NEW YORK — Every morning, when the couple left their Long Island home for work, they handed their 10-month-old daughter over to a nanny. They had liked the woman at first, but lately she seemed a little sloppy and neglectful. Still, they weren't entirely sure.
The couple opted for a novel solution: They hired a local business to wire the main playroom for audio and video. The tapes, recorded by a camera smaller than a beeper hidden behind a clock, confirmed their suspicions. While the baby cried and crawled around, the nanny watched soaps. The next day, they fired her.
The Long Island firm that planted the camera is among the companies in the growing new business of nanny surveillance. The services help working parents rest assured that care providers, who are largely unsupervised, are doing their jobs, proponents say. But critics charge that spying on nannies undermines the essential element of trust that needs to exist between a parent and the caregiver - and they warn that covert taping may be illegal, as well.
Parental trust in public or private day care has eroded in recent years, in the wake of high-profile scandals and reports enumerating the shortfalls of child-care options such as home day care. Still, 60 percent of all women with children younger than 6 work outside the home and need help with child care, according to a 1993 study by the New York-based Citizen's Committee for Children.
Nanny surveillance "is a tool that wasn't there a few years ago," says Richard Heilweil, vice president of BabyWatch Corp. "It lets parents make an intelligent evaluation of their care giver's performance."
By some accounts, the nanny-watching business is booming. New York-based BabyWatch, started in 1992 and considered the industry founder, is now available in more than 20 cities.
High-profile television coverage of BabyWatch has spawned a host of imitators. Ralph Thomas of the National Association of Investigative Specialists, estimates there are now seven or eight agencies across the US offering these services.
Long Island-based Nanny Watch is one of them. Owner Arthur Di-Scala started Nanny Watch in January and says business is "busy and getting busier." Like BabyWatch, his company rents and installs equipment in as many rooms and for as long as customers want.
The equipment is state of the art and undetectable. Mr. DiScala compares the size of his camera lenses to the tip of a ball-point pen and the size of the microphones to a pen cap. The system uses 8-hour video tapes that can be popped into a VCR when parents get home.
"There was no way you could tell it was there," says the father of the Long Island baby. "It worked perfectly. You could see and hear everything."
The cost for this service averages $199 to $299 for two to three days, enough time to get results, say both Mr. Heilweil and DiScala. And those results are striking.
"Six out of 10 people who come to us about their nannies end up finding something wrong," says DiScala. At BabyWatch, that figure is as high as 70 percent. "Everyone is paranoid about physical abuse, but that's very rare," he says. "The main problem is simple neglect, leaving a kid in a crib for hours at a time, letting them run around."
But the system has critics. "Spying on nannies with hidden cameras is illegal, immoral, and ultimately harmful to children," says Lewis Maltby of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Employers who do it are asking for trouble."
While employers are allowed to monitor business communications, recording personal conversations without consent violates federal wiretapping laws. Because "nannycams" pick up every conversation within range, Mr. Maltby argues, well-meaning parents can find themselves on the wrong end of a federal lawsuit.
Heilweil, a parent of two who has used BabyWatch, rejects that argument emphatically. "One: I can't think of any time when an adult has private time with my child, when I, as a parent, cannot know what they're doing. Two: I'm paying them for this job and am monitoring common space, not following them around at night or listening to their conversations. This is one of the most important jobs in the world, and it's virtually unsupervised. This offers parents peace of mind."
At Nannies International, a nanny placement agency that serves Washington, manager Homa Fekrat agrees, as long as the surveillance doesn't intrude on a nanny's spare time. "When you bring someone into your home, you have every right to know what they're doing," she says.
Elida Orelaana, a nanny who works for Boston Celtics player Pervis Ellison and says she hasn't experienced a nannycam, thinks it's well within parents' rights. "A good employer checks references," she reasons. "This is just another way of checking."
Nannies against nannycams
Others disagree. A survey by the Professional Nanny Association of Atlanta found that members overwhelmingly opposed the idea. One member, Meredith Woodruff, calls it insulting. "I'm a professional," says Ms. Woodruff, who holds a degree in elementary education and draws up weekly menus and lesson plans for her young charge. "I want my employers to trust me."
Woodruff has a theory about the 60- to 70-percent dismissal rate produced by parents who have used BabyWatch and Nanny Watch. "I question where these people are finding their nannies," she says. "Whether they check their references and whether these nannies are professionals who are educated in child care."
At the International Nanny Association, a nonprofit group that serves America's estimated 1 million to 3 million nannies as well as those who place, train, and employ them, president Wendy Sack is pragmatic. "If parents want to use it to evaluate performance, ... they should let the nanny know 'from time to time we use surveillance cameras,' " she says. "It's the sneaky approach that ultimately impairs that relationship of trust."