Hearst Examiner Article, Sunday November 16th, 1997 Vicki Haddock, Hearst Examiner Staff
CALIFORNIA – Moraga mother Mary Beth Phillips sat in stunned silence as a Justice, in the eyes of the former Alameda County Superior Court Judge Martin Pulich, called for the nanny to pay a $100 fine and perform 2,000 hours of community service. No jail time. Just probation. In fact, reasoning it would be wrong to deprive the nanny of a means to support herself, he approved her new job as another family’s live-in baby sitter. judge passed sentence on the neighbor’s nanny, just convicted of felony child abuse for shaking Phillips’ 6-month-old daughter so violently that baby Elizabeth lay partially paralyzed and permanently blinded.
An outraged Phillips vowed to herself and to Elizabeth that she would change things.
It was 1985, 12 years before the nation would lock in bitter debate about the case of a convicted au pair and the baby who suffered at her hands.
Phillips united with two others grieving under similar circumstances: a Temecula woman and a Fremont mother, Bonnie Reeves, whose baby shared a room with Elizabeth at Oakland Children’s Hospital. She lobbied long and hard to tighten California’s loose system for license-exempt child care givers.
The result of the efforts is TrustLine, a state government hot line that allows parents, usually for a fee, to run criminal and abuse background checks on potential baby sitters, nannies and au pairs. Since 1994, TrustLine has given California parents access to the nation’s most comprehensive research on child care providers. And anybody can use it.
The catch is, most people don’t even know about it.
And it’s pricey – $90 per screening.
Yet for parents apprehensive about hiring someone to watch their children – a trepidation heightened by last week’s sentencing of British au pair Louise Woodward for shaking to death a baby boy in Massachusetts – TrustLine holds the promise of a baseline assurance.
Spreading the word
Now, its founders have won a grant from the Pacific Mutual Foundation to pay for a spring public service campaign tentatively keyed to the theme “When you need to rely on more than your instincts.”
“We’re trying to figure out how to really get the word out,” said Phillips, who would love to see the service heralded on utility bills, milk cartons, billboards.
“Right now, TrustLine really is the best kept secret in the state of California.”
It works like this: Parents wishing to research a particular applicant can call TrustLine to see whether the individual already has passed the background screening. If not, they can order one for $90, so long as the applicant agrees to provide a fingerprint. Sometimes, providers submit their own names and pay the research fee in order to offer themselves as precertified by TrustLine.
And if parents are low-income and qualify for subsidized childcare, the state does the TrustLine check for free.
Experts say the incidence of “shaken baby syndrome” nationally has increased to 1,300 cases in 1995 from 800 a decade earlier, perhaps partly because of doctors’ increased awareness.
TrustLine is administered by the state Department of Justice, which contracts with the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network to handle inquiries – about 500 per week. Next year, TrustLine will go under the jurisdiction of the Department of Social Services, with wider investigative powers – for example, the opportunity to consider a pattern of arrests without convictions, and to screen for convictions in other states via the FBI.
To date, 27,000 child-care givers have been investigated by TrustLine. Some 22,000 qualified applicants appear on the database, meaning their past is unmarred by substantiated child-abuse allegations or significant criminal convictions in California and, where an FBI check is requested, nationwide. The remaining 5,000 applicants either are in the midst of the approval process, have withdrawn from consideration or have been rejected.
“Believe it or not, about 5 to 6 percent of applicants are disqualified,” said Cindy Swanson, program manager for TrustLine at the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, in San Francisco. “We’ve had convicted murderers apply, we’ve had people with 10- to 15-page rap sheets – it’s quite amazing.”
That doesn’t even count the nanny and baby sitter wannabes who lose interest in a job when they discover a parent wants to check them out on TrustLine. Others suddenly get honest, like the applicant who said, “I suppose this might be a good time to tell you that I’ve had my own children taken away for neglect . . .”
Parents and agencies who run checks on applicants will receive simple yes-or-no notices from the state. Rejected applicants will receive detailed letters from the Justice Department explaining the decision. Accepted applicants remain on the TrustLine Registry, which is updated continually.
It’s not a cure-all
Even so, the system has its limits. Registrants are not required to have training or experience working with children, or to have mastered infant CPR or first aid. A TrustLine check often may take a couple of weeks.
And for now, the $90 screening covers only California – an FBI search of the other 49 states requires a second set of fingerprints and another $24. Likewise, the records of foreign au pairs in their home countries are not accessible through TrustLine, although theoretically such employees cannot obtain green cards through the Immigration and Naturalization Service if they have criminal records in their native lands.
The registry’s most critical shortcoming is that it can never predict first-time offenders. The nanny who so severely injured Elizabeth most likely would have cleared TrustLine before that incident. Only one thing might have raised a red flag: In a bizarre twist to the Phillips saga, the nanny had recently legally changed her name because, unbeknownst to her employer, she was a transsexual man undergoing a sex-change operation.
Like it was yesterday, Phillips recalls going to a neuropsychology class one afternoon 14 years ago and leaving Elizabeth for a few hours with her neighbor’s live-in nanny. When she returned, she was met at the door by the neighbor, who broke the news: “There’s been a little accident.”
By that time, Elizabeth was in the hospital, and the nanny already was attributing her injuries to a mischievous pet Highland terrier – a story the authorities quickly jettisoned.
“I think what’s so remarkable about TrustLine is that it was parents who took their personal and extraordinary pain and said, “This happened to my child, and I want to do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t ever happen to another child,’ ” said Patty Siegel, executive director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. “It’s one tool to ensure that people who’ve abused children before won’t be entrusted with the opportunity to do so again.”
“It was a healing thing for me,” said Phillips, who credits former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, among others, for championing her cause during his years in the Legislature. “I know some people would curl up in a closet and never come out again, but that’s not me.”
As for Elizabeth? An honor student who long ago mastered her Braille computer, she has all but vanquished lingering signs of paralysis, has carried the Olympic Torch, plays piano and attends prestigious College Preparatory School in Oakland.
“She’s a miracle child, and her courage keeps me going,” said Phillips. “She once asked me if I thought it was a good thing that she got blinded. I said no, but I do believe that out of that awful thing, we made good things happen.”
TrustLine can be reached at 1-800-822-8490 Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
©2000 San Francisco Examiner. Originally printed by the Hearst Examiner. Reprinted with permission.