“Hello Mrs. Herve? This is the Wilton Police Department. We have your children here.”
Thankfully, that’s a call I’ve never actually received, but according to recent news reports, one local mother did hear something that must have sounded very much like that.
at the CVS in Wilton, a woman identified as Tammy Lindquist, 48, of Norwalk, was arrested on charges of risk of injury to minors after she possibly abused -- verbally and physically -- two children, ages 2 and 5, that she’d been hired to care for. Allegedly, she yelled at the children, calling them “little bastards,” and was said to have grabbed one of the children by the neck, according to police reports of witness accounts.
“Based on witness statements and statements made by the children, Mrs. Lindquist was placed in custody and the parents and DCF [Dept. of Children and Families] were notified. There were no signs of physical injuries to the two children,” police reports state.
Police charged the accused with risk of injury to a minor and released her on a promise to appear in court.
Picturing what it’s like to be in that mom’s place, it’s nothing short of a nightmare. I imagine the parents must have thought they’d done all they could do to find someone to protect and take the best possible care of their children, and suddenly an awful scenario had come true instead.
I don’t know who the family was and I don’t know what steps they originally took in finding their sitter. But it got me thinking that it might be worth a discussion with some experts about how you go about finding the safest childcare situation possible.
This doesn’t mean that the family involved in the situation above didn’t do their best. In fact, I’m not making any judgments about their situation. But I wanted to take a look at things parents can do when they’re searching for safe childcare.
How do you protect your kids from this kind of situation? Whether you’re leaving your child with a high school babysitter, a professional nanny, or anyone who isn’t you…as a parent, what steps can you take to make sure the person who cares for your child when you aren’t there is safe with your child?
So I talked with two women well-equipped to speak on the subject: Alison Rhodes, who as the Safety Mom is an expert on safety, wellness and healthy living for children and families; and Loralyn Cropper, the senior community counselor and team leader for Au Pair in America in Wilton and Weston. They both have blogged for Patch and had great advice.
This sounds like the ultimate horror story. Imagine what that felt like, getting that call from the police…especially if you think you might have done everything to keep them safe?
Alison Rhodes: You assume you’ve made the right decision, you’ve entrusted this person with your family. Gosh only knows, it could be an isolated incident with a babysitter, where they’re just stretched to the limit. You need to keep an eye and observe your babysitter. Do they seem stressed all of a sudden? Something could be going on in their life -- they could be having some physical issue. Who knows? But it really is so important to just be aware and keep having conversations.
As a person who trains au pairs and who screens and prepares host families, what is the advice you give to make that relationship the safest, best possible one?
Loralyn Cropper: The key thing is that it’s a trusting relationship—you’re entrusting your children, your most precious beings to someone to take care of them. So it’s very different than hiring someone to do your yard work. It encompasses a lot of trust. So it’s very important that you do your own background checks and screening -- be diligent in calling references. Really review the paperwork -- what kind of childcare experience have they had? That’s key in telling if they can handle the job.
How does a parent do a background check?
AR: Most experts would tell you -- do your own background checks yourself. You can Google and find out how. You do need to ask for their Social Security numbers and driver’s license to do a check. There’s a lot of good ways to glean information. Check the National Registry for Sexual Predators database. Google their name, and see what comes up. Social network profiles -- look at what they’re posting on Facebook, especially [high school] babysitters.
Is it an invasion of privacy, to look at their Facebook page or things like that? Especially if it’s a teen -- I’m sorry, I want to know what they’re doing! I want to know what they’re posting. Because if they’re driving my child around, I want to know what’s going on.
Get the references. Ask those tough questions.
What are good questions to ask when you’re interviewing a candidate?
LC: Give a hypothetical scenario and see what the response is to “How would you handle this?” For example, “My 2-year-old won’t eat her peas, and the 6-month-old is crying, what would you do in that situation?” Give scenarios that actually, physically happen in your house, and you see how they would respond. If you like their answers, that gives you a sign to their level of maturity and how they think and how they can handle an emergency situation. It’s really important to run through scenarios that potentially could happen and if that matches with what you would do.
The other thing is, what is the style of the childcare provider, and does it match with what kind of family you are? Are you a huggy, affectionate kind of family? Do you have a lot of humor and tell a lot of jokes? Or if you want someone very gentle, more nurturing. You want to find someone who fits into the style of your family, that can come out in an interview.
What about once you’ve hired a nanny -- how should you establish what you want?
AR: This is unlike any other employee or supplier or job -- this is someone who is watching your kids. It’s a very personal thing. You often get involved personally with this employee. So it’s very difficult to maintain a typical employer/employee relationship because they are watching your children.
But in a certain degree, you have to. You have to set expectations and discuss. ‘What do you consider appropriate discipline? Is it time-outs? What is it?’ Because of cultural or age differences, they may have a completely different idea. Just as you would with any other employment issue, you need to lay out an entire expectation list -- how you expect each situation to be handled, and then do a check-in, every 30 days or so.
LC: Another tip -- do not overuse your childcare provider. With a structured program, like the au pair program, they are only allowed to work 45 hours per week. No person can spend 24 hours a day working and not get a break. So if you have needs that are well over 45 hours a week, you might consider hiring two childcare providers, so that people are given a break. Really stick to a structured program, childcare providers really do need breaks.
When you do have a nanny or au pair that lives in your house, it’s a different level of relationship. They’re not leaving at 5 o’clock; they might be having dinner with you, and celebrating family events, and becoming very much a part of the family. Either way, you’ve got to establish a relationship with your childcare provider.
Are there preventative things you can do to see what’s happening when you’re not at home?
LC: If your nanny is dropping the children off at school or preschool, talk to the teachers, ask what they see. Talk to other mothers -- do they see if the children are getting dropped off on time, are they holding hands through the parking lot? Other parents can give you feedback when you can’t be there.
AR: If you’re at work, ask your friends to stop by every now and then, and have a couple of surprise visits. You can absolutely use a nanny cam, or monitoring services. But you also need to look for changes in your child: if they’re not saying something to you, all of the sudden are they scared, do they get quiet. Really pay attention, really observe and see what’s going on with your child.
What about positive steps for good childcare training? What kind of information should employers provide to childcare providers to make the situation the safest possible?
LC: Safety training -- CPR training is very important. If you can share any books about child raising that you’ve used, I tell parents they should share that with the au pair. If you have any allergy issues, you need to run through the steps with precautions -- even for playdates, as your child might not have an allergy but they have a friend who does, and it might be on your nanny’s watch. That, and any other medical concern, has to be addressed beforehand.
How can you talk to your kids about it?
AR: The most important thing is to empower your kids: whether they’re two, whether they’re seven, they need to understand that no matter what a child care provider says to them (or anyone for that matter), if they feel uncomfortable, if they feel something’s not right, they need to come and tell you. Even if they’re being told something like, “Don’t say anything to mommy,” they need to understand, and be reminded, “Tell mom, tell dad if something is happening that doesn’t feel comfortable to you.”
There’s a fine line of how you talk to a really young child—a 2-year-old, a 5-year-old—without scaring them. Even if you know your own child and what they’re capable of understanding, how do you talk to them without making them afraid of the person who will be taking care of them?
AR: I mean, look at what happened at Penn State. One of the things that’s changed since you and I were younger, we were always taught, Have respect for adults. Unfortunately, in this day and age, you almost have to tell your child, “If it doesn’t feel comfortable, you don’t have to do what an adult says. You have to go with what feels comfortable and safe.”
There are a lot of good books out there -- one is by Jill Starishevsky, she is a prosecutor in the sex offender’s office in New York City. She wrote a book, My Body Belongs to Me, which is really at a younger level. It’s really important to start introducing those things really young, because unfortunately it happens. We do need to tell children, “If something doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to listen to a coach; you don’t have to listen to a nanny. If it doesn’t feel right, you say, ‘No!’”
This story of what happened in Wilton, it’s interesting that someone stepped in to report what they saw.
AR: That’s the other important thing -- and this goes for bullying and everything -- that we as bystanders and observers need to get involved. So many times you see people saying, “Oh that’s their problem, I’m not going to get involved.” We have to get involved. It’s our job as neighbors and community members, to take an interest and understand, if you see something, do something.
It seems so important to find the right person -- in some way, they’re the person who’s in your place when you can’t be there. They’re not a parent but they’re there when you can’t be.
LC: But at the same time it’s important to say that no one can take your place. You need to be very diligent and take precautions because no one can ever take your place.