Invasion of the nanny snatchers

They circle the school gates searching for 'supernannies'. They lure them away from happy families with promises of fat salaries, fast cars and luxury breaks. Nothing will stop their hunt for top-notch childcare. Stephen Khan investigates
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Tense, overworked and underslept, the woman prepares to take a desperate measure. She lurks behind bookshelves on the third floor of major department store, peering towards a small group of children not 30 metres away. Sidling along the aisle, she puts down copies of hardback books Dear Zoo and Touch The Animals that acted as camouflage. Circling behind the unsuspecting trio of toddlers, her eyes narrow.

Tense, overworked and underslept, the woman prepares to take a desperate measure. She lurks behind bookshelves on the third floor of major department store, peering towards a small group of children not 30 metres away. Sidling along the aisle, she puts down copies of hardback books Dear Zoo and Touch The Animals that acted as camouflage. Circling behind the unsuspecting trio of toddlers, her eyes narrow.

Yet it not the little ones this predator stalks. They scurry about behind the apparent target - their nanny. But just as the stressed stalker is about to strike, she stops and heads for the escalator. Her nerves, it seems, have got the better of her. For the nanny it is a narrow escape - or perhaps a missed opportunity. Elite child carers are in demand like never before. And that is throwing up bidding wars that begin in the most unlikely locations. Nanny snatching is sweeping the country's swankier neighbourhoods, and while some see it as an opportunity to maximise earnings, for others this is a heartless act that leaves its young victims distraught.

Outside a childrenswear store on London's Kings Road, I am confronted with wall-to-wall nannies. Yet, one teary-eyed, lonely mother bleats that her life has been turned upside down. Just when she had the perfect set-up, the nanny was nabbed and the unthinkable looms - looking after traumatised children herself.

"I'd had the same girl through an agency for about a year and all seemed well," explains the former PR consultant. "Then one day, I get a call telling me she won't be coming back. A month later, when I went to pick up my youngest from the nursery, there she was, with another woman's children. I knew that woman - I thought she was my friend. And she knew my nanny was good.

"My two had become so attached [to the nanny]. It took them months to get over it. They really loved her and couldn't understand why she was with other children. We all feel betrayed. I wonder how some women can sleep at night."

European Union expansion has seen an influx of young women ready to change nappies and go for walks in the park. The trouble is that nowadays, that's simply not enough. The well-to-do want something special. They demand a Supernanny.

In her Channel 4 television series, power-dressing child tamer Jo Frost takes on jobs that would floor heavyweight boxers and succeeds. Such legendary abilities have already given mothers big ideas about what can be achieved. There has never been a better time to be a nanny with a hot reputation.

"Everyone's looking for a Jo Frost now," says Jean Birtles, of the leading London agency Top Notch Nannies. "I've had families who have interviewed more than 30 good candidates but turn them all down. Then, they'll hear of a person they think can do the job and so they make an approach on their own."

Birtles says it is commonplace for unscrupulous nanny-seekers to hang around outside nurseries waiting for the person they have heard can cure their domestic ills. Often this move is made in an attempt to cut costs - a leading-edge nanny can now earn more than £30,000 a year. Many of the clients of agencies such as Top Notch are Americans living and working in the UK and with the recent declining fortunes of the dollar, they are looking to make cost savings.

And it is from the United States that the ruthless art of personnel theft has been imported. Prime-time television programme Desperate Housewives showed how to go about it. "Where can I go to score some high-grade nanny," Lynette, the highly-strung mother of four asked before taking her aggressive hunt to a local park. There, she sauntered up to an unsuspecting young child-rearer. The deal was done and the nanny hired, only to be fired after a few days, when the mother fears her husband is taking a liking to the new arrival. Yet this is not just the stuff of fiction. While most nannies remain true to the families they work with, sometimes the offer is simply too good to turn down. There have even been reports of unscrupulous agencies seducing top operators in recent months, but the type of approach where the mother knows the competition appears to be most common in the UK.

Demand for top-drawer professionals has led mothers to mount elaborate operations, approaching random nannies and offering lump sums of cash and improved conditions to secure their services. Often they will simply not take no for an answer, pursuing their quarry by text message and e-mail for months on end.

One nanny who has fended off repeated attempts to lure her is Jani Dodic. "A friend of a friend offered me a one-off payment of £1,500 to leave my current family to join him," she explains.

But he was persistent. "I kept getting getting text messages trying to get me to move. He kept saying he'd pay me more money."

Dodic, though, remained resolute. "We are professionals. And if we want to be regarded as professionals then we have to behave in a professional manner.

"I turned down the offer because I am with great family now. But it is more than that. I feel I owe it to the children. I put my feelings into this job and you have to think of the children. This is not like working in an office. The children trust and love you and you have to respect that."

However, Dodic adds that "lots of girls are tempted".

The spate of desertions and attempted nanny-nappings also feeds into the "to work or not to work" quandary felt by lots of women with successful careers to return to. One City lawyer who has recently gone back to the office explains that she's had a stressful time rebutting an approach made to her nanny: "Having to deal with something like this, doesn't make going back any easier. It's hard enough having a child."

Of course, such demand is forcing up prices. Fewer nannies want to live-in and the average wage of a day nanny was £27,000 last year. That's £27,000 to spend all day at work and return home to find the little ones all hyperactive and hungry. A working mother employing a daily nanny in central London at £350 per week would have to earn more than £35,500 simply to cover the cost of her nanny's gross salary plus employers' National Insurance contributions. Even in other cities, working mothers have to bring in more than £20,000 to cover costs.

Yet the fear that keeps them working is that if they stay at home, they will have to do so with no help whatsoever, or still face big bills. The cost of childcare underwent a rapid growth spurt last year, rising by an inflation-busting 5 per cent for nurseries and childminders. The weekly cost of a nursery for a child under two in central London rose by 17 per cent to £197 a week. In Scotland and Wales, parents pay about £120 a week, while in the West Midlands parents pay the lowest nursery bills at just £114 a week. One mother who gave up a job and then lost her nanny was treated to an explanation from a former friend.

"She told me that her children were entitled to the very best care because she had to work. And although she offered not to hire her if it would damage our relationship, she went ahead and did just that." The nanny was lost, and a friendship poisoned.

Back on the Kings Road, of the more than a dozen nannies gathered, almost all tell me they've been approached by a fraught-looking mother attempting to lure them off. "Usually, they try to do a deal that doesn't involve an agent," says one. "They say they'll pass savings on to us."

To mount a successful poach, though, you usually have to get to know the target. Ayesha Field is a 27-year-old from Durban, South Africa, who has been working in London for two years. To supplement her nannying earnings she also does babysitting work. Such is the intensity of competition, she found herself caught in the middle of a battle between two friends for her services.

"The client introduced me to one of his friends and then the friend hired me. Soon they wanted me on the same days and I think it caused some discussions between them."

Field, though, insists, that as a nanny she remains loyal to one family at a time. Currently that sees her working in London's Holland Park, but the job involves plenty of travelling. "I've a trip coming up to Wyoming. It'll be for five weeks and I get to go skiing. I like jobs where I get to travel and my current family is great."

Yes, never have there been so many jet-set nannies. Some might have to slum it in economy class with the children, while mum and dad luxuriate at the front of the plane, but generally the perks have never been so good. On top of asking for travel opportunities, most of the high-graders enjoy gym membership and get the keys to a smart car.

Close to St Luke's park, Jeep Grand Cherokees and BMW X5s jostle for parking spaces. Young drivers wrestle with baby seats in the back before taking their charges out to catch a few minutes of sunshine. And when the heavens open, they fold up pushchairs and head back to the cars, tearful children in tow.

It's never going to be an easy job. But in this, a golden triangle for nanny poachers, there's always the chance that someone could come along and make it a little better.

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