Congress Should Take Time to Reexamine Au Pair Program

When we are finished debating whether justice was done in the case of Louise Woodward, the 19-year-old British au pair released after being convicted of killing eight-month-old Matthew Eappen, perhaps we can find time to discuss whether justice was done by the federal government with its ill-regulated program.

The United States Information Agency was mandated by Congress to administer the au pair program as an educational exchange, but it never liked it. In 1988, two years after it started, the USIA called it a program for "live-in domestics" and asked that it be discontinued.

Congress ordered it continued without change. As late as last month Congress passed and President Clinton signed a bill making the program permanent.

Where did the pressure to continue the program come from? It came, in the first place, from the eight agencies that make placements, for about $4,000 each. And then from parents, often away from home 12 hours a day and desperate for affordable child care.

"Au Pair costs you less than day care," advertised E.F. Au Pair of Cambridge, Mass., the agency that placed Louise Woodward. Each au pair receives $139 a week, on average.

In September, seven months after Matthew Eappen's death, the USIA did put out some new regulations, which director Joseph Duffey told me had been long-planned: Ten hours a day maximum work time for au pairs, 24 hours of child development instruction, 21-year age minimum for those handling infants, and mandatory registration for college courses. (This is an educational program, after all.)

USIA director Duffey now distributes a letter to prospective au pairs and host families, telling them to try to be aware of the "potential for conflict and misunderstanding."

Au pair applicants have to be screened and get orientation from sponsoring organizations on child safety, especially infant safety.

Since the au pair program started in 1986, some 50,000 young people, mainly from Western Europe, have been lodged with American families. Only occasionally do we hear a horror story of what can happen to a child in the hands of a negligent or panicky caregiver.

Maybe Congress, when it is not investigating campaign financing or the Internal Revenue Service, can hold hearings on what it created in this cut-rate child-care program, farmed out to an agency ill-equipped to handle it.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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