10.26.12

The Stranger Inside Your House: Terrified by the Alleged Killer Nanny

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: a nanny who snaps. After the murder of two Manhattan children—allegedly by their caregiver—New York City’s parents are in a panic. Paula Froelich reports.

Well-heeled mothers and fathers in New York woke up Friday morning to confront their worst nightmare on the front page of every local newspaper.

On Thursday afternoon, Marina Krim took her 3-year-old daughter to a swimming lesson. When she returned to her Upper West Side apartment, she found that her two other children, a 2-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl, had been fatally stabbed, allegedly by their caregiver, Yoselyn Ortega, 50. Ortega then had apparently tried to commit suicide with a self-inflicted slash to her own throat.

Even more terrifying, Ortega wasn’t just a sitter for hire. She was, according to news reports, a full-time nanny who had been with the Krims for more than a year, someone who was almost a part of the family. The Krims had even visited Ortega’s relatives in the Dominican Republic.

The murders sent a shock through certain segments of New York society, stoking a fear that keeps parents up at night: what if the person you let into your home and trust with your children turns out to be unstable, even dangerous? Who then is to blame? How do you spot the warning signs? What if there are no warning signs?

Some parents couldn’t even discuss the Krims. Danielle—who like the other mothers in this story asked that her real name not be used—is a working mother of two who lives in Tribeca. “I really don’t want to think about this,” she said via email. “It’s seriously made me cry today.”

One Upper East Side mother of three, Janey, is friendly with the Krims and was too traumatized to speak. But her friend Mary, another mother of three, predicted that “people are really going to be scrutinizing their nannies now. I didn’t even discuss the story with mine. But a lot of people are freaking.”

For many mothers, some of whom expertly manage teams of people professionally, the hiring and firing of nannies can be haphazard—or worse. With both parents working, the “best” nannies, the ones who come highly recommended by friends and family, are in high demand. Fear of upsetting the delicate balance between a functioning family and total chaos can lead parents to look the other way at strange or unsettling behavior.

Betty, an Upper East Side doctor, had a disturbing incident with a nanny more than a year ago. The nanny came highly recommended through friends and had been working in Betty’s home for just under three years when she announced that she was going to go on vacation to the Philippines to see her family for two weeks. She asked Betty for 30 days pay in advance and left—and didn’t come back for a month.

“I was very upset,” Betty said. “I was worried about her, no one had heard from her, and then she just pops back up like nothing happened and comes back to work.” Betty says she didn’t fire the nanny for several reasons, first and foremost because her daughter had grown attached to her. “It’s a very vulnerable relationship,” Betty said. “As the employer, you don’t feel in charge. A housekeeper or a driver provides a service; it’s impersonal and you can trade people out. But with a nanny, your children are building a relationship. You think, ‘My god, are my children going to be scarred for life if they leave?’”

Betty finally had to let her nanny go for good when she repeated her behavior a year later, leaving for six weeks unannounced.

“It’s awful” finding a replacement nanny, Betty said. “You worry that your kid has to adjust to someone new—it’s a big deal. You are always looking twice at your nannies. You hope they’re OK.”

The Krim story, Betty said, “strikes a chord because it demonstrates how vulnerable you feel and how vulnerable you are.”

The mothers all said they don’t think nanny employment agencies provide any protection against unstable employees. “The agencies do not properly check their candidates,” said Danielle, the Tribeca mother. “You are paying them huge fees, and they will send you anyone that they come across that appears OK on paper.”

“It’s a very vulnerable relationship,” one mother said. “As the employer, you don’t feel in charge.”

Robert Wynne Parry of RWP Solutions, an employment firm, stressed that his agency properly vets employees by “verifying previous employment, doing a Social Security background check, and providing employers with transcripts of interviews.” Problems begin, Parry said, when parents hire “illegal workers and pay people off the books. That’s where the loopholes start. You can’t verify their information.” (Police have not released any information on Ortega’s immigration status.)

Parry acknowledged that the Krim tragedy has provoked anxiety among parents. “Our industry will come under more scrutiny.” But he notes that such incidents are truly rare and that most nannies are loving caregivers. After all, he said, “it’s not like every cop is a cannibal.”