Fallout from Woodward case hits au pair industry

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An agency that supplies British au pairs for American families is launching a recruiting drive to counteract a severe slump in applicants since the trial of Louise Woodward

The experience of Miss Woodward, who was convicted of killing a baby, Matthew Eappen, in 1997 while she was working as an au pair in Massachusetts, has proved to be a strong deterrent for British students considering a gap year in the United States.

The American Institute for Foreign Study, the biggest recruiter of au pairs from Britain, said applications had fallen from 1,400 in 1996 to only 60 last year. To counter the decline, the company has launched a scheme, called EduCare, to tempt hundreds of men and women aged 18 to 26 to spend one year as a "companion" of a school-age child from an American family.

Demand for British au pairs is high in America, where parents often retain a "vision of Mary Poppins" and feel reassured by the lack of obvious language or cultural obstacles.

Marcie Schneider, director of the new EduCare programme, said the unmet demand was such that the company could place unlimited numbers of suitable candidates.

She said: "There are hundreds of good American families who are very keen to welcome British au pairs. There is an even closer alliance now in America since 11 September. I know that a lot of young women were put off going to the States because of the Woodward case but this programme is very different. It is both safe and rewarding, and a great opportunity for the right young person."

Louise Woodward was convicted of second-degree murder after the prosecution claimed she had shaken eight-month old Matthew Eappen so violently and banged his head down so hard that he suffered a skull fracture and internal bleeding.

But she was allowed to walk free in October 1997 when the judge reduced the conviction to involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her to the time she had already spent in prison.

Ms Woodward, from Chester, continued to claim her innocence on her return to England, insisting she had done nothing to hurt the child while employed by the Eappen family.

In a response to that case, Ms Schneider said applicants for the new Educare programme would only care for children above the age of six for a maximum of 30 hours a week. That could involve pre-school and after-school care, help with homework, giving children lifts to special activities and acting as a "companion."

Candidates would have to prove they had 200 hours of childcare experience, possibly through babysitting. As well as an interview, they would have psychological screening. Criminal records and references would be checked.

Those accepted have to pay a £585 joining fee. In return, they are flown to America where they spend the first four days on an induction course before being placed with families who provide board and lodgings and pocket money of £74 a week. The family also pays £709 towards tuition fees for any courses the au pair wishes to pursue at local colleges. A network of counsellors is available for the au pairs to contact with any problems.

The AIFS, which also runs Camp America, recruits au pairs from 48 countries including those in Western Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. The highest number of requests is for British au pairs.

Jean Quinn, the AIFS deputy director who monitors placements in the States, said: "For a long time, British au pairs have been the most requested. The Louise Woodward case did nothing to decrease demand. It just raised awareness about au pairs as a childcare option."

'I made fabulous friends ... I'm so pleased I went'

Nicola Slide's friends were horrified when she agreed to spend a year as an au pair in the Washington commuter belt. "You must be crazy after Louise Woodward," almost all of them said.

But Ms Slide, aged 20 and now studying history at university, said she had a "fantastic experience" that made her a more confident, outgoing and mature person.

Ms Slide was the 14th au pair to look after Shane and Paige Spencer, twin sisters aged 13, living in Columbia, Maryland, with their father, Greg, a civil servant, and mother, Maura, a manager. "Every person I told about the trip brought up Louise Woodward," she said. "But I saw that as a one-off. I became very close to the family and I made some fabulous friends.

"Living with a family and working for the same people can be very challenging. I learnt a lot about myself. It made me more confident and able to adapt to new situations."

Ms Slide, from Chelmsford, Essex, said taking a gap year after her A-levels was one of the best things she could have done. She travelled extensively in America thanks to a 13-month visa that allowed her a one-month holiday at the end of her job. The American Institute for Foreign Study put her in touch with other au pairs in the region so she had a busy social life.

Ms Slide, who is studying at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: "I made the most fabulous friends. When you are a foreigner in a different place you create a bond with people that you wouldn't have been able to do at home. I am so pleased I went."

By Lorna Duckworth