- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2001

When their third child was on the way, Scott and Laura Gerke, working parents from Vienna, started add-ing up the potential day care costs.

After weighing their options, the Gerkes decided to hire an au pair, a young woman from a foreign country, to live in their home for 12 months and experience American life and culture while providing child care.

More than seven years later, the Gerkes still think theirs was a good decision. They have since added a fourth child, and nine au pairs have lived in their basement bedroom.

"We've had au pairs from Holland, Poland, Ireland, France, Norway and three from Germany," says Mrs. Gerke, who works for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "We figure we will go on a world tour one day. We think it is more convenient to have someone in our home because our kids (ages 15, 11, 7 and 2) are different ages. It has worked out very well."

In bringing au pairs to America, the Gerkes have followed strict rules. They have worked with Au Pair USA, one of six State Department-recognized au-pair agencies.

The government guidelines state that au pairs must be between ages 18 and 26. They cannot work more than 45 hours a week, must get one full weekend off per month, be given a private bedroom and meals, and be paid no less than $139.05 per week. Au pairs typically receive eight hours of child-safety training and 24 hours of child-development training by the au-pair agency before they are placed with a family.

Host families, as families such as the Gerkes are called, also must live within an hour's drive of a local organizational representative and pay up to $500 of the cost of a local college course.

"At first we were concerned about a lack of privacy," Mrs. Gerke says, "but with three kids, we realized we didn't have privacy anymore anyway."

The Gerkes set down their own rules, though. Their current au pair, Hanneke van Riel, 21, from Holland, must be home by midnight on weeknights. She has been coached on safe driving and has learned from the Gerkes what emergency measures must be taken in the event that Dorothea, the Gerkes' 7-year-old, who has multiple disabilities, has a seizure.

"We have really worked so hard to make sure our au pairs are members of the family and not a servant," Mrs. Gerke says. "That is not always the case with some families. The bottom line is this is supposed to be a cultural experience for them."

Nannies and au pairs: The same?

The fact that the au pair — which literally translated from French means "on par" with the family — is in America for the cultural exchange is the main difference between an au pair and a nanny, says Pat Cascio, president of the International Nanny Association and founder of a Houston nanny agency.

"An au pair is a person who is in the country for up to one year to experience American life and receive a small stipend," Ms. Cascio says. "She may or may not have experience. A nanny is one who may live in or out of your home and may have formal training but often has a good deal of experience."

Ms. Cascio does not like to see the terms confused.

"An au pair is usually about 19 to 21 years old," she says. "A nanny is an adult woman who has chosen child care as a profession. She makes, on the average, about $22,000 to $30,000 a year, as opposed to $140 a week."

Ms. Cascio says she thinks it is risky to leave small children, particularly infants, with an au pair, whose training in child care may be limited.

"I could see how an au pair would be a good arrangement for a stay-at-home mom who just needed an extra hand or someone to drive children to activities," she says. "As a career parent, I would not do it."

The entrusting of infants to au pairs received particularly negative attention four years ago, when British au pair Louise Woodward was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the shaking death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen. A judge reduced the charge to involuntary manslaughter, but the fallout remains.

Following that incident, the government strengthened the rules about au pairs caring for infants. Since 1997, any au pair hired to care for a child younger than 2 must have 200 hours of documented experience in infant care. Other changes include a requirement for child care references for au-pair candidates, as well as a background check and psychological testing. Additionally, an adult must be home when an au pair is caring for an infant younger than 3 months old.

"We are happy with the changes," says Jacquie Bray, chief executive officer of Utah-based Go Au Pair, another recognized agency.

Ingrid Constantine of Reston says she had initial concerns about having an au pair care for her sons, who were 1 and 3. A South African woman came to live with the family in August 2000. Mrs. Constantine says she thought it would be a good fit because she and her husband, Walter, both work from home some of the time and would be able to keep an eye on whoever was watching the children.

"I think Au Pair in America (the agency with which the Constantines worked) did a good job of screening and training," she says. "We really trusted Marissa (the au pair), but she had to earn our trust, and she did. It wasn't like she was a teacher and had a curriculum, but she did a lot of activities with the kids. She didn't just throw on a video and talk on the phone."

Paul Christianson, director of Au Pair USA, says about 60 percent of his customers are repeat customers, families such as the Gerkes who sign up year after year.

"An au pair is not a professional child care provider," Mr. Christianson says, "but some families like that. They can direct an au pair to fit better in their family. We have a good selection process. There is no way to claim it is foolproof, but you try your best."

Who becomes an au pair?

Marissa Van Niekerk, 20, the Constantines' former au pair, knew she wanted to travel and improve her English. She signed up with Au Pair in America, excited to experience her year abroad. She took her child care responsibilities seriously, she says.

"The big part of this job is taking care of kids," Miss Van Niekerk says. "If you won't like kids, you will not make it. The biggest adjustment is getting to know the family and how compatible you will be."

After an initial adjustment period, things worked out for Miss Van Niekerk and the Constantines. Things do not always go so smoothly in other homes, though. Despite e-mail and phone communication before placement, sometimes an au pair and a family are just a poor fit. The au-pair agencies have a process to replace the au pair should that happen.

Susan Gates, a mother of three from Vienna, has had seven au pairs since 1990. She says she was incredibly nervous when she hired her first au pair. The Danish woman realized after a week that she did not want the job and left.

"It was so disconcerting," Mrs. Gates says. An Austrian woman arrived soon after and stayed the year. For the most part, having a succession of au pairs has worked well, Mrs. Gates says.

"You have to learn to pick your battles," she says. "You have to accept that a 19-year-old isn't going to sweep floors the way you want it. Then you move on."

Getting used to having at teen-ager in the house is part of the adjustment, many host parents say. Teen concerns such as underage drinking, dating, obeying curfew and even moodiness can be an issue in some cases. Mrs. Gates says one au pair became pregnant near the end of her stay with the family.

Homesickness also can be a problem in the beginning. The Gerkes had one au pair who left after three months because she didn't adjust. Taking care of children most of the day in a country far from home can be isolating and stressful. Part of the job of local coordinators is to have regular meetings and social events for area au pairs to meet one another.

"We do training with the au pairs and tell them about the stages of homesickness they might experience," Mrs. Bray says. "The local counselors work with them, giving them names of other au pairs and encouraging them to call and make a circle of friends."

Miss Van Niekirk, who says she was homesick at first, made a wide circle of au-pair friends during her time here. She also thought more about her future.

"It was challenging," she says, "but it was a good experience. I think about the world more. I want to explore more."

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