Au Pair International / Child endangerment, fraud, unethical
As you read this review of Au Pair International I would like you to keep a couple facts in mind:
1) Au Pair International (API) has all of this documentation on file along with supporting photographic evidence – I emailed it to them as soon as our au pair left. Despite that fact, they elected to re-match our former au pair with another family and completely failed to disclose what you are about to read to the new family. Further, when I found the au pair’s new host family and reached out to them they asserted that API told them that my husband and I were “unavailable” to speak with them, despite their having requested such a meeting. Au Pair International lied to them - obviously my husband and I were eager to speak to them since we tracked them down on our own and took the initiative to call them. Unfortunately by that point they had already welcomed our former au pair into their home. API never reached out to us to let us know that the new host family had questions about our former au pair. The new host family had absolutely no idea that we had very serious problems with our former au pair and that I, a board certified and fully licensed medical doctor, had deemed her unfit to care for minor children. They were told that our au pair sought re-match because she was “unhappy that (she) never got to go anywhere/do anything fun”.
2) API has attempted to block me from discussing my experience with them and our former au pair, in exchange for money. API awarded us a full refund after our four month participation in their program came to an abrupt end. They offered to match us with a new au pair and we refused, not trusting them to be able to locate a suitable candidate given how pathological our API au pair had been. Initially, API asserted that they “never provide refunds”. API exec. Ms. Katrina Vanderhulst confirmed that our experience with our API au pair was “nothing” compared to numerous complaints submitted by other API host families. She actually stated, verbatim, “if we gave refunds to every unhappy family we would go out of business”.
I gave them the option of a lawsuit or a refund in full paid out to us and they elected to provide the refund.
In order to get our money, they asked us to put in writing (in email form) that we would not discuss this situation with anyone. Obviously such a request is laughable and in reality no one can block our ability to openly discuss our experience with a business without a formal, legally valid, non-disclosure agreement. What is noteworthy in this situation is API’s behavior; it proves that they truly feel that they have something to hide. We have decided to come forward with our story because API has acted in bad faith – they misled us to believe that our former au pair would be sent back to her country of origin. They lied to that au pair’s new host family. We owe them nothing and we have a duty to warn anyone who we may believe is in harm’s way, particularly if we believe that children could be at risk.
Our experience with API and our former API au pair: We were matched with a first time au pair back in Jan. of ’16…a 24 year old female from Southwest England, who will be referred to by a false name, “Nel”, for the sake of this documentation.
Nel had less than 2 months of formal childcare experience in a day care center prior to her pursuit of a “long standing” goal of becoming an au pair. After quickly completing the obligatory childcare experience to qualify to become an au pair, she contacted API who contracted with her and assumed the responsibility for screening and vetting her to determine appropriateness for the role of au pair.
API sent Nel to our home without appropriately screening her. Her formal screening was completed by an agency called Smaller Earth who has absolutely no business “screening” people for fitness to become childcare providers. Smaller Earth is a group of random people who “love to travel”, according to their website. They tout themselves as a business that aims to help others “explore the world”. See for yourself: http://www.smallerearth.com/uk/about/
Smaller Earth is a facilitator. They are a group of untrained, unlicensed individuals whose sole purpose is to connect au pair candidates with au pair agencies.
The Smaller Earth employee who “screened” our au pair is not a licensed clinical social worker. She is not a counselor nor does she hold any sort of degree in psychology, psychiatry, or even education. This person has absolutely zero qualifications to “screen” au pair applicants or anyone else for that matter. Her employee description on the Smaller Earth website is limited to the following:
“XXX has spent summers in the USA, winters in Australia and toured Europe extensively. She day dreams about that secret little place in Madrid.”
Other than this “screening” done by Smaller Earth and a basic police database search, our au pair Nel had no formal background check. The police database search is limited to whether or not one has a formal criminal record. All it tells you is that the person being screened has not been convicted of a crime…yet.
After one brief chat with Nel via Skype API began to pressure us to “make the match quickly”. They wanted us to extend an invitation to her prior to a 2nd meeting and prior to discussing a potential match directly with Nel. They warned us that she was such a great candidate and many families were interested in her, we had to “act fast”. Nel seemed friendly and enthusiastic enough. She speaks English fluently, which was one of our priorities in an au pair candidate. We had already interviewed so many unacceptable candidates that we were happy to see someone did not appear to be a complete disaster right off the bat.
I am embarrassed to say that we elected to go with API because they are the cheapest au pair agency on the market. With API you can save a couple thousand dollars. Where is that money being saved? On the background check. We found out, after the fact, that the larger au pair agencies actually work with licensed mental health care professionals to obtain au pair background checks.
Larger au pair agencies will provide au pair personality test/psychometric screening results to inquiring families. If Nel had gone through that sort of screening, we could have avoided a lot of trouble.
Invaluable lesson learned here: never go with the least expensive option when it comes to selecting the person(s) who will be caring for the most precious thing in the world - our children.
In addition to failure to screen candidates, API saves money by providing them with zero training. API does not send their new au pairs into any sort of educational program like the larger au pair agencies do, electing instead to place the new arrival directly into the host family’s home. The loss there is obvious – you get an untrained au pair. But, more subtle than that, you lose out on the opportunity for your au pair agency to lay eyes on the au pair first, in person, before placing them in your home. This is just one less opportunity for API to screen these complete strangers who are about to move into your home and care for your children.
API reassures away customer concerns about their strikingly low cost by asserting that they are a “boutique agency” and that customers save money because other au pair agencies “aren’t just au pair agencies”. API claims that the larger au pair agencies also place housekeepers, live-in elder care givers, and foreign exchange students. I doubt that this is true, and even if so, it is still an inadequate explanation for the cost difference.
When our au pair arrived we noticed right away that she was odd, from an interpersonal standpoint. She was clearly anxious and seemed to be putting a lot of effort into making a good impression/appearing normal. This behavior never dissipated with time, so, it cannot be explained away by citing “adjustment issues” or “1st impression jitters”. She came across as nervous and “in character” from day one until her last day with us. There was nothing natural or easy going about Nel, ever.
Upon arrival it became clear that she possessed very few skills necessary for adaptation and adjustment. On her first weekend off she hid up in her room for the entire weekend. She did not come downstairs once, not even to get a glass of water. We invited her down several times for meals or just to hang out and get to know our family and she replied that she needed to spend the time – two full days - video chatting with her family back home. To this day I’m not even sure how she obtained water during this time frame…maybe from the bathroom sink? She failed to uphold a typical grooming schedule as well – she did not leave her room to shower and she lived in the same pair of pajamas all weekend.
She was with us for four months and at least once a week she would spend 1-2 entire days cooped up in her room behaving in the manner I have described above.
In my nearly 37 years of cohabitation with other people (childhood sleepovers, abundant family and friends, college dormitory roommates, sorority sisters, fellow medical students and medical residents, and a 12+ year marriage) I have only observed this type of behavior once before and that was whilst working as a Psychiatrist on a psychiatric inpatient unit. The very sickest psychiatric patients in the throes of an acute episode of mania, severe depression, and/or psychosis would sometimes behave like this; locking themselves away in their rooms, refusing to groom, living off of vending machine snacks or not eating at all, engaging in very limited activity.
My husband and I found this weekly ritual of Nel’s to be totally bizarre and disturbing and in all honestly should have sought to remove her from our home at that point, but we felt pressure to make this situation work. We wanted to believe that this was an adjustment issue and not really who she actually was as a person. We never stopped inviting her to participate in household life and she never really took us up on the offer.
On her days off, she lived on junk food squirreled away in her room and after her departure we found food wrappers and roaches in our very expensive, brand new house. We told her not to consume or store food in her bedroom on day one, but Nel remained confused about what was expected of her, despite clear and direct communication.
We regularly offered to drive her to shopping centers or the movies on her days off and she never took us up on the offer. We offered to take her to parks, festivals, and parties with us and she refused, again citing her need to video chat with her parents.
Nel lacked most basic independent living skills and was functioning more as a giant adolescent than a young adult. We had to set up her Uber account, her bank account, and her mobile phone. She was paralyzed by any attempt to get her education requirements sorted out and it was clear that we would have to do that for her too. Whenever she would try to complete a typical adult task of daily living she would become very flustered and give up after a few minutes of minimal effort, particularly if the task involved use of the computer and/or internet.
We went above and beyond what was appropriate and reasonable to try to help this girl fit into her new life here in the US but she was insistent upon remaining a lump. We did not sign up for another child – particularly someone so developmentally delayed and psychosocially maladapted.
We set up a meetup.com account for Nel to try to help her meet peers, introduced her to people locally who were around her age, and notified her frequently of activities and events going on around town. Ultimately she came across as someone vastly less mature than her 24 years. It did not surprise us that at 24 years old, this girl has no college credits, no contiguous work experience in the any given field, and very limited social contacts outside of her parents, sister, and a couple friends.
Having her around our home was awkward and uncomfortable owing to her rigid, wooden, and insincere interpersonal style. Our friends and family noticed this about her and I believe this is why she had trouble making connections with the other au pairs in our community. She regularly complained about the two nearby au pairs asserting that they were “weird” and “unwelcoming”. When I met these two young women they seemed quite normal and enthusiastic and I came to suspect that our au pair was actually the problematic person in those relationships. Nel said that she was just going to “use” the other two au pairs to “pass the time”. I found that to be an odd way to approach relationship building and an odd way to spend one’s’ time, energy, and attention. In retrospect, I strongly suspect that she had every intention of “using” us in the same manner.
What I have described here is a young woman who can “look normal” for short stretches (I.e. Skype interviews), but is actually quite limited in her emotional and intellectual resources. We were dependent upon API to screen Nel more thoroughly for us. I regret not examining the “screening agency” Smaller Earth” more closely from the outset, but I assumed that API was acting in good faith when they said that they did a background check on our au pair.
I regret not reading API’s numerous staggeringly bad online reviews. Tani S., an elite Yelp reviewer actually had this to say:
“Our first au pair that we were matched with this was frightful. Really scary, I didn't trust leaving the au pair at all with our child and she really could care less about taking care of child or our child being harmed. When trying to get rematched through our area director she not only blamed us but insulted me. I fortunately had it all in e-mail but I've never had someone be so racist and insulting that I was quite ready to drop the agency. “
I wrongfully assumed that the agency was less important than the actual au pair. I now understand that bad agencies attract bad au pair candidates. I am not saying that every au pair that API has ever placed is a “bad” au pair. I am simply stating a fact: if you do not screen applicants appropriately you have no way of weeding out the bad ones.
However, API’s negligence far exceeds failure to screen. No, API actually keeps failed, inappropriate applicants in the program and pushes them on unsuspecting families who become the victims of API’s outright lies and fraud. In fact, such a situation is ideal for API because they get to keep the upfront payment of $7000 family #1 and then they recycle the defunct au pair back into circulation for “re-match” and get to keep the upfront payment of $7000 from family #2. They actually have au pairs who have been in rematch more than once. Do the math…a bad au pair is more profitable for API.
Their contract literally states that API is “not responsible” for any egregious behavior on the part of any of their au pairs. One can say whatever one wants in a contract, but it will not actually uphold in a court of law. At the end of the day, API is responsible for screening and vetting these au pairs.
I am confident that API actually lures lackluster au pair candidates into the program with promises of an amazing American experience. The fact that the au pair is actually here to work 45 hours/week providing childcare is likely glossed over to say the least. 45 hours of childcare is a real job and a difficult one at that.
Nel clearly had no idea that she had gotten herself involved in an actual adult job when she showed up at our house. Her primary concern was always her “American experience” and she treated the job as a burden.
Despite Nel’s lackluster personality and intellectual deficits, she appeared to be doing an adequate job in terms of childcare. It should be noted that my husband and I both work from home full time, so, we were able to monitor her with our son. We would never have trusted her to watch him alone for any length of time and despite the 45 hours of care per week that she was contracted to provide we actually have more date nights and solo outings now with our new part time nanny who is far more competent and trustworthy. This was certainly a case of “you get what you pay for”. 45 hours of childcare per week at less than $10/hour was, in fact, too good to be true in our case.
Our local API area coordinator, whom I will refer to under the false name “Kay”, told us that she found Nel to be odd and difficult to interact with. She did not bother to share this information with us until the day Nel left our home. We had a right to Kay’s feedback on Nel’s personality within an appropriate time frame. That feedback was useless to us after the fact. Had we known that Kay had concerns about Nel we could have acted faster to remove Nel from our home.
Kay also failed to disclose to us that Nel had amassed a litany of petty complaints about our household/her job; she complained to Kay about her 1030PM (weeknight) curfew, she complained about having to help with our son’s laundry, she complained that we didn’t give her a car (Nel knew about all of this prior to matching with us). We explicitly articulated all expectations during our initial Skype interviews and she verbally agreed to all (work hours, household duties, lack of personal car, weeknight curfew).
None of Nel’s complaints were communicated to us by Kay until the day Nel left – our API area coordinator was negligent through her conscious decision to withhold important information from us.
If we had had access to the information that Kay withheld from us, we would have considered the information in the context of everything else we already knew about Nel. We not only had someone who exhibited odd and at times bizarre behavior, but she was also a dishonest malcontent. We asked her how she was doing on a regular basis and checked in with her about the work load and her overall experience at least once per week. She always responded that “everything is great”. She stated that she “loved” being here with us and that she “loved” our son.
Kay held on to this information for months, apparently not believing it important enough to mention to us.
Interestingly, Kay gave us advice on how to obtain a “full refund” from API the day Nel left our home. She asserted that she had worked for many au pair agencies and that API was “small and not well organized”. Overall, Kay was all over the place and it was totally unclear whose interests she was serving. All I know is that she did not live up to API’s promise of a local support “professional” for host families. If we had been privy to the information Kay had about Nel, we could have acted sooner to remove this girl from our home before the real trouble began.
Most conversations with Nel were perfunctory and she typically had her face in her smart phone during interpersonal exchanges. She was childlike and seemed to be very limited in her ability to socialize with adults. I believe that this likely what has led Nel to believe that she is a good fit for childcare. Nel had a hard time responding to feedback, often becoming very flustered when we tried to explain simple concepts such as proper hand hygiene after diaper changes or not to reuse a knife that had been used to cut chicken after leaving it out on the counter for five hours.
After a couple months of Nel’s presence in our home my husband and I decided that there was no way we were going to invite her to stay on an extra year (Nel’s stated goal was a 2 year match). We discussed sending her back even before completion of the one year we had agreed to in our contract, but decided to try to give the situation a bit more time to work to work out. We felt trapped.
We agreed that whatever happened, we were so turned off by the experience that we would never host another au pair again. Our goal was to just get through the year.
If Nel had been a regular employee (nanny, babysitter) we would have fired her after a couple months, but host families are somewhat stuck with their au pairs. It is a big ordeal to get a new one and even if you do find a new au pair that you like you still have to wait for her to arrive from another country. We did not feel that we could afford to go a couple months without childcare while we waited for VISA approval to come through for a new au pair. We did not want to just send her back and walk away from the program altogether as that would have meant forfeiture of the seven thousand we had paid up front to API, so, we stayed the course. We actually considered bringing in another nanny to help and monitor Nel and had also begun actively interviewing local preschools. We became less and less comfortable with the idea of Nel being our primary resource for childcare which is quite profound given that she lived with us and was hired to be our primary resource for childcare.
We tolerated the status quo (as detailed above) for a couple months and then a very specific event turned the situation from “not great” to “nightmarish”.
It was through this event that Nel’s true pathology declared itself. At this point I must disclose that I am a medical doctor board certified in Psychiatry and licensed in multiple states. I specialize in Correctional Psychiatry among other things and as such have the ability to offer a very informed opinion on the matter of Forensic Psychiatry and the personality disorder known as sociopathy.
A sociopath, by definition, is a person who lacks empathy for other living creatures. A person who does not see the sameness in other human beings is easily capable of striking acts of cruelty. Sociopaths are selfish to a pathological degree. They are often able to fake good for a while, but if you scratch just a bit below the artificial veneer you will eventually see their true character and it is terrifying. Many lay people think that a sociopath has to be some sort of Hollywood monster - a Jeffrey Dahmer or Bernie Madoff type character, but in reality, a sociopath can be anyone from any walk of life. An incredibly useful guide for identification and avoidance of sociopaths is The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, PhD.
The point of this quickie lesson in psychopathology is this: API placed a sociopath in our home.
My husband and I found out on May 2nd that there was a very serious problem with a much desired pregnancy. We spent the entire month going to specialists, desperate to try to save the baby, but the situation was hopeless. This was the worst experience of our lives and it culminated in a 2nd trimester pregnancy loss and a horrific surgery that left me down and out in every way imaginable. To say that we needed extra support at this time would be an understatement. Somehow, Nel actually figured out a way to further traumatize us during our darkest hour.
She monitored her work hours down to the very minute despite never having been overworked by us (we had always monitored her hours closely). She became even more miserly with her time and effort. She never once offered to get a meal started for the family or support us in any way other than what was absolutely required instead electing to clear out our refrigerator for solo meals spent hunched over her smart phone.
Her bizarre and awkward presence around our home made it nearly impossible for us to grieve and mourn this horrible loss in anything that even resembled comfort. We began to feel as if we were being held hostage by Nel’s expectations for her “American experience”. We found ourselves trapped in our home with someone who was neither friend nor proper employee. She became more sullen and broody and performed her duties even more begrudgingly than usual during this time.
One week after the loss of the baby (and my surgery) Nel interrupted me in the middle of my work shift with my son in her arms and asserted that she was “bored” and as such she would be “leaving” to seek a new host family. She stated that we “hadn’t done anything fun or gone anywhere for the entire month of May”. When I attempted to grab my son out of her arms she tried to pull him away from me – an action that left him visibly shaken.
I took my son away from her and reminded Nel that we did not do much during the month of May because of the pregnancy loss. Her response was “Your miscarriage was not part of my plan for my American experience”. She looked me dead in the eye and said that to me, straight-faced, with no emotion. She was very clearly surprised that my husband and I were so hurt and dismayed by her words and behavior. She had no idea how harmful she had been which is 100% consistent with someone who’s brain does not have the capability to experience that essential human emotion – empathy.
Nel had finally fully declared what she truly was. A sociopath. Her degree of selfishness was staggering. Her lack of empathy something out of a horror movie. All of the strange things we noticed about her personality and behavior made perfect sense now.
It often takes just the right amount of stress to crack the façade of a sociopath. They can fake pretty good for a while under circumstances that do not challenge their coping mechanisms; the tools and techniques they cultivate to allow them to fit in among normal humans.
In discussing this situation with API, after the fact, Ms. Katrina Vaderhulst asserted that Nel said what she said and did what she did because she is “immature”. When asked directly if she herself would have ever made such a statement to anyone, at any age, Ms. Vanderhulst was forced to admit that she would not. Thankfully there are very few among us who are capable of that sort of behavior. Identification of someone who is capable of that degree of cruelty and self-centeredness is grounds for removal from an au pair program, for safety reasons alone.
Shortly after Nel revealed that she would be leaving our home, she attempted to take her time and linger a bit to tend to a few last minute items on her personal agenda. My husband and I disagreed with this plan, having come to view Nel as a threat to our household and a trespasser on our property. We wanted her and all of her belongings out of our home immediately.
I helped Nel bag up the last few items that she that had not already packed herself (a small collection of Payless shoes) and tossed the bags out my home. A normal, psychologically intact person would do whatever she could to get out of a household in which the owner was literally tossing her belongings out on the lawn, but not Nel. No, Nel actually attempted to enter our pantry on her way out to grab a snack for the road. Her brazen disregard and disrespect for our household and for us as human beings was downright creepy.
It should be noted that Nel had been planning her big reveal for at least one full day. She had caged our toddler up in her room all day while she packed her suitcases, engaged in phone calls and emails, and made plans for her departure, in general. In doing so, she neglected him. She did not feed him lunch. She did not change his diaper – he had a blazing red rash that night to prove it.
A bruise appeared on his leg later that day. It was on his shin...not an area that would naturally make contact with the ground during a fall (vs. say, his knee). This bruise was in the shape of four adult sized finger prints, side by side. Nel was the only person with our son for the full day, prior to the appearance of the bruise.
She was also very neglectful of her household duties (the work for which she was being paid) in her last one to two weeks with us. She did her best to hide this fact, but after she left we found heaps of our son’s laundry that she had not completed, she left her dishes laying about, and failed to empty diaper bins which were overflowing. She neglected to alert us to the fact that we were very low on milk and out of baby food.
She left her living space in a state of filth that I can only describe as effortful.
She lied and told us that she had been vacuuming the carpet in her room but the massive tufts of hair, debris, and grime told a different story.
I cleaned her toilet one month prior to her departure - under the seat/scrubbed from top to bottom. The state she left that toilet in was shocking. A person actually has to put effort into creating that level of mess in a toilet during the span of only one month.
One can tell a lot about the state of an individual’s mental health by the way they live - in Nel's case, utter filth. What's more, she was unable to cope with simple household duties for which she was earning a paycheck (emptying a diaper bin, etc.).
The worst part of this story and the strongest evidence for emotional pathology was her behavior towards our son on that last day. To take your disappointment about a "boring" job out on a baby is pure sociopathy and we consider ourselves truly lucky that we escaped this situation with only a rash and a bruise. Her actions had nothing to do with immaturity, cultural differences, or difficulty adjusting to her new life in the US. Her actions had everything to do with the fact that she is psychologically limited and unfit to care for children.
As stated, API knows this whole story – I sent them this documentation, verbatim, along with multiple photographs.
As noted API offered to match us with another au pair and we declined the offer. We demanded a full refund and requested that Nel not be considered for re-match with another family.
Here is API’s response:
“Thank you for taking the time to speak with me yesterday. As we discussed, I have requested that a refund check in the amount of $6, 690 be issued and sent to your home in North Carolina. Please let me know if you do not have this in the next two weeks.
We have confirmed with XXX that she will not speak about your family, will not have any social media posts and she does not have any photos of your home or your family on any avenues of social media. You also will not have any mention of her on social media and will not proceed forward with any negative action in regards to this incident.
Please also forward me any photographic evidence that you have that we can add to her file.
I do hope that you are able to move forward with your family. Please let me know if you need anything further.
All the best,
API promised my husband and I that they would “take everything” about our experience with Nel “into consideration” when deciding whether or not she could continue on in the program. They asserted that “for privacy reasons” they could not give me a definitive answer as to whether or not Nel would be sent back to England.
We assumed that API would act in good faith and NOT place this au pair with another family, given the overwhelming evidence that we provided to them.
However, I found out that not only has she been placed as the primary caregiver of three minor children here in the US, but that the family who hired her was not given the chance to hear the truth about Nel’s behavior in our home. That family was lied to. They were told that my husband and I were “unavailable” to discuss our experience with Nel. They were given a false reason as to why Nel was available for re-match. The new host family was clueless when they hired Nel. Had they known the details of this situation they would not have allowed this young woman into their home. API failed to screen Nel properly prior to placing her with us and then defrauded Nel’s 2nd host family.
We have elected to come forward with our story in an attempt to warn other families against API. When a company becomes so profit driven that they fail to act in the best interest of children, something needs to be said. Bullying and scare tactics will not dissuade us from doing what is right and what is ethical – we have a duty to warn.