THe death of a nine-month-old infant, allegedly at the hands of a British au pair, is igniting anew a debate over the regulation of foreign caregivers in American homes.
Parents have generally balked at more government restrictions on a burgeoning program that meets an urgent need of thousands of working parents.
But as 18-year-old Louise Woodward is arraigned on murder charges in Newton, Mass., today, her case is likely to renew calls for more training, raise questions about teenagers caring for babies for long hours, and influence congressional debate over the status of a program that is classified as a cultural exchange and not a work program.
"What kind of cultural exchange has a background check or requires experience?" asks Wendy Sachs of the International Nanny Association in New York. "The agencies market this in Europe as a chance to enjoy life American-style and ... in the States as inexpensive child care. You get girls coming for a good time and being put in a position of very serious responsibility. It's a recipe for disaster."
The au pair program became a daycare option in 1986, when the Greenwich, Conn.-based American Institute for Foreign Study asked the United States Information Agency to grant 18- to 25-year-old Europeans cultural exchange visas to care for children and the chance to live in the United States.
The pilot program brought 296 Western Europeans to the US. Today, eight designated agencies recruit 11,000 to 12,000 au pairs annually. Parents pay up to $4,000 to cover medical insurance and flight costs. Au pairs receive room and board, about $115 a week in spending money, up to $500 for education, and the promise of a cultural experience.
But from the beginning there have been questions about the program's status and oversight. The problems have not only been felt at the administrative level, but at the agency level as well.
In 1991, EF Au Pair, the agency that brought Ms. Woodward to the US, had another of its nannies charged with murder and was cited by Massachusetts officials for operating without a license.
And as early as 1986, immigration officials were questioning the program's status as a cultural exchange, given the 45-hour work week.
Proponents have argued that the program is multifaceted. "There is a work component obviously," says USIA general counsel Stanley Colvin, "but there's an educational and cultural component too. Which one's driving the bus? I don't know."
A 1987 interagency panel did, concluding that au pairs shouldn't receive cultural visas. The USIA general counsel at the time, Norman Poirier, called the program "a mistake." Three years later, a GAO report again found au pairs were part of a child-care work program and not a cultural exchange.
Both findings drew heavy artillery from parents and au pair groups who lobbied Congress, securing legislation in 1987 that obligated the USIA to continue operating the program through 1989 and 1990 and prohibiting it from changing or adding rules.
After the 1990 GAO report, the USIA tried to shift the program to another agency, but instead, Congress reaffirmed USIA oversight and in 1994, asked it to regulate the program.
When the USIA began that task, it immediately angered parents and agencies, who objected to raising the weekly stipend to $155, and to a proposed 32-hour safety training session, saying a shorter course was adequate.
They also challenged a proposal that au pairs caring for children under two be at least 21. After receiving 3,000 letters on the subject, the rule was dropped, Mr. Colvin says. Instead, au pairs working with infants must have six months of child-care experience.
But some question the wisdom of having younger au pairs care for infants, regardless of experience. "An awful lot of teenagers aren't equipped to do that kind of job and shouldn't be doing it," says John Dacey, a professor of human development at Boston College in Newton.
Woodward's case will prompt a full review of EF Au Pair, though Colvin says there are no plans now to shift the au pair program to another federal agency. Some observers add that the case probably won't derail the program and expect Congress to introduce legislation this fall to extend USIA oversight, possibly making it permanent.
And parents, forever pressed for viable child care, aren't expected to shun au pairs, though one industry observer already sees a difference.
"The phone calls have doubled [since Woodward's arrest]," says Alison Amenabar, who runs BabyWatch, a Newton-based. company that installs hidden surveillance cameras for parents who want to check their nanny's performance. "People just want to make sure their babies are safe."