An Au Pair's Nightmare

By T.C. Brown and Ted Wendling
Plain Dealer Reporters

Sabine Paulitsch will always remember America for the two difficult lessons it taught her about life. Lesson one: "As long as you have money, you can do anything." Lesson two: "Some men want more than just an au pair."
In 1989, she was a naive 21-year-old who longed to visit the United States. But with little money, America was a distant dream from her home in Bruck an der Mur, Austria.

"When I was in school, I always wanted to go to America," she said. "I tried a couple of ways to get a job there. Then I decided to do it the legal way."

The legal way was to become an au pair - a nanny - through a U.S. Information Agency program that its director, Joseph D. Duffey, is fond of referring to as "blue-collar Fulbright."

Duffey's reference is to the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, also known as the Fulbright-Hays Act. The act authorizes the USIA to pursue the lofty goal of directing  educational and cultural-exchange activities "in order to develop and promote mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries of the world."

Since 1986, those activities have included the au pair program.

For many Western Europeans from poor and middle-class families, who otherwise couldn't afford a trip to America, the au pair program offers a mixture of wonder, good times, fast friendships and the loneliness and bewilderment of being a stranger in a strange land.

For others, such as Paulitsch, being an au pair in America was the most difficult time of their lives.

In the summer of 1989, Washington-based AuPair Homestay placed Paulitsch with a family near Washington, D.C. Soon after, she said, her host father began fondling her.

"He wanted a massage in the dark room, and I told him, `I can't do a massage,' and then he wanted to give me a massage,' she said.  "This man had three little children and his wife was in the house and I couldn't believe it."

The host father denied the allegations.

"Obviously, I didn't make advances, in my mind, and I thought that the entire thing had been explained," he said. "What she may have perceived as an advance ... wasn't what my intent was. The last place I would make an advance would be in my own house."

But Homestay records and interviews support Paulitsch's story. They also reflect that she was "severely traumatized" by her host father. With the help of another au pair, she fled the home in the middle of a dinner party, telling her hosts only that she could no longer live with them.

Paulitsch's decision made her an "in-country placement," meaning, in the industry, that she was "damaged goods" and most likely would be rematched with a similarly "damaged" family whose au pair had left. It was a risky proposition  that left her with few choices: Either accept the family or return to Austria after less than two months.

Homestay's personality profile of Paulitsch's second host parents refers to them as "busy, workaholics, cold, argumentative, not interested in AP at all, hostile." Their previous au pair had implored the program to kick them out because he was excluded from virtually all family activities, including vacations, during which he was left home to care for the dog.

Despite the warnings, Homestay sent Paulitsch to the family, which, according to Paulitsch, ostracized her as well. Despondent, she had a car accident and returned to Austria.

"After all these disappointments with my second host family, I'm really upset and out of energy," Paulitsch wrote in a farewell letter to her coordinator. "That's why I decided to go home."

Kevin F. Morgan, vice president of marketing services for World Learning  Inc., Homestay's parent company, said Homestay kicked her first host family out of the program "after the incident and because of a few other things." He said Paulitsch's second host family was rematched with another au pair.

Different priorities

Gini Hartzmark, a novelist and former Shaker Heights resident, says that when she served as the Cleveland-area counselor for Au Pair in America from 1989 to 1992, she was struck by how differently the program was marketed on both sides of the Atlantic.

"I used to say you're bringing two people together from different countries for completely different reasons," she said.

In Europe, the programs emphasize the opportunity to see the United States and experience American culture. Here, they emphasize cheap child care.

For years, government officials have argued in vain that au pair is little more than a work program. Sponsors bitterly fought and  defeated a proposal to reduce au pairs' work week from 45 to 30 hours after the General Accounting Office, USIA, Immigration and Naturalization Service and the departments of State and Labor all concluded in the early 1990s that au pair was not a true cultural exchange program.

Most of the au pairs interviewed for this series agreed.

"It's just a scheme to help American families out with child care," said Caroline Farmer, 22, of Leeds, England. Farmer said she had a good time in 1990 and 1991 while working as an au pair for a family in Highland Heights, but said she knew "so many bad stories, I'd never tell anybody to go into the program unless they studied it carefully."

"It might be beneficial to people who want to learn English," she said, "but you basically work all the time."

"I think, on both ends, the program is entirely mis-sold," said Wendy Seidel, a former host mother in Chagrin Falls.  "It's a chance for these kids to live American stereotypes in all their glory - live with a family that has a mansion, drives a Mercedes and, by the way, you have to watch a few kids every once in a while."

Au pair agencies deny such allegations, but they walk a fine line in doing so. While sponsors acknowledge that au pairs aren't trained child-care providers, they also insist that they provide high-quality care.v "Certainly, it's as good a solution as family day care or any other form of child care," said Au Pair in America spokesman Bill Gertz.

Judy Hendren Mello, president of World Learning, said Homestay "meets the needs of the changing American family by including a child-care component."

In a letter to The Plain Dealer, she said, "We are a professional organization, but we are not a commercial child-care organization. And we don't pretend to be."

To which Roy Hutchens, a GAO supervisor who is co-author of a critical audit of the au pair program done in 1990, responded: "That's their viewpoint, but nobody else in the world agrees with them."

Lesser among equals

Among the many complaints voiced by au pairs, most involve allegations that host parents treated them like servants.

Elin Naessan, an au pair from Norway, said that was what happened to her when she came to live at age 19 with Kent and Sandra Greenberg in Baltimore.

Naessan said Sandra Greenberg gave birth to triplets a week after her arrival in October 1989, after which she said she was responsible for nearly full-time care of the children. At night, she said, her host mother would bellow into a speaker to summon her from her basement bedroom.

"She had a calling system," Naessan said. "The babies would cry and she wouldn't get up. I had to do that. I was so tired and sometimes I couldn't hear them because I was  really sleeping hard and I would hear her voice in the speaker, commanding me up there. It was very impersonal."

Naessan said that after enduring six months of misery, she mustered up the courage to tell the Greenbergs she had to leave. She was rematched with another family, whom she adored, but it was too late. She developed gastric problems, had recurrent nightmares and was sent home after a doctor in Bethesda, Md., citing Naessan's accounts of "mental and verbal abuse by her host family," concluded that she would need "long-term psychological care and counseling."

Kent Greenberg expressed surprise at hearing Naessan's charges, attributing the problems to a personality conflict between Naessan and his wife that he said was aggravated by profound cultural differences. He said he didn't think Naessan was required to get up with the babies at night, recalling that most of Naessan's complaints involved her  irregular work schedule.

"We're pretty laid back, but she and my wife never got along ... and once I stopped running interference, that was it," he said. "The only thing that really surprises me is we're really not aggressive and demanding people, we're really not. And neither is she. But still I could see the personalities conflicting."

Eileen Serene, a Washington lawyer who became Naessan's second host mother, said she knew Naessan might not adjust to her family because she apparently had been so traumatized by what appeared to be a "Cinderella situation."