NEW YORK – Following the shocking Manhattan trial of a nanny found guilty of murdering two small children in her care, working parents are increasingly looking for ways to monitor the nannies hired to safeguard their children.
In order to assuage concerned parents, caregivers are being asked to consent to new levels of intrusion into their privacy. While cameras documenting their every step and background checks have become the norm for working nannies, new methods are also gaining momentum – including street surveillance and even psychological profiling.
The October 2012 murder of Lucia “Lulu” Krim, 6, and her brother Leo, 2, by their nanny, Yoselyn Ortega, rattled Manhattan. In a city where so many parents leave their children with caregivers, the affair touched on parents’ deepest primal fears. Immediately after the murder in the fall of 2012, and when the trial finally began earlier this year, in social media posts moms confided that they were considering leaving their jobs in order to look after their children themselves.
Online discussions considered the price mothers pay by outsourcing child care; the need for longer maternity leave; and the need to make mental health care more accessible in the United States. There were also, once again, debates about what guarantees parents have when they leave their children in the hands of comparative strangers.
In the affluent Upper West Side neighborhood where the murders took place, there is already informal social monitoring of nannies due to the racial divide that goes with the social gap between moms and nannies. In the neighborhood’s parks, blond toddlers are sleeping in their expensive strollers, surrounded by their nonwhite caregivers. In a controversial trend that some see as monitoring nannies but others view as unnecessary shaming, people post photos of supposedly problematic nannies on social media, asking other users to distribute the images until they reach the children’s parents. A typical post includes an explanation that the person posting it is always seeing the nanny not taking the toddler out of the stroller, or ignoring the child in order to chat with other caregivers. Other photos show nannies in clothes stores, assuming that they should be in a park with the child.
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However, the main concern for parents is not how their nanny behaves in public spaces but in the home. And anyone who doesn’t trust only surveillance cameras (“nanny cams”) can also seek the help of experts.
Nanny, not baby, monitors
Limor Weinstein was a psychotherapist in Israel and became a nanny when she moved to the United States. Now, though, she has carved out a desirable niche for herself in Manhattan: Questioning and investigating nannies, so that parents can feel safe entrusting their children with them.
Her company, LW Wellness Network, offers counseling and coaching for families, as well as advice on nutrition and education. However, it’s the monitoring she conducts – starting with interviews and extensive background checks, as well as psychological testing, which is a very popular service in Manhattan since the Krim murders – that landed Weinstein with the moniker of “nanny spy,” along with other complimentary profiles in the U.S. media.
“With the trial, people are starting to take this very seriously,” she says. “People are starting to realize that hiring a nanny is a serious job, you don’t just post something on Facebook. You can do it yourself, but you can give it to a professional.
“I have clients that spend $2,000, $5,000, $10,000 on a handbag – or you can make sure that the nanny you bring to the house is fully vetted and fit for the job. It’s all about choices,” she adds.
Weinstein says greater numbers of parents are concerned these days, and that agencies are also increasingly turning to her after the Krim murder trial. “Many nanny agencies reach out to us,” she explains. “They include the evaluation in their package, and we have a lot of parents contacting us.”
Along with her training as a psychotherapist, Weinstein proudly advertises her time in the Israel Defense Forces as a unique skill that helps her understand nannies’ psyches.
“They like it, the whole army thing,” she says, explaining the reaction of Manhattan clients to her military past. “Being responsible, carrying a gun, being aware of your surroundings, the body language, the eye contact – the Americans just like it!”
If the parents request it, Weinstein will even spy on nannies when they take the children out.
“I put on a hat, glasses, a scarf, I dress very casual,” she says, describing her undercover duties. Sometimes, after following the nanny, she’ll walk up to her and chat, assuming the identity of a mom in search of a nanny. “I have an ability to draw people into the conversation. I would say, ‘Are you looking for more hours?’ And some would open up, they would tell me stuff like, ‘I hate the family, they treat me horribly,’” Weinstein relates. “And I’m reporting everything to the parents – my loyalty is to them.”
She says her agency also provides assistance to the caregivers themselves. Sometimes, the parents ask the nanny to take the tests if they’re worried, and they’ll pay for their psychological counseling.
Occasionally, nannies will share their concerns or any personal problems that may be affecting their work – such as missing the family they left behind, what they see as low pay, or even confide in Weinstein that they have been harassed by the fathers of the children. Sometimes, Weinstein serves as a bridge between the nanny and the family.
Be candid about cameras
What do the nannies themselves feel now that increased monitoring has become the norm? Danielle Brodie, a New York caregiver, wrote Haaretz that she unequivocally opposes cameras being placed in parents’ homes.
“I feel like if I am on camera, perfection is expected. There would never be a moment I’d feel comfortable just sitting and watching the kids play or if I got a little upset and raised my voice,” Brodie stated. “I think we’ve all been there when we’ve just had it. But I’d feel like I’d be fired if that ever happened on camera.”
Other nannies have learned to live with the cameras, seeing them as guarantees: In case of an accident, they can prove that it wasn’t their fault.
Elizabeth Birmingham from New York, who’s worked as a nanny for over 12 years, says she has no problem with cameras that document her work around the family home – as long as they are not concealed.
“Most of my clients are high profile, travel a lot, tour, etc Most of my clients are famous people who travel a lot for business. And there are visible cameras placed around the home in areas so they can see the kids. However, nonvisible or hidden ‘nanny’ cams to check on me is a deal breaker. And it clearly outlines that in my contract. As I tell my potential clients when interviewing, ‘If you feel the need to secretly watch me, after you hire me ... then you should keep interviewing. And don’t stop until you find the person to watch your children that makes you feel like you can toss those cameras in the trash.”
Denise Yankou, who markets herself as “the feminist nanny,” was looking for work in New York during the murder trial. She says she understands parents’ concerns, and that she has no problem with cameras but objects to psychological testing.
“I think one thing to keep in mind is that what happened to that family is extremely rare,” Yankou says, referring to the Krims. “I also think that psychological tests are not a reliable way to screen for potentially dangerous behavior. Remember, the nanny who was just convicted received a psychological evaluation days before the murder.
“On the other hand, I think mental illness in this country is extremely stigmatized,” she adds. “We see this with mass shootings, as well. Mental illness, in the vast majority of cases, does not cause people to commit murder. I think maybe the best course of action is for parents to speak with as many references as possible before hiring, to get a complete picture of the nanny’s character, temperament and abilities.
“While operating under the assumption that their children are safe, at the end of the day I think parents just need to trust their instincts,” Yankou concludes.
Maxene Natanya Stoloff manages several New York nanny groups on Facebook, where they share their daily experiences and work-related questions and issues regarding employer relations.
She says that background checks and the different types of monitoring are a controversial issue among nannies. Some agree to the monitoring, as well as to background checks and cameras, as long as they know about them in advance.
“It can be very upsetting,” says Stoloff. “First they hire you to watch their most precious thing, then they spy on you.” Others strenuously object to the invasion of their privacy.
“There are a lot of nannies on the opposite side. They don’t think it’s the family’s business to know about their personal details,” adds Stoloff.
Stoloff, who is a nanny herself, supports background checks, psychological testing and even more. She believes that nanny employment in New York should be regulated, so that “authorized” nannies who have undergone these tests and are allowed to work in the United States can wear a badge that allows them to be identified as such when they walk around with children. “Even nail salons have to get certification, even the people that change the oil in cars have to be certified,” she explains.
Recently, she says, wealthy families have preferred to hire nannies who don’t have work permits, so they don’t have to pay their insurance and other benefits as specified by law. Stoloff claims this downgrades the professional nanny market.
“Even if the parents can afford to pay for the best educated, legal nanny, they choose not to. I think it became a fashion to have a very quiet, subservient, not outspoken nanny,” she says. “Nannies in New York have rights and are expensive, and parents don’t seem to understand this. They feel they are entitled to a nanny.”