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Camera Plays 'I Spy' With Nanny at Home : Child-care: The latest trend in surveillance allows parents to check on the kind of attention their children are receiving.

November 25, 1993|JOAN KELLY BERNARD | NEWSDAY

Walk into any bank or grocery store or office lobby, and you're likely to see a sign that warns, "Area monitored by camera."

Call your broker, and chances are a message will tell you the transaction is being taped to serve you better.

But are we ready for surveillance in the home?

That's the latest twist in child care--anxious parents setting up hidden video cameras or voice-activated recorders to check on how the nanny is caring for the children while they're not at home.

Report this phenomenon to many parents and jaws drop.

"I think it's really sick," says Mona Molarsky, a fact-checker at Mirabella magazine who is the mother of a 1-year-old girl. "It's like the same idea of someone who has a detective follow their spouse to see if they're being unfaithful. You have to have communication with your nanny just like anyone else important in your life."

"I'd never do that," says Jill Laurie Goodman, a New York City attorney who employed a nanny through her three children's infancies and early years. "If there's that level of mistrust, something is seriously wrong with the arrangement."

Many nanny organizations agree. "You have to have trust in the person you are leaving in care of your children," says Wendy Sachs, president of the International Nanny Assn. "If you have a trusting relationship and then all of a sudden you sneak up on them and spy on them, how trusting is that?"

"It speaks to what the relationship is," says Barbara Reisman, executive director of Child Care Action Campaign, a national not-for-profit organization working to improve child care. "If you have to go to that extent, you've already got enough doubt to be very direct with the provider about it."

But Jackie, a first-time mother who asked that only her first name be used because she has secretly videotaped her current nanny, says parents who feel completely safe without this new mother's helper are "fooling themselves."

"There is no job in America that is so unsupervised as this job," she says, adding that she previously fired a nanny when she discovered--without taping her--what she would only describe as an "unhealthy situation."

"I have had trouble, so I know that what you see is not always what you get," she says. "You owe it to a child who cannot speak for himself."

The makers of Babywatch, an easily disguised camera that can be rented for three days for $199, argue that it is "just another tool parents can use."

Are there legal issues? Surveillance laws vary from state to state. Legal experts say that in some states, videotaping without warning is legal in one's own home. The requirement on audio taping--that one person party to a conversation be aware of the tape--could arguably be satisfied by parents' giving tacit consent for their child.

The issues bringing parents to Babywatch are whether the nanny is playing enough with the child, talking or reading to the child, says Rich Heilweil, vice president of Total Recall Corp., the Spring Valley, N.Y., company that introduced Babywatch in August.

Is the nanny following family guidelines on the amount of television allowed, the amount of candy a child can eat? Parents are looking to be reassured, Heilweil says, that what they see when they're at home with the nanny is what continues after they leave, that the nanny doesn't act differently when alone with the children and go back to best behavior when the parent's key turns in the lock.

Heilweil insists these parents are not and should not use the device for proof of violence or sexual molestation. He says he would tell parents, "Don't put your children through a situation one more time to get this on tape."

The mother who taped her nanny says she had no reason to suspect her nanny of doing anything dangerous. "I wanted to know that what I know about this person is accurate," she says, explaining that she found what she "expected."

"The weaknesses I knew were there, and where there were strengths, they were there," she says.

She says she has since discussed the weaknesses with the nanny--not enough interaction with the child, for example--and may tape the nanny again in the future to see that her guidelines are being followed.

Still, fear is a factor. "Most people are fine, but every now and then there's a bad apple, and it just better not be my child that gets that bad apple," says Jackie, who works long hours on Wall Street. "You want to take that risk? Take that risk. I don't take that risk . . . I need complete peace of mind at my work."

Many nanny organizations agree that it is a difficult situation. Parents can do the best background checks and interviews--and spend time up front with the nanny--but once the nanny is caring for the child, she is unsupervised. But the groups say parents needn't add private detective to the many roles they already juggle. There are better ways to reassure yourself a nanny is at the very least doing no harm--and at best being the loving, stimulating care giver you hope for. Communication is key.

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