Women in the World

10.28.12

Krim Case Sparks a Nanny Backlash

Driven by a frenzied media, mothers are now looking twice at their most trusted employees. But let’s not read too much into one woman’s psychotic break, writes ex-nanny Paula Froelich.

The Krim case—in which nanny Yoselyn Ortega allegedly stabbed two young children to death before turning the knife on herself—conjures up every parent’s worst nightmares. It also brings up awkward questions: who to trust, how to trust, and what to do so these things can’t ever happen again?

As if this situation, straight out of a horror movie, is just waiting to happen again.

Playing on these unfounded fears, the media has lately been full of mothers flipping out and nannies crying. My local CBS affiliate hosted a parenting expert (because there always has to be an expert) who told viewers to “really get to know your nanny.” Talk to her, the expert said. “Notice” things. Get a background check.

For Christ’s sake, the Krim family took a vacation with their nanny—they knew their nanny. Mrs. Krim was a stay-at-home mom who clearly spent a ton of time with Ms. Ortega. Even if they’d done a background check, nothing would have come up, according to police reports. In fact, Ortega came recommended by a family friend.

On Saturday, The New York Times published a front-page story about Ortega’s downward spiral—how she reportedly had become reticent, lost weight, and was worried about money. As if she was an intern at Vogue instead of a seriously disturbed woman.

Instead of making clear that this tragedy is a fluke—a one-in-a-million psychotic break that, scarily enough, maybe no one could have predicted—the media is now serving us stories about how to tell if your nanny is a psycho. Is your nanny having a bad day? Did she recently have a fight with her family? Has she lost weight? Is she having money troubles (as most people below the 1 percent do)? Then she may kill your kids.

I, too, reacted vehemently to this story. Unlike other catastrophes I’ve covered as a journalist, it made me physically ill. But then again, I was influenced by my own experience. I am not a mother, but I was a nanny for two families in my teens and early 20s. Granted, this was in Ohio, not NYC, but things don’t seem much different. There was an income gap between me and my employers. I spent hours with the children and parents. I was a crucial part of both families. In fact, I am still a part of both families—20 years later, I spend holidays with them. My youngest sister is now dating one of the children I used to watch.

But the affluent women who have been quoted in the newspapers and on TV as saying they are installing spy cameras, doing extra background checks, and looking twice at their most trusted employees? That is a knee-jerk reaction to something that is so clearly not a trend. As I quoted a man in my last story for The Daily Beast, “It’s not like every cop is a cannibal.”

I admit that I was lucky. I worked for two amazing families who not only paid me, but taught me: how to be a functioning family, how to deal with someone throwing a tantrum (that would come in handy years later when I worked at the New York Post), and how to really accept someone as part of your family, even if they don’t share your blood.

Of course there were others I knew who were not so lucky. I remember reading The Nanny Diaries and laughing and thinking, “Oh, yeah. Those parents!” You know, the parents who treated their nannies like maids, or servants, or dog walkers, or “best friends” as well as caretakers. And the parents who, if they were having a bad day or their marriage was going sour, would take it out on the nanny. It’s not likely that the current backlash will make these nannies’ lives any easier. The fear—and it’s a real fear—is that a nanny having a rough day, as people do, could now be fired instead of supported because of this case.

And, yes, in some cases, I remember hearing that the nanny would act out passive aggressively. But even people employed by the worst people didn’t kill the kids they looked after. And that is what angers me about this coverage.

The reason this story hits home for so many people, including myself, is that it is that horrific. Human nature is like this: the more something happens, the less horrific it is. Say, for example, war crimes. The first time they happen, the world is stunned. The second, third, or 30th time? No one even notices.

The Krim family trauma will always be horrific. I truly believe it is not likely to be repeated. This is not a “trend” or something that nannies around the country ever want to do to the children they tend. And to the “experts” who are often touting their professional services, I say simply: shut up.