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Home Court Advantage : More families are going the nanny route these days. But you can’t be too careful when selecting a person to entrust with your children.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jody and Rob Sise had heard the horror stories from new parents and figured finding quality, affordable child care for their newborn Rachael would be a task of Homeric proportions.

Waiting lists at one of the better child-care centers can be years long. Even finding one to take a newborn is a chore. Only 17% of California centers accept infants, said Patty Siegel, executive director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

And then there was the worry. Would Rachael get enough attention in a big day-care center? Would a center be able to accommodate the Sises’ long hours at work? (He is a field chemist who works on call; she sells radio ads.)

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In the end, they did what more and more two-career parents are doing: They hired a nanny. Although more expensive than day-care centers--from $175 to $250 a week compared to an average of $120 a week for center-based care--nannies are no longer the province of the rich.

“In-home care is more commonplace today and has definitely become an option for the middle class,” said Wendy Sachs, president of the International Nanny Assn., a nonprofit group of parents, agencies and recruiters headquartered in Austin, Texas.

The search was no less stressful for the Sises, though. The thought of hiring someone to spend more waking hours with 4-month-old Rachael--their first child--than she would overwhelmed Jody, who began searching for a nanny in the last month of her maternity leave.

“I was panicked. I was worried I didn’t leave enough time and I wouldn’t be able to find what I wanted,” Jody said, echoing the sentiments of more than half the respondents to a 1995 survey by Nanny News. They said looking for a nanny “felt like a crisis.”

The most common reason: the shortage of qualified candidates. Indeed, demand for nannies who are qualified, experienced and affordable far exceeds supply. To ease the stress, child-care experts suggest planning on at least six weeks to complete a search.

Couples should define their needs and priorities early, said Barbara Reisman, executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign, an information clearinghouse in New York. It helps to draft a list of expectations regarding the ideal candidate’s character and experience, and the duties involved.

After completing the job description, parents can move to the next step: deciding whether to hire through an agency. Agencies provide access to a large pool of qualified applicants but charge steep fees--anywhere from $645 to $3,000--to place a nanny.

Since agencies are not regulated in California, parents should interview them just as they would a nanny, said Cindy Swanson, program manager of TrustLine, a registry sponsored by the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network and the California Justice Department.

All agencies in California are required by law to register their candidates with TrustLine, created by the state Legislature to check the names and fingerprints of child-care providers against criminal records and the California Child Abuse Central Index. If a candidate’s record comes up clean, the name is added to the register and parents can call to see if it’s listed. Be aware that TrustLine only checks a nanny’s criminal history in California and does not provide a recommendation of the candidate.

Child-care experts also suggest requesting a written file on each applicant from the agency. This file should include motor vehicle record, criminal background check and reference reports. Ask for references from other clients and call the Better Business Bureau to see if the agency has a record of complaints.

Steve Lampert, owner of Buckingham Nannies, an 8-year-old agency based in Sherman Oaks, said nannies must meet stringent standards before his agency agrees to represent them. To make sure the nanny’s application is truthful, the agency--which has accumulated more than 500 applications with phony references in the past six months--thoroughly reviews each nanny’s references.

The agency often has several people call each reference to ensure information provided by the nanny matches what former employers have to say, Lampert said. Also, Buckingham Nannies reviews each applicant’s DMV record in addition to the required check with TrustLine. Lampert cautioned that not all agencies conduct such comprehensive background searches.

Parents who search for a nanny on their own should build a list of applicants by chatting with friends, relatives and co-workers. Posting notices at shops and health clubs can also expand the list.

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Regardless of whether parents choose to hire an agency or to do their own search, there are several steps they should follow.

After scheduling interviews, parents should draft a list of questions that include “what if” scenarios, Reisman said, such as, “What if Rachael gets hurt?” or “What if she won’t stop crying?”

Ask the candidates why they want to be nannies, what they like to do with children, what their feelings are about discipline and how they would handle naps, eating and toilet training.

Talk about the applicant’s childhood. It’s also important that the nanny provide health records, including proof of a tuberculosis test, Reisman said. And candidates should know first aid.

At some point during the interview, parents are encouraged to let the applicant hold their child and watch how well child and nanny interact.

Industry experts recommend that parents take three steps after the interview to verify the applicant’s credibility. First, double-check all job histories by interviewing leading candidates’ references over the phone--even if an agency has already done so, said Jane McIntosh, editor of Nanny News newsletter.

Ask previous employers specific questions about how the nanny handled certain situations. Use some of the same questions directed at the candidate--such as the names and ages of children she took care of--to make sure her reference’s responses match her own, McIntosh said.

Second, have a criminal background check done on the final candidate. A security firm will charge about $75 to check a candidate’s criminal record, employment history, and driving and credit records, checking credit mainly to ensure that the same Social Security number is being used. A credit check will also expose the use of an alias.

Third, when offering a nanny a job, draw up a contract specifying weekly wages, benefits and performance standards, Reisman said. Review this contract together and sign it.

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Employers of nannies are required by law to pay the minimum wage, withhold taxes, provide workers’ compensation and to make sure the employee is legally able to work here, Reisman said.

While it may be awkward to ask to see someone’s papers, employers are required to do so. After hiring a nanny, parents must fill out a form provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service called the I-9 to verify that the nanny is eligible to work in the U.S.

If the applicant does not have papers to document status, parents can contact the Los Angeles district office of the INS to determine what documentation the nanny is required to provide.

Because more families are turning to nannies, society is beginning to take the nanny profession more seriously, Sachs said. “More families are structuring it like a real job with benefits and paid vacation,” she added. “Just because the environment is a home environment doesn’t mean it’s less real.”


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