Home Wreckers

Congress's role in the au pair tragedy.


November 24, 1997 (1812 words)

Thanks to the miracle of live cable television, the whole world now knows the tragic story of eight-month-old Matthew Eappen's death, and, the second-degree murder conviction of Louise Woodward, the 19-year-old British au pair who was looking after Matthew. Yet in all the coverage, almost nothing has been said about the crucial role played by a little-known accomplice to the tragedy: the United States Congress.

The Federal program under which au pairs from Europe like Louise Woodward get visas to come to the U.S. has been plagued for years with problems ranging from au pairs' crashing family cars to alleged child abuse. Indeed, Matthew Eappen is the third child to die in the care of a European au pair since the program began. In 1991, a Swiss au pair, Olivia Riner, was charged with setting a house in Westchester, New York, on fire knowing that three-month-old Kristie Fischer remained inside. (Riner was acquitted and returned to Switzerland, where, like Louise Woodward in Britain, she was regarded as a victim of vengeful American justice.) In 1994, Anna-Corina Peeze, a Dutch au pair, was accused of shaking two-month-old Breton Scott Devonshire of Fairfax, Virginia, to death. (In a deal with prosecutors, she pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge). But thanks largely to lobbying by the organizations that bring au pairs to this country, and by parents eager to preserve a source of cheap child-care labor, none of these incidents provoked reform on the Hill.

Led by the foreign affairs committees of both the House and Senate, Congress authorized the au pair program in 1986 and put it under the control of the United States Information Agency, the agency responsible for Voice of America and other efforts to burnish America's image abroad. This was done because the law said the program would be a "cultural exchange," ostensibly similar to other programs under which, USIA annually issues visas to 300,000 foreign visitors. Some 11,000 au pairs between the ages of 18 and 26 arrive in the U.S. each year for a twelve-month, live-in experience with an American family. The only cultural requirement: six credit hours of study at an American college. Yet aside from a program that recruits summer camp counselors, USIA's au pair program is the only one of its cultural exchanges which carries a mandatory component. And since the immigration and Naturalization Service does not routinely grant visas for foreigners to work as nannies in America, the au pair program has become a de facto employment program under which American families legally obtain European child care.

Hence, the basic contradiction that plagues the program today. European teenagers, promised a cultural exchange by the program's advertising, arrive in the U.S. with dreams of learning and adventure. Once here, many find that they are treated like maids. For their part, American parents, expecting to see Mary Poppins, discover that their new teen helpers have never changed a diaper before, and that many of the au pairs chafe at limitations on their off-hours socializing.

The difference in expectations is probably compounded by the fact that European norms for child-care work are different from those of the U.S. au pair program. In Europe, for example, it is often the case that young girls assist moms with child care. (Hence, the French name "au pair," which loosely translates to "in tandem" or "on par with.") But many European countries don't allow au pairs to work more than 25 hours a week, or five hours each day. In the U.S., regulations say au pairs may work up to 45 hours a week. And frequently, American working moms are out all day, leaving their European helpers to contend with the kids on their own - a duty that even the best-intentioned au pair may simply not be mature enough to handle.

Supporters of the au pair program say that three deaths are not many given that an estimated 60,000 families have hired European au pairs during the program's existence. They correctly point out that, statistically speaking, an American child is far more likely to be murdered by his own parents than by an au pair. Still, there have been plenty of other mishaps. In 1994, The Cleveland Plain Dealer published a three-part series documenting more than 300 specific complaints of various abuses by au pairs. These included one felony count against a German au pair who was convicted of sexually abusing his host family's eight-year-old son. (He was later deported.) Other au pairs have wrecked their host families' cars - in many countries the European driving age is 18, so many overseas teens have limited experience behind the wheel. The Plain Dealer also reported on instances where female au pairs requested transfers to other families because of sexual advances by American fathers.

It's not hard to find parents with au pair horror stories. In 1993, Don Walter, a media consultant from Alexandria, Virginia, hired and fired three au pairs in less than a year. The first, a Swiss girl, was caught having sex with a U.S. Marine on the family couch. The second, a German, was suspected of spanking Walter's one-year-old boy. The final girl, from Denmark, lied about her child-care experience on her application. On a late night jaunt, she totaled the family car. Rather than request another au pair, Walter's wife decided to stay home with the baby. "It's not an au pair system, it's a travel service for European girls," Walter says.

Statistics showing an exact count of incidents, criminal or otherwise, as well as figures on how many au pair and family placements didn't work out, have been impossible to obtain. The eight American organizations to which USIA has given the exclusive right to recruit and place au pairs are under no obligation to make such figures public. And although USIA has always had the regulatory authority to collect such information (a power that was further strengthened in a 1995 reform), they have never exercised it. Many parents are willing to overlook au pairs' lack of experience because of the high cost of other child care. Nannies who reside in this country typically earn about $21,000 per year, or roughly $400 per week. Au pair pay, in contrast, is set by law at less than $140 per week. Though parents often have to pay room and board and up to $4,000 for recruiting costs, medical insurance, the education course, plus airfare to and from Europe, the total cost of an au pair typically comes to less than $12,000 a year. And parents are not required to pay social security taxes for au pairs.

Almost as soon as it was established as a two-year pilot program, the USIA au pair program came under scrutiny. An interagency panel, which included INS, the State and Labor Departments, and USIA itself, reported in 1987 that the program was not a true cultural exchange but a work program and should be modified. Congress passed a bill obligating the USIA to continue the program for two more years without change. Yet, in 1990, the General Accounting Office concurred with the earlier finding that au pairs are child-care workers, not culture-seekers. In response, USIA did the bureaucratically unthinkable: it asked that its own program be cut. At the very least, USIA said, Congress should place the au pair program under the Department of Labor or INS.

But Congress bowed to constituents' demands for cheap child care. The nation's lawmakers refused to redraft legislation or allow USIA to compose new regulations. Only after the shaking death of Devonshire, the two-month-old Virginia boy, did Congress bend. In late 1994, USIA finally got permission to try to limit the au pairs' weekly child-care duties to 30 hours a week instead of 45. The agency also recommended that no one younger than 21 should be allowed to care for children younger than two. (This is the common practice in Europe.) And it demanded that the salary of au pairs be increased to $155 per week, so as to attract a higher caliber of au pair.

Au pair employers were outraged. More than 3,000 angry parents sent letters of protest to USIA and Congress. The eight, private agencies that recruit au pairs in Europe and find jobs for them in the U.S. also resisted, sending lobbyists to the Hill to argue against the new rules. Three of the organizations, each nonprofits, currently keep five registered lobbyists on retainer - just as the agency that brought Louise Woodward to America, EF Au Pair, paid for Barry Scheck and other high-priced lawyers to defend Louise Woodward. (EF Au Pair also brought Olivia Riner to the U.S.; the agency is currently fighting a $100 million lawsuit brought by the family of the baby who died in the fire that Riner was accused of setting.)

Faced with this pressure, USIA backed off. The only change was a small increase in the au pair stipend; it now stands at $139.05. It took the Eappen case to further strengthen the program. Thanks to new regulations passed in September, the au pair agencies are now required to conduct a psychological exam to ensure that the au pair will work well with children. Child-development training, added in 1995, must devote at least eight hours to infant care and safety, including lessons in shaken-baby syndrome and stress management. Finally, rather than just accept the au pair that is assigned to them, parents can now contact the au pair's references before allowing the teen into their home.

Some aspects of the program, however, didn't change. The 45-hour workweek remains, and there is still no ban on under-21s, like Louise Woodward, taking care of infants like Matthew Eappen. (Though any au pair placed in a home with a baby must now have 200 hours of documented baby-sitting experience.) And new problems may arise. In 1995, Congress expanded the program to attract au pairs from all over the world, not just Europe. That might increase the supply of au pairs because after Woodward's case, au pair agencies are already reporting a drop-off in new applications from Britain. Yet some critics fear a potential for cultural clashes because of the even bigger differences in child-care norms between the U.S. and non-European countries.

With so many lingering questions, Congress should have continued its historical practice of authorizing the au pair program for two years at a time. That would have given a chance for USIA to evaluate the impact of the new reforms, and strengthen them, before the program became permanent. But rather than take that cautious course, Congress decided to make the au pair program permanent. And President Clinton signed the bill on October 1. That probably means it will take another tragic incident, like the death of Matthew Eappen and the trial of Louise Woodward, to make the Hill pay serious attention to the program again.

Copyright 1997, The New Republic. All rights reserved.

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