Use care with nanny agencies

It's perhaps the touchiest decision parents can make: whether to invite a total stranger into their home to look after the kids.

Thousands of Southern California families -- those with the financial means, that is -- routinely entrust nannies with this unique responsibility. But finding someone trustworthy is much easier said than done.

You could take your chances with websites like Craigslist, where listings for nannies proliferate. Or, for a fee of thousands of dollars, you could turn to an agency that all but guarantees a hassle-free experience.

Gelila Puck, wife of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck (of Spago fame), opted for the latter course when she and her husband decided about six weeks ago to hire a new nanny for their two young sons.

"I thought an agency would be the safest thing to do," she told me. "Now I feel so betrayed."

What the Pucks say happened to them illustrates the buyer-beware nature of the nanny business, which is subject to no state or federal regulations beyond ordinary labor laws. It also shows the importance of checking references yourself, rather than relying on an intermediary.

The Pucks were referred by an acquaintance to a Los Angeles agency, which, according to the company's website, has been operating since 1995.

Like many such agencies, this one on the Westside charges clients a one-time fee of 15% of the nanny's annual salary. This fee can range from $6,000 to $12,000.

Gelila Puck said she contacted the owner of the agency, who assured her that she deals frequently with prominent Southern California families. The owner tossed out the names of well-known movie and TV stars as regular clients.

"I felt that this was a woman I could trust," Puck said.

She said the owner eventually introduced her to a nanny whose resume stated that she'd worked from 1995 to 1999 for a Los Angeles family, from 2000 to 2005 for a family in Woodland Hills and from 2005 to 2006 for a family in Santa Monica.

"The thing that impressed me most was that she'd been at a single home for five years," Puck said. "That shows some stability."

Written references were provided to Puck by the agency for the L.A. and Santa Monica families, but not for the family in Woodland Hills where the nanny had worked longest.

Puck said she spoke with the former Santa Monica employer and then received an early-morning voice mail from the former Woodland Hills employer, who was named on the nanny's resume.

Puck kept the voice mail and played it for me.

"Hi, Gelila," it began. The agency owner "gave me your number for reference to [the nanny]. She worked with me from 2000 to 2005. She was the nanny mainly. She did some light housekeeping.

"What else can I say?" the message continued. "She drove and she did some errands sometimes. She was a really nice lady. The reason why she doesn't work anymore is because my children are getting bigger and older, and I didn't need her as much. She was a very good help. I would recommend her to you. She's a wonderful lady."

Puck hired the nanny for a salary of about $40,000, resulting in a fee of nearly $6,000 for the agency. The nanny, described by Puck as a Guatemala native in her late 30s, moved into the family's Beverly Hills home.

Shortly after joining the household, the nanny accompanied the family on a trip to New York, where Wolfgang Puck received a culinary award. After they returned to Beverly Hills, Gelila Puck decided to call the Woodland Hills employer back just to close the loop on the earlier voice mail. "I still wanted a mother-to-mother talk with her," she said.

Puck said the employer had no idea why she was calling. "She said she had never used a nanny," Puck said.

Alarmed, Puck said she called the nanny-agency owner and asked if there had been a misunderstanding. She said the owner told her that the nanny's former employer was probably just being careful.

Puck allowed a few days to pass and then called the former employer back. She said she told her she had a feeling that the employer was hiding something and she begged her to say what it was. "I didn't want my children to be in any danger," Puck said.

It was at this point, she said, that the former employer said she was actually a friend of the agency owner and had been asked to lie about having employed the nanny. "She said she didn't know who this nanny was," Puck said.

"When I found out, I broke down. I had exposed my two children to a nanny we didn't really know anything about. For all I knew, she could have hurt them."

Puck said she persuaded the former employer to join her on a three-way call with the agency owner. Puck didn't reveal at first that she was on the line.

She said the former employer accused the agency owner of getting her into trouble, and that the owner tried to calm her down by saying things weren't as bad as they seemed.

Puck said the owner told the former employer that there was nothing to worry about because the nanny had never actually started working for the Pucks. "She acted as if [the nanny] never even came to our house," Puck recalled.

Puck said she jumped into the conversation and told the agency owner that this was a lie. She said the owner lost her temper and told Puck to "get a life," and then hung up.

This happened on one of the nanny's days off. Puck said she immediately called the nanny and told her what had happened. She instructed her to collect her belongings because she was fired.

This was two weeks ago. The nanny has yet to return for her things.

The former Woodland Hills employer declined to comment when asked about Puck's allegations. "I don't want to get in any trouble," she told me.

The agency owner expressed surprise when I told her I'd spoken with Puck. "What did she tell you?" she asked warily. After I laid out the whole story, she said she had some business to attend to and would call me back in 10 minutes. She never called back and didn't return repeated follow-up calls. A woman identifying herself as her assistant said the owner would be preoccupied with other matters "forever and ever."

The nanny didn't respond to messages left on her cellphone.

Puck said she doesn't blame the nanny. "I blame the agency," she said. "People hire them to guarantee the safety of their nanny. That's why they get so much money."

Puck said she decided to go public because she wants other families to know that not all agencies are reliable, and that it's important to check all references before allowing someone into your home.

Unlike uniform standards applied to teachers and nurses, there are few state laws and no federal regulations that apply specifically to the nanny profession.

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Industrial Relations said all applicable labor laws must be followed whenever a nanny is hired, but there are no separate requirements for the job.

As a result, parents need to be especially careful when shopping for a nanny.

Julie Swales, who runs the nanny division for Elizabeth Rose Agency, one of L.A.'s best-known conduits for domestic help, said a shortage of qualified nannies in the region has prompted some people in the business to cut corners.

People are often so desperate for help, or so busy, that they don't bother checking references, Swales said. This has prompted many nannies to inflate their resumes and some agencies to knowingly place workers in clients' homes who may not be qualified for the job, she said.

"References are a problem," Swales said. "There's often a desire to make a placement and get paid."

For people with means, she advised checking out different agencies and finding one you're comfortable with. Swales said a key thing to look for is whether an agency has had a long relationship with its nannies, which should indicate greater familiarity with each nanny's skills and personality.

For people on more limited budgets, she advised steering clear of Craigslist. "It's very dangerous," she said. "You don't know who you could meet."

Instead, she said, parents should seek out local agencies that specialize in domestic help but that are closer to their price range -- and be prepared to personally double-check all references.

"It's like dating," Swales said. "Would you date someone from Craigslist or would you pay extra for EHarmony? I wouldn't date someone from Craigslist."

Ultimately, as Puck learned, you're the one responsible for bringing a stranger into your home. You want to trust those you're dealing with. But only so far.

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Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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