to buy continuous at home care however and the way they typically get it is by going through agencies. They browse brochures or surf their Internet websites, all of which tend to feature photographs of pretty, white girls sibling at pretty, all white kids.
The agencies insist on au pairs having ``prior child care experience'', but this turns out to be nothing more onerous than ``babysitting or looking after younger siblings and enjoying working with younger children''.
It's nothing near the level of training and experience a highbrow nanny examiner like the NNEB would offer parents in the UK. for this, US families pay the agency a handsome fee, approximately $4,200 (£2,600). The au pairs are only paid $139 (£86) for 45 hours of work per week, a rate equivalent to the minimum wage, less an allowance for room and board.
Recruiting a top-of-the-range au pair seems not dissimilar to walking into McDonalds and asking an 18-year-old behind the till whether they would like a full time job caring for your six month old baby.
But that is only half the equation. Maria, a part time, voluntary local co-ordinator for an agency in the New York region and a social worker by training, says that she is ``shocked by the low standards of some au pair agencies in recruiting families and supporting au pairs''.
``They will take money from a family without vetting them properly to ensure that their expectations of their au pairs are realistic. they pay each local co-ordinator $150 (£93) for every family recruited and if we recruit a certain number over the summer, we get a free trip to Disneyworld''.
``Yet for the most important part of our job, providing community support for the au pairs, we get $20 (£12.50) a month. And we're not even trained ourselves. To become the local co-ordinator, I was subjected to a 10 minute interview by phone. The au pairs get minimum input. The girls arrive, many having left home for the first time, hoping to have a fun year; instead of which they find themselves lonely and isolated, with families who are expecting a maid. It's disgusting. But I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up.''
Why do Americans stand for it? How is it that a nation that can send men to the moon cannot organise safe, quality childcare for its children?
Ann Collins, a senior researcher on child care art the National Centre for Children in Poverty, Columbia University, puts the situation in context: ``The majority of American families who seek child care are too poor to afford it, and organise help instead from relatives or neighbours, if they look after several children and depending on state regulations, may have to be registered as family childcare providers (similar to the rather lax regulations for childminders in Britain).
``The remaining 30pc of the 10m children under five who are in child care go to day care centres where the carers are very low paid. they receive no training, ir minimal training, and they receive the minimum wage of $5.15 (£3) an hour. In many case, where they are ``off the books'', they receive even less. As a result, those volunteering for this work tend to be unskilled. And of course, as soon as they find a better job, they're off.''
This issue is rising up the political agenda: last week, Bill and Hillary Clinton hosted the nation's first ever White House Conference on Child Care.
The aim of the conference was to seek bipartisan support for new policy initiatives, without costing the state too much money, but the problem is that American society is ambivalent about mothers who work, and unwilling to provide resources for pre-kindergarten quality care. Independent News Service.