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'90s FAMILY

Home Court Advantage : More families are going the nanny route these days. But you can't be too careful when selecting a person to entrust with your children.

April 14, 1996|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jody and Rob Sise had heard the horror stories from new parents and figured finding quality, affordable child care for their newborn Rachael would be a task of Homeric proportions.

Waiting lists at one of the better child-care centers can be years long. Even finding one to take a newborn is a chore. Only 17% of California centers accept infants, said Patty Siegel, executive director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

And then there was the worry. Would Rachael get enough attention in a big day-care center? Would a center be able to accommodate the Sises' long hours at work? (He is a field chemist who works on call; she sells radio ads.)

In the end, they did what more and more two-career parents are doing: They hired a nanny. Although more expensive than day-care centers--from $175 to $250 a week compared to an average of $120 a week for center-based care--nannies are no longer the province of the rich.

"In-home care is more commonplace today and has definitely become an option for the middle class," said Wendy Sachs, president of the International Nanny Assn., a nonprofit group of parents, agencies and recruiters headquartered in Austin, Texas.

The search was no less stressful for the Sises, though. The thought of hiring someone to spend more waking hours with 4-month-old Rachael--their first child--than she would overwhelmed Jody, who began searching for a nanny in the last month of her maternity leave.

"I was panicked. I was worried I didn't leave enough time and I wouldn't be able to find what I wanted," Jody said, echoing the sentiments of more than half the respondents to a 1995 survey by Nanny News. They said looking for a nanny "felt like a crisis."

The most common reason: the shortage of qualified candidates. Indeed, demand for nannies who are qualified, experienced and affordable far exceeds supply. To ease the stress, child-care experts suggest planning on at least six weeks to complete a search.

Couples should define their needs and priorities early, said Barbara Reisman, executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign, an information clearinghouse in New York. It helps to draft a list of expectations regarding the ideal candidate's character and experience, and the duties involved.

After completing the job description, parents can move to the next step: deciding whether to hire through an agency. Agencies provide access to a large pool of qualified applicants but charge steep fees--anywhere from $645 to $3,000--to place a nanny.

Since agencies are not regulated in California, parents should interview them just as they would a nanny, said Cindy Swanson, program manager of TrustLine, a registry sponsored by the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network and the California Justice Department.

All agencies in California are required by law to register their candidates with TrustLine, created by the state Legislature to check the names and fingerprints of child-care providers against criminal records and the California Child Abuse Central Index. If a candidate's record comes up clean, the name is added to the register and parents can call to see if it's listed. Be aware that TrustLine only checks a nanny's criminal history in California and does not provide a recommendation of the candidate.

Child-care experts also suggest requesting a written file on each applicant from the agency. This file should include motor vehicle record, criminal background check and reference reports. Ask for references from other clients and call the Better Business Bureau to see if the agency has a record of complaints.

Steve Lampert, owner of Buckingham Nannies, an 8-year-old agency based in Sherman Oaks, said nannies must meet stringent standards before his agency agrees to represent them. To make sure the nanny's application is truthful, the agency--which has accumulated more than 500 applications with phony references in the past six months--thoroughly reviews each nanny's references.

The agency often has several people call each reference to ensure information provided by the nanny matches what former employers have to say, Lampert said. Also, Buckingham Nannies reviews each applicant's DMV record in addition to the required check with TrustLine. Lampert cautioned that not all agencies conduct such comprehensive background searches.

Parents who search for a nanny on their own should build a list of applicants by chatting with friends, relatives and co-workers. Posting notices at shops and health clubs can also expand the list.

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Regardless of whether parents choose to hire an agency or to do their own search, there are several steps they should follow.

After scheduling interviews, parents should draft a list of questions that include "what if" scenarios, Reisman said, such as, "What if Rachael gets hurt?" or "What if she won't stop crying?"

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