Putting Mary Poppins under surveillance

More and more parents are using secret cameras to spy on the people who care for their kids. Are these "nanny cams" benign tools for concerned moms and dads -- or outrageous invasions of privacy?

By Amy Reiter

Published July 17, 2003 3:29PM (EDT)

When it was time to arrange childcare for their 8-month-old son, Jake and Anna Barron (not their real names), did everything by the book. The Manhattan couple, both in their mid-30s, interviewed at least a dozen nannies, some referred by friends, others found through a bulletin board at their pediatrician's office and still others by responding to ads in a local newspaper reputed to be the place to find a nanny.

The woman they ended up choosing after weeks of interviewing was, says Jake, "the best of the lot." They spoke to her at length about her background and experience, scrupulously checked her references (all were glowing), and watched her interact with their son, Evan. "She sat right down on the floor of Evan's bedroom and played with him during the entire interview," says Anna, a high school social studies teacher. "She seemed genuinely involved and sweet."

But after the nanny had been on the job for about four weeks, Anna and Jake couldn't fight the feeling that something was amiss. When the nanny arrived in the morning, Evan acted uncertain. He didn't seem happy around her, wasn't affectionate toward her, and was generally upset to see his parents go.

"We didn't know if it was normal separation anxiety or not," says Jake, a researcher in developmental psychology. "But it didn't sit right with us."

Hoping to prove that their suspicions were nothing more than new parent jitters, Jake and Anna called up a surveillance company that dealt in nanny cams -- small hidden cameras often placed within a common household items like smoke detectors or teddy bears -- that are wired back to a VCR or computer that allow parents to watch how a caregiver interacts with their child in their absence.

A company technician came right over with a camera concealed inside a clock radio, aimed it at an active spot in the Barrons' living room, wired it to their VCR, showed them how to use it and left them to discover the truth about what was going on in their home.

It took only one day.

When Jake and Anna came home that first night, they hit the "play" button on the VCR with shaking hands. What they witnessed, Jake says, was "stomach-turning."

The couple saw Evan left all by himself on the living room floor, crying hysterically, craning his head around, desperately looking for someone to comfort him. Behind him, just out of his view, the nanny paced back and forth, talking on the phone. Eventually, the nanny left the room altogether, coming back only to yell at Evan.

"The person we saw on the tape was in no way related to the person who had interviewed with us and who reported to us at the end of every day," Jake says. "We realized that this had probably been going on for weeks."

Unwilling to leave the nanny alone with their child for even one more minute, Jake and Anna called her up that night and fired her on the spot.

Over the last few years, interest in nanny cams has risen steadily. In a recent study, the Dallas market research firm Parks Associates found that 19 percent of U.S. households with at least one child at home have expressed interest in using a nanny cam, up from 16 percent two years ago. A spokeswoman for CCS International, parent company of U.S. retailer Counter Spy Shops, told the Wall Street Journal in May that nanny cam sales at the chain's four stores have risen 25 percent in the past five years.

And as interest has climbed, prices have plummeted -- by about one-half in the last five years. Though it is still possible to spend several thousand dollars on a fancy, custom-installed multi-camera system from a high-end surveillance company or several hundred dollars on a camera concealed inside a stuffed animal or a tissue box from a company like TBO-TECH Hidden Cameras, a basic do-it-yourself wireless camera like the Xcam2 from X-10 Wireless Technology -- the people behind those persistent pop-up ads -- costs only about $80.

"In the last two or three years, our product has become somewhat ubiquitous," X-10 spokesman Jeff Denenholz says. "It's grown into a common household tool."

Indeed, in an age when more and more Americans rely on some sort of childcare and shocking tales of neglect and abuse flood the evening news, parents are turning to nanny cams for comfort and control in increasing numbers.

Stories like Jake and Anna's don't surprise Steve Sleicher, vice president of Kid-View, Inc., a child-monitoring service in Great Neck, N.Y. Sleicher says a full 70 percent of his clients fire their nannies after just one day of camming.

"We've seen everything: drug use, the liquor cabinet, the boyfriend over," Sleicher says.

Lori Berke, 42, started helping families outfit their homes with nanny cams in 1996, after she found out her own nanny was mistreating her daughter. Now president of Care Check, a New York company specializing in surveillance systems (and a Kid-View affiliate), Berke says her goal is to ensure that other parents don't experience the horror that she went through.

"My nanny had 17 years of experience and I thought she was just fabulous," says Berke, who has also coauthored a book, "Making Childcare Choices: How to Find, Hire, and Keep the Best Childcare for Your Kids." But after borrowing a camera from a friend who insisted that something seemed off about the nanny, she watched as her trusted sitter left her baby daughter bundled in a snowsuit for hours inside a hot apartment, left her alone in her crib with the side down and -- most horrifying of all -- slapped her daughter.

Although Berke's company initially emphasized background checks on nannies, the video surveillance part of her business has grown at a far more rapid pace and now constitutes the bulk of her work.

"There's been a regular increase in my business over the last few years, at least 20 or 30 percent a year," she says, crediting the growth to a weakening economy sending more and more parents back into the workforce and to an uptick in awareness thanks to the media.

"As 'Dateline' and other news magazines run stories on Jekyll-and-Hyde nannies, more people start talking about it and thinking about it," she says. "Every time someone does a story about it, we see a spike."

Sleicher says his nanny-cam clients are typically middle-class parents in search of a little reassurance.

"Usually, wealthy couples can afford to have one parent stay home," he says. "We're getting more the younger professional couples who are both still forging their careers. I think parental guilt comes in. They want to do something to protect their kid and they don't know what to do. Then they find out about us."

Bill San Filippo, 44, a real estate agent in Queens, N.Y., and his then-wife, Tara, a nurse, cammed their nanny a few years ago after they came home several times to find their children -- then 2 years old and 6 months old -- with completely soiled diapers. They set up a video camera they already owned on a shelf under a pile of clothes and aimed it at their bed, which doubled as a changing area for their kids. Sure enough, within just a day or two of taping, their worst fears were confirmed.

"She just went to sleep on the bed, and you heard the kids crying and crying in the background," San Filippo recalls. "I didn't have to find another thing after that. That was enough to say, 'I'm going to have to let you go.'"

With their confidence shaken, the San Filippos -- who had already gone through several other less-than-adequate nannies --decided not to take another chance. Bill left his job to stay home with the kids.

While it is legal in many states to videotape someone in your own home without dual-party consent -- federal laws curtailing the use of audio taping is the only pertinent law currently on the books, and its application to nanny cams is murky at best -- nanny cams do raise thorny privacy issues.

Jay Stanley, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty program, says the lack of legislation regulating the use of nanny cams and other forms of covert surveillance reflects our legal system's inability to keep pace with technology. "It takes the laws a while to digest" new technology and new uses for existing technology, he says, adding that there is an "aching need" in the United States for a "comprehensive overarching law that establishes some broad principles of privacy."

The use of nanny cams, Stanley says, runs contrary to our societal principles of fairness. "People should not be monitored without their knowledge and consent," he contends. "Most baby sitters are not harming children and they have a right to a certain amount of dignity."

Stanley concedes that, because they are protecting children, nanny cams may be "the best case you can make" for covert surveillance, but that their increasingly widespread use nevertheless challenges the "overarching privacy principles that have served us well across a wide variety of fields and that express basic notions of fairness."

Stanley's argument is not lost on Carrie O'Neill (not her real name), 42, a New York writer, psychologist and mother of a 1-year-old whose nanny was cammed by a previous employer without her knowledge. The information gleaned from the previous employer's nanny cam and imparted to O'Neill when she called to check references -- that the nanny was even better with the kids when the parents had left the house than when the parents were there -- felt "like insurance."

But as profoundly relieved as she is to know that her babysitter looked as good on camera as off, O'Neill says she feels "totally guilty about being the beneficiary" of an action she considers deceitful.

"It might occur to me to want to do it, but I would never do it," she says. "It strikes me as something profoundly wrong to do to somebody without their consent. It's a violation."

For nannies, this erosion of privacy is not just theoretical. It's personal. And it deeply concerns Pat Cascio, president of the International Nanny Association, which discourages covert camming.

"What if a nanny is feeding a baby and the baby spits up all over her," she says. "She takes off her blouse and possibly even her slacks to go launder them and now you've got a tape that you're watching of her in her underwear. That's not fair."

What's more, Cascio says she's not surprised that so many covert cammers find something bad going on at home. "These are people who already suspect something is going wrong," she says. If there's any doubt in parents' minds that their employee is doing her job, Cascio says, "I would suggest replacing her immediately rather than trying to catch her at something."

But interestingly, while Cascio is no fan of camming "on the sneak," she does think the camera can have a place in the nanny-parent relationship.

"If the parents approach this in a positive light and say we're going to use this as an evaluation tool as well as to keep connected to the baby and how he or she spends her day," Cascio says, "I think then the nanny could say, 'I think that's good. You can't be there, but I'd love to have you see him take his first steps or see how much he had to eat today or how funny he was when he made this face or whatever.' Then it's a relationship-building tool rather than something that destroys a relationship."

In fact, some nannies view camming as an insurance policy of their own.

"I'm all for cameras," says Mary, 23, an Irish nanny who has been in the States for four years and currently works for a family in Manhattan. "The way I see it, it's covering my back, too."

A few years ago, Mary says, she took a job for a family knowing that there was a camera in the house. The couple who hired her didn't tell her and had no idea that Mary knew it was there. She'd been tipped off by the family's prior nanny.

"I was actually glad it was there because one of the kids had attention deficit disorder and she was constantly beating up on her younger sister," says Mary. "One day, the older one pushed the younger one and the younger one pushed her back and they both turned to me and said, 'We're telling my mommy you hit us.' I was like, oh my God. So in that case it was excellent that it was there."

Mary, who now works for a couple she calls her "best friends," says she'd be hurt if her current employers installed a camera without telling her because it would indicate a lack of trust, but if they put one in and told her, she says, she'd be "quite happy."

"To me, not being from the United States, I don't have a lot of rights in this country compared to what I would have in my own country. If there'd been a camera in the Louise Woodward case, they would have been able to pinpoint what happened to that little child," she says, alluding to the controversial case in which a British nanny was convicted of murdering the 8-month-old boy under her care (the charge was later reduced to involuntary manslaughter).

But not all nannies are as gung-ho about cameras as Mary. Take Paola Di Marco, 27, a nanny from Argentina who cares for small children for several families in Brooklyn. She says she can see the value of a camera to parents, but admits she'd be horrified -- for reasons that have nothing to do with her childcare skills -- if she found out she'd been secretly monitored by an employer.

"If nobody tells you there's a camera there," she says, "that's crossing a line."

Di Marco worries about parents watching her in private moments. For example, "sometimes I might hike up my panties when the kids are around because I know they don't care," she says. "But if I know that then his or her parents can see me do that? You have the right to control what someone sees you do."

Ultimately, Cascio says, if parents really do their research, hire well and watch for cues from their child, they won't "need to be sneaking around putting cameras on" their nannies.

But what about the Barrons? They interviewed, checked references, saw the nanny interacting well with their child. Could their situation have been avoided?

Jake says that in retrospect there were some red flags: the nanny's allusion to having had an abusive parent, the controlling husband who accompanied her to the interview, and the general feeling that Jake and Anna couldn't shake that something was not quite right. They might have overlooked these things, Jake admits, because they were so desperate for someone to care for Evan.

The next time the Barrons looked for a nanny, however, they played it safe. They hired a woman they knew, who had cared for a neighbor's child, and who they had seen interact with children for years. They loved her. Evan loved her. And no, they didn't cam her. Says Jake: "We just didn't feel the need."

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

Amy Reiter

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