Wall Street Journal Article

Article Appearing in the Wall Street Journal October 24 2002 Sue Shellenbarger, WORK & FAMILY When the Nanny Has a Past: Services That Screen Sitters Charlotte Foster has a tip for parents: Before you hire a nanny, do a thorough background check. Ms. Foster should know. Without realizing it, the Houston mother once hired a convicted killer to care for her three children. The candidate was warm and pleasant. He came through a nanny agency Ms. Foster had used before, one that said it conducted background checks. The idea of having a male nanny oversee her three boys intrigued her, Ms. Foster says; “I thought I had somebody who was going to be able to play soccer with the kids.” The Fosters hired the man but decided to check him out further and uncovered a nightmare: Not only was the nanny using a false name, but a subsequent police check showed he had been convicted of a killing in an armed robbery 12 years earlier in Switzerland and escaped from jail there. The Fosters turned him over to police, and he eventually was extradited to Europe. Running a thorough background check on a prospective nanny can be cumbersome, taking three to seven days or longer. But as the weak economy drives more people with varied backgrounds to seek child-care jobs, it has never been more important. Only about 50% to 75% of nanny agencies conduct background checks on applicants, based on estimates from several nanny agencies and security agencies I surveyed. While that is up from an estimated 10% to 30% a decade ago, it still leaves a wide margin of error. A good background probe includes a check of the applicant’s Social Security number, to verify name and past addresses. Court records, including felonies, misdemeanors, civil proceedings and sex-offender listings, should be checked in the places the applicant has lived. Past employment should be verified, driving records checked and references interviewed in depth. Finally, a credit check can help expose any gaps in the past addresses or employment history provided by the candidate. The easiest route to accomplishing all this is to hire a high-quality nanny agency. While agencies usually charge 10% of a nanny’s first-year salary, plus a $100 to $300 application fee, a good agency is a de facto screening mechanism. Job seekers who want to hide a checkered past avoid reputable agencies. If possible, seek out an agency that belongs to the Alliance of Professional Nanny Agencies, a professional group that requires members to conduct rigorous background checks. Some other nanny agencies, however, do little more than pass on candidates’ names. Ask your agency for written results of a background check. Though Ms. Foster’s former agency assured her that a background check had been done, the only documentation it could offer was verification of one employer and one recent reference. “I didn’t like the paper trail,” Ms. Foster says. Her husband, an oil-company executive, secured checks of the nanny’s Social Security number and references through his company, which revealed the nanny was using a false name, that of a convicted felon. Police uncovered the other facts about his own criminal past. Fortunately, the nanny only cared for her children for a few days and behaved well while he was there, Ms. Foster says. Another route to a good background check is to hire an agency that specializes in them. These firms, run by private investigators, typically charge $125 to $250. To find a reliable one, consult your employer’s resource-and-referral service or ask a nanny agency you have used in the past, suggests Lynn Peterson of PFC Information Services, an investigative agency in Oakland, Calif. Dozens of Web sites also offer background checks, but take careful inventory of what you’re getting for the $25 to $120 these sites usually charge. Don’t rely on any Web site that fails to require a signed release from your job applicant; federal law requires an applicant’s written permission for any pre-employment records check. Among 30 background-check sites I surveyed on the Web, www.USSearch.com is the most heavily used, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, an online research firm. When I submitted a name and other data on a friend, with her written permission, the site, run by Los Angeles-based US Search.com Inc., e-mailed me a well-organized and accurate report of her previous addresses, a check of sex-offender records, and driving, bankruptcy and criminal histories. That cost $79. For an additional $40, the Web site also offers verification of employment, education and professional licenses as well as telephone reference checks. It is possible to do some parts of a background check yourself, such as interviewing references. You can check criminal records by visiting county courthouses where the applicant has lived, assuming you have the time and patience. Also, one Web site, www.searchsystems.net, offers free access to online criminal records in some areas, though these databases aren’t always complete or up-to-date. But driving records and Social Security checks are harder to get. It is easier to ask the nanny applicant to get her own background check; a Web site, www.mybackgroundcheck.com, will certify a jobseeker’s background at the applicant’s request. Most parents, however, still turn to the experts for help. Ms. Foster relies on a high-quality nanny agency, Morningside Nannies of Houston, which checks civil and criminal court records, Social Security numbers and driving and credit history on nanny candidates, says owner Pat Cascio. Paying whatever it takes to get expert screening, Ms. Foster says, gives her peace of mind. Read the article at Wall Street Journal Online


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