Spy or Wary Eye? Nannies on Camera

When a friend confided to me that she was planning to monitor her babysitter with a hidden camera rented from a nanny surveillance company, I was appalled. At the time, eavesdropping like that seemed wrong to me, perhaps even criminal.

But that was before the tragic death of Matthew Eappen and the subsequent trial of au pair Louise Woodward. As a parent of young children, I was shaken by a sense that parents cannot completely protect their children, even in their own homes. I couldn't help but wonder whether covert surveillance could, in fact, have prevented such a tragedy.

I decided to find out more about the field of babysitter or nanny monitoring.

Between Internet Web sites, word of mouth, and telephone book listings, I discovered a handful of businesses across North America advertising themselves as nanny surveillance companies. This relatively new area has apparently developed as an outgrowth of the security monitoring industry. The equipment is similar to that used in security monitoring, consisting of a video recording system built into a common household item such as a clock, VCR, or coffeemaker. In most cases, these firms merely provide access to the equipment by purchase or rental, either way at hefty fees ($125 to $150 for a one-day rental, $1,000 to $2,200 to purchase).

More interesting to me was the discovery of a complete service company that offered personalized assistance - from advice and technical help in installing the system, to recommendations on how to deal with the information uncovered.

According to the owner of this company, the clandestine videotapes frequently reveal neglect, such as ignoring a child's pleas for food or drink; verbal abuse by the caregivers; and even incidents of physical abuse, such as face slapping and arm twisting. This information shocked me, as it must certainly shock the parents who use these services to assure themselves that their children are receiving the best possible care.

If these revelations are indeed so common, I thought, then perhaps the information does justify the method of obtaining it.

Nevertheless, I was still uneasy about it. I asked two lawyer friends about the legality of covert surveillance.

Both agreed that it is legal to use concealed cameras in one's home as long as they are not in a nanny's private room, closets, or washrooms.

Although I was convinced that a parent's obligation to protect his or her child's well-being outweighs all else, I still pondered the ethics of secretly filming an unsuspecting individual. I concluded that "unsuspecting" was the key word. I decided that in hiring an unfamiliar babysitter, I would inform her in an initial interview that I planned to monitor her from time to time, without revealing where or when. I would make it clear that this surveillance (like that which many employees in other areas are subject to) would be a condition of employment. With informed consent, I could thus monitor my children's caregiver with a clear conscience, and close the door behind me with a little more confidence.

* Ricki Hollander, a former research biologist, is the mother of four and a freelance writer living in Brookline, Mass.

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