When 'good' nannies go bad

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 Photo: Gety Images

The jolly enthusiastic young woman sitting on Sarah Lowne's sofa certainly looked and sounded like the modern mother's answer to Mary Poppins.

As a former arts student, Carole, 26, insisted she would love nothing better than to spend hours finger-painting and playing Playdough with her nine-month-old mini client, Polly. Having worked with another family in the area, she already knew the lie of the local playgrounds and library story-reading sessions.

It is only now that Sarah can see Carole, who had answered her advert for a live-in nanny in a local magazine, was really interviewing her. Just how easily would she allow her to continue her daily routine of coffee mornings and shopping trips with her nanny friends, uninterrupted?

As a naiive first-time mum, Sarah clearly passed the nanny test with flying colours - and Carole turned out to be as creative as she promised; just not in the arts and crafts department.

On Sarah's second day back at work, while Carole was taking Polly for a walk in the park, she got a text from her saying: "I want to have sex with you tonight."

"Given there had been no hint of a frisson when I had handed over Polly's nappy bag that morning, I quickly guessed the message was meant for her boyfriend," says Sarah, 45. Carole's explanation? A friend she had bumped into had "kidnapped" her phone and sent a message as a practical joke.

Her on-the-job sexting was only the start. A few months later, Sarah and the family went abroad, leaving Carole with the only set of keys to their family car. "We returned to a fixed penalty notice on the doormat, along with a grainy picture of our vehicle cruising down a bus lane. Carole managed to look my husband in the eye as she implied a joy-rider had taken it for a spin, before returning it to its parking space."

While most long-term nannies take pride in their work and are highly responsible, there are members of the profession who, it seems, are attracted to the job for the wrong reasons - and many mums will have shuddered with recognition when the court case between investment banker Zoe Appleyard-Ley and her former nanny, 45-year-old Emma Currie, reached its conclusion last week. Appleyard-Ley said she, too, thought she had found her "Mary Poppins" in Currie, who responded to her ad on Gumtree for a nanny for her two children, in London.

Instead, she drove off in her employer's Mercedes and was later jailed for nine months for theft, after a jury heard she had used her credit cards for a £900 (AU$1827) spending spree. After the court case, Appleyard-Ley described Currie as a woman of "malicious charm", who had subjected her to "earthshattering pain and betrayal".

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Strong words, but even at the best of times, says Dr Richard Woolfson, an expert on family psychology, the nanny-parent dynamic is like no other. "It's an employer-employee relationship with far fewer boundaries and very much more at stake because the nanny is looking after your most precious possessions - your children in your own home."

Of course, nothing as serious as theft has to be involved for the trust in a mother-nanny relationship to break down. Joanna Smart took great pains to write out a five-page guidance document for her 27-year-old nanny, Amanda, which included the explicit request that her son, Josh, then almost three, was not introduced to fast food or fizzy drink. "Middle-class as it may sound, I was deeply upset when I took Josh into town in the school holidays, only to find him well acquainted with the location of all the fast-food chains on the high street - with expert knowledge of their differing menus."

Caroline Sweeney, meanwhile, congratulated herself on finding Edith, a homely grandmotherly type, through a local ad - if a little perplexed by her strictness around bedtimes for her children, aged five and seven. Things finally became clear when she caught the muffled sound of the EastEnders theme tune coming through Edith's bedroom door. "I don't mind a bit of routine, but it was hardly the selfless child-centred approach I had hoped for when I hired her," says Caroline. "Her rules meant I hardly saw my kids when I got home - supposedly for their own good, but in reality, just so she could clock off."

Katie Wilson, a team manager at a London nanny agency, recommends hiring through a carer agency or business, which has the tools to fully vet and verify applicants.

If going it alone, never take a written reference as gospel, she advises, as past employers may feel uncomfortable being completely honest in writing, particularly if the nanny showed signs of emotional difficulties. Hearing the tone of voice when a former boss talks about the nanny will reveal so much more.

On that note, a mobile phone call won't suffice - get a landline and verify the address, too, to make sure the person you are calling is indeed a former employer, and not an applicant's best friend.

Although it didn't ring alarm bells for Sarah Lowne at the time, Carole had lost touch with some families who had "moved abroad", so Sarah took the word of just one referee, who was fulsome in her praise. Even as incidents of odd behaviour mounted up, she went against her gut instinct and kept Carole on because she felt her daughter needed continuity. Not to mention that she had a career to get back on track, and was terrified of starting the gruelling selection process again - a common panic any nightmare nanny can sniff out only too easily.

"If I so much as raised any issue to do with Polly's care, she would summon me for a meeting in which she would announce she would have to leave if I didn't like the way she did things," says Sarah.

The final straw came a few months later, when Polly fell down a flight of stone steps and hit her head while in Carole's care. Polly escaped with cuts and bruises, and Carole was contrite. Yet Sarah was stunned by the nanny's reaction when they finally let her go after a long-brewing row, a few weeks later: "She cheerily told us she wouldn't need references, as she could explain away her time with us by saying she had 'done a gap year'."

Of course, for every tale of woe from one side of the nanny-parent divide, there's another from the other side of the fence.

Denise Flett Barton has been a dedicated career nanny for 25 years, and is often called into families where there is some sort of crisis, albeit unspoken, that can cause employers to overstep boundaries.

One father, for example, paraded around the house naked when his wife was out.

"I could see the bigger picture," says Denise. "He wanted to trigger me to complain to his wife, forcing a crisis that would cause me to leave. He clearly didn't like her working away so much, so by getting rid of me, she would have to stay at home. I didn't say a word - to either of them - and they eventually divorced anyway."

Her advice for making the right hire? "Think of it as if you were interviewing for a best friend," she says. "It's chemical. Look for integrity. At an intrinsic level, a mum must be able to hand over her children without thinking.

"When it works, a good mother-nanny relationship, in which the nanny is trusted like a third parent, is magical. When it doesn't, it can be a car crash."

The Telegraph, London

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