The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Babysitters from Hell

Childcare providers who kill the kids

October 20, 1997.  Nineteen year old English au pair Louise Woodward is convicted of second degree murder in the death of 8 month old Mathew Eappen.  Medical experts testify at trial that the baby’s injuries were consistent with having been violently shaken.

October 25, 2012.  Marina Krim returns home after her part-time nanny, Yoselyn Ortega, fails to show up with her 2 and 6 year old for their scheduled swimming lessons.  She discovers both children lying in a bathtub, dead from multiple stab wounds.  The nanny, who stabbed herself with a knife in front of the mother, is charged with the murders.

December 16, 2013.  A seventeen year old babysitter (name withheld) is arrested and accused of killing 2 year old Kayden Webb, a toddler who she was caring for. 

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Rebecca DeMorney's performance as the homicidal nanny in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is the script of many a parent’s nightmares.  However, the nanny who plots to kill the parents to claim the children is not most parents’ worst case scenario. As the true stories above illustrate, a parent’s greatest fear is the childcare provider who kills her charges.   

Nanny 911

Fears about childcare providers are pervasive and normal; after, all, we are trusting them with those we love most. On top of that, the selection criteria is often unclear and the screening process informal. 

 Fortunately, statistics suggest that fears about harmful babysitters are often unfounded.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an analysis of crimes committed against children by child care providers shows that babysitters are responsible for 4.2 percent of the reported criminal offenses against children under age 6.  This is much less that the percentages accounted for by family members (53.3%) and acquaintances (36.7%).  In fact, a complete stranger is more likely to harm your child than his/her babysitter. 

Babysitters who do harm the children they are hired to protect are more likely to commit sexual assault than murder; sex crimes outnumber physical assaults nearly two to one.  Male teenage sitters commit the most sex crimes reported to police while adult women commit the most physical assaults. These physical assaults can be serious; while babysitter offenses rarely result in death, victims of babysitter crimes known to police are more likely than other child crime victims to be hurt.

The Reference Reconnaissance

There is no fool proof way to make sure you're hiring a babysitter you can trust but there are ways to up the odds.  Perhaps the most important step is to start looking before the need is critical.  No matter how loving or concerned a parent, being in a situation where you desperately need child care makes it much harder to take the time to thoroughly investigate your options.

Once you’ve identified some candidates, do your own criminal background check even if you hire a nanny through a reputable agency; you’d be surprised how often important details fall through the cracks.  Ask for references from families that have children of similar ages to your own.  Contact references before you meet the candidate face-to-face; this will cut down on the chances that you’ll be swayed by a candidate who is so likeable you might overlook red flags.  When you talk to references, ask a lot of detailed questions and ask for specific examples for each of the answers they give. 

 Useful question include:

  • How did the nanny spend time with their charges?
  • How much time did you spend with the nanny?
  • How did the nanny handle discipline?
  • How did the nanny handle temper tantrums?
  • What was one thing you wish the nanny had done differently?
  • What was the nanny’s biggest strength?
  • What was the nanny’s biggest weakness?
  • How did the nanny handle stress?
  • How would you describe the nanny’s personality?

Red Flags in the Interview

Is the candidate late for the interview?  Does s/he talk negatively about previous families?  Does she give vague answers to your questions (you should ask the same questions you did the references) or fail to ask any questions about your children?  Does s/he seem more interested in impressing you than connecting with your children? 

Most candidates are on their best behavior when they’re trying to get a job; a potential candidate who does any of the above is telling you through her behavior that she is not a person you can rely on.

 Once she’s On Board

It’s a relief to find someone we can trust with our children.  Finally, we think, we can let down our guard.   

 Well, yes and no.  It’s true that, at some point, we have to let go and have faith that our child is in good hands.  A parent who is continually checking up on his or her nanny either hired the wrong person or needs to work through his/her emotional issues.

 However, times change and so do people.  Babysitters burn out.  Nannies develop personal problems or serious psychological issues; Yoselyn Ortega’s mental condition reportedly deteriorated weeks before her two charges died, yet she had performed satisfactorily as a nanny for over a year.

 While we don’t need to continually do the same due diligence we did at the beginning of our child care provider’s employment, we do need to stay tuned in to what’s going on. Pay attention to how your child greets your nanny or babysitter. Is your child still excited to see him or her?   Occasionally, come home earlier than anticipated and observe his/her interactions with your child. Take the time to chat with your child care provider; does s/he seem collected and together?

 The Bottom Line

Child care providers who kill their charges are rare.  However, that fact surely provides little comfort to the families whose child has been killed by someone they trusted. While there’s no vetting process that guarantees a child care provider is trustworthy, a parent who thoroughly checks references, asks the right interview questions, and stays tuned in to relationship between child and provider can at least know that his or her child is safer with the babysitter than just about anyone else.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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