US Justice on Trial In Au Pair Case

As judge readies ruling, Britons have harsh words for American courts and media.

Few people in Europe think that Louise Woodward was in the dock alone.

In the United States, some see her trial in the death of Matthew Eappen as a virulent indictment of working mothers. Others see it as a tragic object lesson on the strained state of American child care.

Overseas, and particularly in Britain, the case has taken on added dimensions. For au pair agencies serving the US market, business is at stake. Ms. Woodward's story could discourage au pairs from going to America, where the government and parents' groups have squabbled over the purpose of the au pair program.

For many Britons, American justice was on trial and ideas of a common cultural bond were at stake. With Woodward's second-degree murder conviction, many in England feel America earned a guilty verdict of its own.

"America ... is not a gentle and forgiving place," correspondents for London's Independent newspaper wrote on Sunday. "It is a profoundly violent, institutionally vengeful country, far less familiar beneath the surface than British people, taught to think in terms of Americans as cousins, might imagine it to be. The grimly retributive code of criminal justice in some respects seems to obey more the spirit of Saudi Arabia than Western Europe."

On Nov. 4 at an appeal hearing in Cambridge, Mass., Superior Court Judge Hiller Zobel said he was not yet prepared to rule on the appeal by Woodward's defense team, which asked that he order a new trial, cancel the jury's second-degree murder verdict, or reduce Woodward's conviction to manslaughter. The prosecution has argued to let the verdict stand.

The trial has garnered some attention in France and Germany, but it has riveted England. Ninety percent of Britons believe Woodward is innocent, polls there show, and many feel that the justice she received was relative at best. Some say Boston's strong Irish heritage and its traditional anti-English bias might have worked against her.

Others have condemned America's style of show-biz justice, which they claim appeals to emotion, not reason. These commentators dismissed the prosecutor's closing arguments as overly theatrical, but the lion's share of criticism has been reserved for the very instrument that gave Britons unprecedented access to the trial: television.

Trials aren't televised in Britain and media coverage of them is limited. This time, thanks to Sky TV, England could watch along with America. And Britain was appalled, not only by TV's influence, but by its reach. The Eappens's CBS appearance while the jury was deliberating struck the British as irresponsible.

The TV coverage also underscored differences between the two countries and raised questions about the price Woodward might have paid for that cultural divide. Would she have fared better, the English wonder, if she had abandoned her stiff upper lip for the emotional display Americans value so?

Despite the disdain, many are grateful for the coverage, which bolstered Woodward's home support immeasurably. "Thank God for the TV and everybody seeing the testimony," says Irene Lucas, director of the London-based UK & Overseas Au Pair Agency. "They'd know there was a problem with that [baby] before. People have been watching it and saying, 'Wait a minute, she's innocent.' "

Ms. Lucas, who has been placing au pairs since 1969, thinks the case will make future au pairs think twice about choosing the United States.

"I used to have calls two or three times a week with girls saying, 'I want to go to America,' but not lately," she says.

At the London offices of Au Pair in America, a spokesman acknowledged the trial has prompted worried calls from parents of au pairs, but he didn't see a negative fallout. "As yet we haven't seen any reduction in the numbers of people we send to the US," he says.

Others feel the trial could ultimately have a beneficial effect, simply by educating parents. Au pairs and nannies are not the same thing, though the two words are often used interchangeably in the US. Nannies are qualified child-care workers. Au pairs are young women on a cultural exchange visa who help with their host family's kids in return for room, board, and a weekly stipend of about $140.

Many have pointed out that with a toddler and an infant to care for, Woodward faced a child-care challenge she probably wasn't equipped to handle. "Parents must know if they have an au pair what they're asking for," Lucas says. "She is not qualified, and should only be occasionally left in charge with small children. The program is really designed for school-age children."

Critics have questioned the purpose of the US au pair program since 1986, when the United States Information Agency (USIA) started granting young Western Europeans cultural-exchange visas to care for children and experience US life.

US Immigration officials raised questions about the program's cultural status, since au pairs work a 45-hour week. In subsequent years, government panels determined that it is a child-care work program, but parents' groups and au pair agencies lobbied against changing the status of the program, which would have made visas harder for the au pairs to get.

The USIA instituted new rules in September, stipulating that those who care for children under age 2 must have documented at least 200 hours of child-care experience. The regulations also limit au pairs to 10-hour days and 45-hour weeks.

Some say the agencies have exploited the au pairs, with fatal consequences. Au pair programs have been getting away with recruiting young women to have a good time in the US and selling themselves to families as affordable child care, argues Wendy Sachs of the New York-based International Nanny Association. "This horrible thing that has happened is symbolic of what's wrong with au pair programs," she says.

Parents' groups in the past have fought the introduction of more stringent standards and training.

As it stands, fellow au pairs say the four-day training Woodward got from her agency, EF Au Pair, might not have helped.

"It was very superficial," remembers Maika Hoffmann, who came from Germany with the same agency last year, also to work in the Boston area. "You didn't get too much help about how to deal with kids, it was all very general. It wasn't: 'If the kid is choking or crying, what are you going to do?' "

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