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Stories From the Front: Horrors of Baby-Sitting : Child care: Sitters often get more than they bargain for. (Just ask the Pittsburgh teen-ager who cared for four kids for 16 days.) It takes clear thinking and assertiveness to make it work.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 5-year-old boy thought he would fake out the new baby-sitter by hiding under the bed. And this kid could hide, 13-year-old Anna Harrison of La Canada Flintridge recalled. She searched every inch of the house, calling the boy’s name, and even went to a neighbor’s home to look for him before the child crawled out, laughing uproariously.

“Oh yes, didn’t I tell you about that?” his mother said later, way too casually. “He doesthat all the time.”

In the annals of baby-sitters’ horror stories, Anna’s tale doesn’t even come close to the widely publicized ordeal of 14-year-old Angela Morris of Pittsburgh. But situations in which young baby-sitters are exploited or even abused are far more common than most adults realize, according to experts and sitters themselves.

In Angela’s case, the eighth-grader agreed to watch four children for three days earlier this month while their parents worked out of state. Her pay was to be $75--just above $1 per hour.

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But three days came and went, and the parents failed to return. Concerned that if she contacted town authorities, the children would be shipped to separate foster homes, Angela called a meeting in a neighborhood pizza shop and organized an ad hoc baby-sitting consortium.

By the time the mom and dad finally showed up 16 days later--to be charged with endangering the welfare of their children--Angela had drafted three friends to help and had resorted to using her own money to feed her young charges.

At the Jane Neff Middle School in Pittsburgh, Assistant Principal George Shevchik complimented the student for compassion and ingenuity under duress, and said plaudits for Angela had even come from the White House.

He described Angela as remarkably self-possessed. “She actually apologized to me for causing such a disturbance,” Shevchik marveled.

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Mindy Bingham, a Santa Barbara specialist in adolescent female development, also characterized the Pittsburgh teen-ager’s resourcefulness as exemplary.

“When I heard about this story, I went, ‘YES!’ ” said Bingham, whose newest book, “Things Will Be Different for My Daughter,” will be published by Viking in February. She praised the young baby-sitter as “a problem-solver, a critical thinker who was capable of coming up with creative solutions.”

In retrospect, Bingham said she could have used a dose of that kind of clearheadedness in her own youthful days of baby-sitting. She was “all of 11 or 12 years old” when a neighbor offered her the then-standard fee of 35 cents per hour to watch an infant for the afternoon. “She said the baby would be sleeping, and so, by the way, would I do the dishes?” Bingham recalled.

What greeted her was a week’s worth of filthy dishes, “every dish in the house,” Bingham said, still shuddering, “including pans crusted with boiled milk.”

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But most early adolescents have not yet learned the language of assertiveness. Setting boundaries, defining the terms of a job “are not skills that we teach young people,” Bingham said. “Therefore the kids who are baby-sitting can easily get themselves into situations where they are taken advantage of.”

Veteran sitters say it is not uncommon to be kicked, hit, sworn at or even spat upon by the children they look after. Informed of their children’s misbehavior, parents may respond by denial, by shrugging it off or by blaming the sitter for provoking such uncharacteristic actions in their perfect little angels.

“Everybody runs into terrible, terrible 2-year-olds, twins that are impossible and horribly spoiled children,” said Craig Walker, who as editorial director of Scholastic Books in New York reviews much of the correspondence that comes to Ann Martin, author of the wildly successful “Babysitters Club” series of books for young readers.

Books from Martin’s 77-title series about “hard-to-handle kids” ring especially true to her readers, Walker said.

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But sitters are often hesitant to mention misconduct. Most are too young and too inexperienced to seek employment elsewhere. And as Anna Harrison pointed out, “You don’t want to complain because you might lose the job.”

Anna’s sister, Sabrina Harrison, now an 18-year-old college student in Oakland, recounts a baby-sitting nightmare of her own. As an example of “just a slight little something that they forgot to put on their list,” as Harrison put it, the parents of an 8-year-old boy she was caring for neglected to tell her that the boy needed medication--"Ritalin I think it was"--to treat a behavioral disorder.

On her watch, the medication wore off. Abruptly, the child bolted out the front door and began racing “down the side of the Angeles Crest Highway,” nearby. With the boy’s older brother to help, Harrison chased after the 8-year-old and subdued him.

“The mother was like, ‘Oh whoops,’ when I told her,” she said. Fortunately, she has repressed some of her other equally traumatic adventures in baby-sitting. “But I know I have come home crying after baby-sitting, many times,” Harrison said.

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Still, cases of abuse by baby-sitters tend to get more attention than incidents where the sitters themselves are mistreated. To Mark Lattman, whose family has owned the Babysitters Guild in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, the focus seems misplaced.

“It’s a lot more common the other direction,” where the baby-sitters are abused or exploited, not the children they are taking care of, Lattman said. On several occasions, customers have stayed out all night unexpectedly, Lattman said. “We actually had one situation where the sitter had to bring the baby into the office here because she had another job to go to.”

That case, he said, ended up in the hands of county child welfare officials.


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