I watched the murder trial of British au pair Louise Woodward with sadness, but also with anger.
Five years ago, our family took in two au pairs, from the same agency, EF Au Pair, that sponsored Woodward. Our experience leads me to believe that the conflicts that led to baby Matthew Eappen's death are built into the au pair program in such a way that similar tragedies are almost guaranteed to happen again.
Here's why: The au pairs and their American families are brought together with significantly different assumptions. The families are told they are getting young women (and occasionally men) who are experienced with children and are happy to take care of them for a pittance - usually $100 to $140 per week, called "a stipend" by the agency - because they are interested primarily in a cross-cultural family experience.
On the other side of the ocean, au pairs are recruited on university campuses with posters that offer "study in the US," and "visit America!" The au pairs come on student visas, expecting to study, play, and do some babysitting, usually in that order.
In addition, during their separate orientations, both our girls told us they were informed they would be staying with some of the wealthiest families in America. It shouldn't need to be pointed out that families are interested in these au pairs primarily because they are cheaper than any other form of full-time childcare.
These differences set the stage for miscommunications, disappointments, and frustrations on both sides, made all the more difficult by language barriers that, in our case, were far more profound than we were led to believe in screening interviews.
Mette, an 18-year-old Dane, was a thin waif who couldn't pick up our eight-month-old son. She was also a serious student who went to work setting up her course schedule the moment she arrived. She assumed the child-care duties would consist of occasional babysitting to be arranged around her schedule. Since both my husband and I were working full time, we were at loggerheads with Mette from Day 1.
I can recall the first morning I knocked on her door to say I was leaving for work and would she dress the baby? She looked at me over her book of Danish philosophy and said, "What?"
Karin, the Swiss au pair who replaced Mette after three difficult months, was not so much a serious academic student as she was an ambitious young European. We only discovered that she spoke virtually no English when we picked her up at the airport. I asked her how her flight had gone and she replied blankly, "a small town near Zurich." Through an interpreter we discovered she had put her English-proficient sister on the phone for her during our so-called screening interviews. It was nearly six months before we could communicate with Karin on anything the least bit complicated. While Karin did not mind child care, learning English at the local community college was a higher priority.
One would think the agencies would screen out such problems. But they have little incentive to discourage able-bodied young women from entering their programs. And as we discovered, time-pressured families, who've paid their deposits, tend to work with what they get rather than risk a lengthy replacement process that might not produce anyone more qualified.
After the 1991 death of a child in the care of another au pair - interestingly, from the same agency that sponsored Woodward - there were brief calls to require 32 hours of training and a minimum age of 21 for caregivers to young children. But the au pair groups lobbied against these requirements and nothing happened.
Since the Woodward trial, the United States Information Agency, which first made these au pair student visas available back in 1986, has implemented minimal new guidelines, which include eight hours of safety training. While there is a vast difference between misunderstandings and murder, the logic of Louise Woodward's sad trial would say it's also time to take another look at the screening and recruiting procedures of a program that brings some 12,000 au pairs into American homes annually.
* Gloria Goodale is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.