Child-Care Websites: Providing a False Sense of Security

Although child-care websites can be a first step toward finding someone to take care of your child, parents must understand that such services have limitations that could lead to serious consequences.

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When Nathan and Reggan Koopmeiners of Kenosha, Wisconsin, used a child-care website to find someone to take care of their 3-month-old daughter, they paid $300 so the website operator, Care.com, would initiate the most comprehensive background check that it offers. After the background check exposed no red flags, the Koopmeiners hired Sarah Gumm to take care of the child, Rylan, in Gumm’s home, which was just across the state border in Illinois.

However, 6 weeks later, Rylan died while she was being cared for by Gumm. Police records show that Gumm left Rylan unattended twice that day while Gumm took a taxi to a local drugstore to buy wine. Prosecutors said that later that day, when Rylan fussed as her diaper was changed, Gumm was under the influence of alcohol and hit the baby’s head on the changing table. An autopsy report said Rylan died of a skull fracture and cranial hemorrhaging from blunt-force trauma. Gumm was charged with murder and was awaiting trial at press time.

The background check failed to reveal that Gumm had a history of alcohol abuse and violence that included a 2010 citation for driving under the influence. Such red flags would have caused the Koopmeiners to reject Gumm. So the Koopmeiners filed a wrongful-death civil lawsuit in federal court against Gumm and Care.com that alleges that the website operator was negligent in its background check.

The company says it isn’t responsible for what happened to Rylan, because it hired another company to conduct the background check and because the company’s contract with the Koopmeiners family explicitly stated—as do all of its contracts—that it isn’t liable for any such harm.

The nightmare that the Koopmeiners experienced might represent a worst-case scenario, but it’s a worthy cautionary tale at a time when parents increasingly use child-care websites to find a nanny or baby sitter. The websites are a one-stop shop for busy families to pick from thousands of potential child-care providers whose qualifications are posted on the website as part of each candidate’s professional profile.

However, the background checks, parent reviews and references that child-care-website operators provide are only the first step toward ensuring that the person who cares for your child is someone whom you can trust, experts tell Consumers Digest. Although child-care websites reassure you about the safety and security of your child, lawyers and private investigators who work on child-abuse and child-endangerment cases tell us that the background checks that child-care-website operators offer—and for which you have to pay—easily can lull you into a false sense of security.

We certainly understand why such websites appeal to parents: They’re convenient to use and make it easy for parents to identify candidates’ qualifications as well as to contact those candidates. However, such websites can lead you to believe that you did everything that’s necessary to guarantee your child’s safety. That simply isn’t true, experts say. In short, parents have to realize that the websites are no more than a list of potential child-care providers for which no guarantees of safety exist, independent experts say.

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“They’re fluff. They’re just a place to start from,” says Nickolas Montano, who is a private investigator who has done background checks since the 1980s for companies who seek to hire a CEO and for celebrity entertainers who look to hire household help, including child-care providers.

SERVICE SEARCH. We found at least 15 child-care websites that have databases that are nationwide or in large cities or regions. The three largest child-care-website operators nationwide in terms of members and financial backing are Care.com, Sittercity and UrbanSitter. Those companies and other child-care-website operators advertise themselves as a quick and convenient method for busy parents to search for anything from a full-time nanny to a last-minute baby sitter for date night.

Such websites typically charge monthly access fees or a fee to book a child-care provider who is listed on the website (although either the child-care provider or the parent pays). For instance, Care.com allows parents to post jobs free and then wait for caregivers to respond. If parents want to see a provider’s contact information, they pay a monthly access fee of $37. At UrbanSitter, families pay $14.95 to book a provider.

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