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by Candice Lee Reeves, writer and editor for Tiffany Markman, proud mom, wife, night owl, series-marathon junkie, and instigator of silliness

When looking for an au pair agency, your most important concerns are probably the quality of the candidates, the costs, and the reliability of the agency. But what happens if things go wrong? Tamara, a mother of two, found out the hard way that even agencies that appear to check all the boxes are not always a safe bet. And it all comes down to the fine print…

Tamara’s story

When Tamara was looking for a governess (a live-in au pair), the agency she chose promised candidates with all the normal things: a valid drivers’ license, 2 years’ driving experience, their own cars, verified references, and no illnesses or issues that would affect their work. Beyond this, it claimed to have one of the industry’s strictest selection processes.

Tamara also requested a non-smoker who’d sleep in the room with her daughter. So after she’d paid the agency a significant placement fee, she was shocked to find that the governess didn’t have her own car… and she smoked. Even worse, on her first day shuttling the children, the wheels of the family car caught fire, the brakes fell off, and the vehicle nearly exploded after the governess drove a significant distance with the handbrake on.

And with the kids in the car.

Unfortunately, the replacement candidate was no better. One night, she didn’t sleep in Tamara’s daughter’s room as required and was found passed out cold and reeking of alcohol and cigarettes. She also turned out to have sneaked in a bathroom smoke while on a playdate. But, when pressed for answers, she blamed the side effects of anti-depressants.

Paying the piper

Not only did these candidates not meet the agency’s requirements, but they both smoked, one lied and couldn’t fulfil her duties, and the other’s motor inexperience placed Tamara’s children in danger. So, after two financially and emotionally taxing experiences, Tamara gave up and requested a refund of her placement fee. And the agency refused.

Citing Tamara’s ‘bad luck’, the owner of the agency claimed that the incompetence of the governesses was out of its control and that it had done ‘everything possible’ to ensure their eligibility. She also suggested that Tamara do her own ITC checks in future, and advised that the contract explicitly said there were no refunds, regardless of the circumstances.

Sadly, this last point is true. There is no legal recourse for parents like Tamara.

It was alarming, then, for Tamara to discover that the ‘screening process’ extended to a list of interview questions (admittedly, a detailed list) and psychometric, first aid and childcare tests. No criminal checks, no ITC checks, no finger-prick smoking tests… hardly anything – apart from trusting the candidate’s word – to ensure that they’re who they claim to be.

Lessons learned

In any other industry, suggesting that the client conduct their own checks despite paying a large placement fee would be ludicrous. And, as a business person, unpleasant results like these should be met with apology and reimbursement, to avoid negative recourse.

But the difficult lesson is that a contract is a contract. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fellow mother, a childcare expert, or a seemingly nice person on the other end; when things go wrong that’s what stands between the two of you: the fine print. So, with Tamara’s experience in mind, here are three things I recommend you do when using an agency to source an au pair:

  1. Read the fine print.

What does the contract really say? Can the agency be held accountable for anything? Is there any protection for you and your family if the au pair turns out to be a criminal, liar, smoker, or anything else that doesn’t fit your requirements? And: can you get a refund?

  1. Insist on formal checks.

This isn’t a playdate. It’s a professional role that determines the safety and wellbeing of your children. Insisting on ITC and criminal checks is reasonable when the costs are so high.

  1. Follow your gut.

When choosing a candidate, don’t settle on anyone less than what you expect. You need someone you can trust implicitly, and if that means interviewing every candidate available or going to another agency, so be it. Fight off the ‘noise’ that tells you your expectations are too high and carry on until you find just the right Mary Poppins.

The bottom line? Just because childcare doesn’t always require a qualification doesn’t make it any less of a job. And those who vouch for childcare professionals are no less responsible when they misrepresent themselves. Make sure you pick an agency that understands this.

Click here for a list of child care services in Gauteng and here for KwaZulu-Natal.

Note: If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the uniquely detailed free weekly newsletter for parents in Gauteng – Jozikids – or KwaZulu-Natal – Kznkids.

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