Tuesday Trends: Nanny Interviews Get More Aggressive
Preparing to go back to work after the birth of her first child last year, Amy Kaplan searched for a nanny as most parents do: with interviews, reference checks and by observing candidates with her infant son.
Then she took the vetting process a step further, hiring a veteran private investigator and polygraph examiner to run a battery of tests on the woman she hoped to hire.
“My husband and I just felt we wanted to leave it to an expert,” said Ms. Kaplan, 35 years old, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and works in fashion merchandizing.
When hiring a nanny, plenty of parents are content to go with their gut, plus a glowing reference or two. Others are resorting to more aggressive screening techniques: contracting investigators, poring over an applicant’s Facebook page or college transcript—or even requesting medical and personality testing.
The Oct. 25 stabbing deaths of two children, Lucia Krim, 6, and Leo Krim, almost 2, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side raised alarm bells about the possible risks, however small, of hiring caregivers. The Krim’s nanny, Yoselyn Ortega, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder; she pleaded not guilty on Nov. 28.
The Kaplans commissioned New York-based International Investigative Group to conduct background and credit checks and drug and alcohol tests. The firm also used what’s known as a forensic assessment interview technique, which the firm’s president and CEO, Daniel Ribacoff, describes as “a polygraph test with eyes and ears.” It takes into account demeanor and body language in an effort to gauge how truthfully the interviewee is answering the questions.
They paid about $1,000 for the nanny check, and Ms. Kaplan said she plans to send the woman she hired for annual follow-up screenings. “This is my child, this is everything in the world to me,” she said. “I’m not going to put a price tag on that, especially now with the horror stories you hear.”
Mr. Ribacoff’s fees can range from $300 to $10,000—with investigations that require international field agents being some of the most expensive. He said he screens about 120 domestic staffers a year. Describing the questions he asks during a forensic interview, Mr. Ribacoff explained: “If a person worked at a fast-food restaurant, I want to know if they ever gave away free food to friends; if the person worked at a library, I’ll ask if they’ve ever watched porn on the computers there.”
He evaluates an applicant’s presentation skills and professionalism, scoring them on punctuality, posture, attire and eye contact. “You’re collecting pieces of a puzzle, putting the pieces together, and asking yourself what the puzzle looks like, a good employee or a bad employee,” he said.
Key to vetting a nanny is a “lifestyle investigation,” said Darrin Giglio, a New York-area private investigator who regularly screens childcare providers.
“You want to see what they are like when they’re not with your kids, and surveillance is a powerful tool,” said Mr. Giglio, the president of North American Investigations. “Would you want someone who drinks a lot [on the weekend] and then gets into a car driving your kids to school?”
Notoya Green, 36, turned to a private investigator when she was looking to hire a nanny for her 2-year-old triplets. The TriBeCa attorney—now a stay-at-home mother—said the decision was “way too important” to leave to a standard reference check and an online background check. “There’s a certain legwork you get with a P.I.,” she said, noting that they are trained to spot red flags that the average parent might otherwise overlook. “I’ve heard many mothers say that if it weren’t for a P.I., they would have never known that the references were fake.”
In the aftermath of the Krim murders, parents on the online discussion forum UrbanBaby compared notes about nanny screening. A commenter who hired a “former U.S. Secret Service agent who now works as a P.I.” said that her family’s nanny underwent a physical and a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a common personality test, prior to being hired.
One parent who spoke with the Journal said he spent hours going through the more than 1,000 photos on a nanny applicant’s Facebook page, looking for red flags, such as drunken party pictures, revealing clothes or lewd comments. Another parent said that in addition to doing an online background check, she asked to see a copy of the candidate’s Hunter College transcript.
As part of the nanny-screening process, the Westchester County domestic placement agency Family Helpers runs various background checks, hiring a court-runner to manually sift through legal records. The agency also conducts extensive in-person interviews and administers a 40-question nanny skills test. Still, the firm’s president, Susan Tokayer, said some parents go further, asking the applicant to submit to a physical or a tuberculosis test, or hiring a security company “when home security is an issue and they have big, expensive things.” Family Helpers is not involved in this additional screening.
Many nannies have come to expect a high level of pre-employment scrutiny, as well as ongoing “nanny cam” surveillance, said Susan Davis, an editor of the anthology “Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies.”
“The phrase, ‘She’s part of our family’ has gone out of the relationship—and that’s a good thing,” she said. “It’s a completely conditional relationship, and it’s important for moms to understand that at its core, it is a business relationship.”
Ms. Davis said that “the onus is on the parents to find out whatever they can” about an applicant, but she opposes filming the caregiver once a hire has been made. “The single best tool is to investigate their references—not just their former employers, not just names that they give you, but ones that you ask for and ones that you find for yourself,” she said.
That takes work, but not a private investigator, Ms. Davis said. Hiring a firm to do reconnaissance “just fans the flames of paranoia,” she said. “Parents ready to hire a P.I. really need to look at their own conflicted feelings about working parenthood.”
It’s not about suspicion or conflict but about “having one extra layer of comfort as a parent,” said Noah Lukeman, a writer and literary agent in Larchmont, N.Y. Mr. Lukeman is working with Mr. Giglio, an old friend, to screen nannies for his newborn daughter.
“For the same reason I wouldn’t represent myself as a lawyer in court, I wouldn’t attempt to play private investigator when it comes to the safety of my child,” he said.