How to Find Fabulous In-Home Care

Desperately Seeking...Mary Poppins
By Jennifer Anthony
SouthFlorida.com

You need help. It's OK to admit it. Maybe it's time to go back to work after eight blissful weeks of maternity leave. Or perhaps you are the mother of three school-aged kids looking for a clone. Possibly, you just need a night out to remember that guy living in your house who looks like your kids.

Whatever your childcare needs may be, if you've decided you'd like the convenience and flexibility of having an in-home caregiver, you still have lots more decision-making to do.

Should you go with a nanny? How about an au pair - like an exchange student who takes care of the kids. Your sister-in-law offered a few days a week.

Hmmm....Unless your plan includes waiting for the wind to change, bringing a rosy-cheeked woman with an umbrella and big bag filled with magic to your door, you'll need to start exploring the options available to fulfill your family's in-home childcare needs. So, let's start at the very beginning ... it's a very good place to start.

1. Analyze your needs. Start by creating a job description for your ideal care provider. Consider items like these: Do you need full-time care, part-time care, maybe just a date night every week? Will your candidate live in your house? Would you like someone young and full of soccer-playing, swimming and puppet-show-staging energy? Or perhaps you are looking for a grandmotherly type who reads books and makes crafts. Would you like a "manny" to help care for your rambunctious boys? Will you want someone who can handle basic housekeeping chores beyond teaching kids to pick up toys? Will he or she need to travel with you? How flexible do you need this person to be? Do you often find yourself working late or attending last minute functions? Patricia Magnole, a South Florida nanny and protege of the late "Baby Whisperer" Tracy Hogg, gives parents this advice: "hire a nanny to care for the kids, hire a housekeeper to care for the house. In other words, be sure to define the role of the nanny before you hire her." 2. Assess your finances. Figure out how much you are able to spend. Be honest with yourself about your budget and remember this is no area to skimp. It's OK to ask around and find out what friends or co-workers are paying, but be sure you are comparing apples to apples. Depending on your needs, the dollar amount is going to vary from nanny to Nanny, family to family. In the United States, a nanny is paid about $12 per hour depending on previous salary history, experience level, educational background and job duties. Finding a Nanny though a referral agency will cost you a finder's fee that varies from agency to agency. Nanny Poppinz, a Coral Springs based corporation with 23 franchises nationwide, charges 10 percent of the Nanny's gross annual salary after placement. There is no up-front fee.

An au pair can be a more economical option since they are paid a very low salary in exchange for room and board. However, the fees involved in finding and placing an au pair through a reputable agency can rival that of a Nanny placement, usually averaging about $7,000. Also, au pairs are required to attend college or university while in the country, at least six credit hours during their stay, and that tab falls with you.

Even if you have a family member in mind for the job, consider the expenses involved during the day to day life of caring for your child such as diapers, wipes, formula, bottles, meals, day trips to the movies, the zoo, a new blouse to replace the one the baby spit up on and very nice holiday gifts.

3. Explore your options. Now that you have a clear picture of what you are looking for, it's time to start the hunt for that perfect someone. The No. 1concern for most parents is safety. The idea of having a stranger come into your home and care for your kids gives most moms pause. Luckily, reputable childcare referral agencies are just as concerned about the issue as you are. Susan McCloskey, who along with Deneane Maldonado founded Nanny Poppinz, is a former federal agent with the Inspector General's office. She takes the background check very seriously.

"We will not send a Nanny to meet with you unless she is ready to be hired,"says McCloskey. "Some companies don't want to spend the money on a background screening in case the family doesn't want to hire them. Not so with Nanny Poppinz."The agency begins the screening process with a telephone conversation. Interviewers ask the prospect lots of open-ended questions and ask for at least three letters of reference. The letters of reference, McCloskey says, are at the core of the process. The next step is an extensive criminal background check, county criminal records check, a Department of Motor Vehicles check, and, if needed, verification of a legal working visa. In addition, the applicant must speak English clearly, have at least three years of childcare experience and be at least 18 years old. Nanny Poppinz nannies are trained in first aid and American Red Cross CPR.

There are few safety concerns when it's a trusted family member interviewing for the position, but take care here as well: Does your mom know CPR? Is there a pool at your house or hers, and if so, what kind of precautions are taken to prevent drowning? Are your older relatives up on the latest childcare safety issues, for example, do they know that the baby should not be put to sleep on his stomach or that you should never give honey to a child younger than 1?

Lastly, as controversial as they may be, "nannycams," video cameras placed in the home to monitor the childcare worker's day, are becoming a popular with parents. Nanny Patricia Magnole says she wouldn't hire a childcare worker without a "nannycam."She says: "If they don't like it, what do they have to hide?"

The second most important concern for your family is whether you will like the person you hire. Compatibility is a huge issue when searching for childcare, especially the live-in variety.

In any situation, there's going to be a learning curve. There are natural rhythms to be established and three parties - child, parent and caregiver - to get on board. Referral agencies both for nannies and au pairs generally give applicants a psychometric test or personality profile as an added way of assuring domestic bliss.

"It's quite like finding your ideal match when looking for a mate,"says Samantha Mckenzie, local childcare coordinator in Coconut Creek for Cultural Care Au Pair. In the case of an au pair, McKenzie says, the individual is in the United States, essentially, to become like a member of your family. McKenzie's job is to find just that right match and, once the au pair is placed, to become a liaison between the agency, Nanny and host family.

With a Nanny, McClosky says, the agency offers parents as many candidates as they need to guarantee a perfect fit as well as a six-month grace period if things don't work out. "Most moms will know within the first week if they've found the right person,"she says, "but situations change too and we want to be sure each family is satisfied."

4. You've found her - now what? "Make a work agreement," says Susan McCloskey. A contract of terms is, according to parents and caregivers alike, essential for harmonious employer / employee relationships. Carefully detail what is expected of your caregiver and what she should expect from your family.

The federal government regulates au pairs. They may only work up to 45 hours a week, no more than 10 hours per day. They are required one and a half days off a week with one full two-day weekend off each month and a paid two-week vacation during their year stay. And they must be paid at least a minimum wage of $187 per week, as of June 2008. They are provided health care through their referral agency and must have representation through a local coordinator to resolve disputes.

The federal government does not regulate domestic workers, so the onus is on families and caregivers to come to a fair agreement of terms. This should include expected hours and overtime pay, days off and vacation time, sick leave, healthcare, transportation expenses including gas, cell phone usage related to the job and a petty cash fund for incidentals. Don't forget to include a written acknowledgement of important items like allergies and what to do in case of an emergency. Don't be afraid of getting really picky with these documents. "So many problems can be avoided with a well thought out contract,"says Patricia Magnole.

Last, but not least, don't forget about taxes. According to Breedlove and Associates, a firm that supplies household employers with tax and payroll services, employers should withhold 15 to 20 percent of an employee's gross wages - and pay employment taxes that amount to 9 to 10 percent of the employee's gross wages. There are tax breaks available to employers through the Tax Credit for Child or Dependent Care.

Once again, it's just as important to have some kind of firm agreement when it comes to family help. Although it need not be as formal as a working contract with a Nanny or au pair, some terms should be established if a family member cares for your child to prevent hurt feelings and family rifts.

Hopefully, after this long (or short) process has come to a happy completion, you may not end up with a beautiful songbird of a creature who can construct children's garments from drapes, make a singing chorus of your family and who used to be a nun - but really, who could live with that?

Jennifer Anthony is the mother of two and a frequent contributor. She lives in Lake Worth.