They look like ordinary gifts--a teddy bear, a baseball cap, a smoke detector, a clock. But each item contains a hidden video camera the size of a quarter and sometimes as tiny as the fingernail on your pinky.
Back in April, Robert Cruz of La Palma bought a clock radio that hid a camera and used it to catch his nanny leaving his infant daughter unattended on the couch for minutes at a time, ignoring her tears and hitting her when the baby continued to cry.
"This was a nightmare," Cruz recalled. "This was our first child. No one does this to my Amber."
The video was turned over to authorities, who arrested the nanny, Elva Ochoa Zaragoza, 34, of Garden Grove. Zaragoza is charged with unjustifiable corporal punishment on a child, with her preliminary hearing scheduled for Friday. She has pleaded not guilty.
That case, coupled with a string of similar incidents in the Southland, has produced a wave of anxiety among parents who rely on baby sitters. It has also created a booming market for surveillance devices, which are being snapped up by working parents who have decided they can't rely on references and interviews alone when choosing someone to care for their children.
Law enforcement experts, child-care advocates and detective agencies call spying on nannies a growing field, one that saves them time and effort digging up cases based on allegations alone.
Earlier this year, a Canoga Park woman was sentenced to 45 days on a Caltrans highway cleanup crew for abusing a 7-month-old, an incident caught on videotape. More recently, a woman caught on videotape abusing a toddler in Thousand Oaks was sentenced to 60 days in jail and three years' probation.
"It's very valuable evidence," said Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Robert Sparks, who handled the Thousand Oaks case.
Experts say the recent rash of cases is the result of advancing technology that has produced tiny, easily concealed cameras.
Though such micro-cameras have been around for years, only recently have they been affordable enough for home installation, according to dealers.
The cameras, which require a connecting wire to a VCR, run from $100 to $300, according to Don Peavey of Ford Electronics in Buena Park. The same cameras three or four years ago would have cost four times as much.
"The whole industry is getting cheaper," Peavey said. "Everything is getting smaller, more concise."
Clock radios of the kind used in the La Palma case are widely available. Salesman Aaron Kahn of Orvac Electronics in Fullerton said that the most recent and affordable technology is wireless, which eliminates the inconvenience of cable hookups, and allows the viewer to watch the action live from a distance.
"We have wireless transmitters with a range of 1,000 feet, and just about anyone can install [them]," he said.
Jim Heil of R & D Electronics in Anaheim said many people have been asking for advice on the best place to hide a camera. Heil said he's hesitant to give such advice to those who want to use it for deceptive purposes.
"Society has changed; the bad are getting worse and the good are getting paranoid," he said.
Technology has also given rise to a new business: private investigators specializing in child-care matters.
With names like KinderWatch, Family Watch and Baby's Private Eye, the firms set up recording equipment in the home, usually for several days, handling all the details from setup to breakdown, gathering several hours of videotape in the process.
Not everyone is pleased with the trend.
Lauren Somma, director of Ultimate Nanny in Irvine, said there are measures parents should take rather than resorting to secret videotaping.
"If you take the proper steps, if you interview, and screen and use a nanny agency, and are diligent in hiring the nanny, you shouldn't need to videotape her," Somma said.
And if parents feel the need to videotape, the least they can do is let the nanny know when they hire her, she said.
"Let me know what your doing," Somma said. "There's fairness involved. Tell me if this is what you're thinking. It goes both ways."
Mercedes Lopez, a supervisor at Bettye Blue Domestic Employment Agency in Encino, said her nannies realize there might be cameras in a home, though they never know for sure.
Andy Urena, owner of Protek Securities in Los Angeles, the man who sold Robert Cruz the clock radio camera, said that as long as the cameras catch wrongdoing, he's happy to sell the devices.
"There's no reason to feel strange about it as long I know it's being used for a good purpose," he said.