It used to be that the very words au pair suggested a certain style, a continental cachet.
But not now - not in the wake of the trial of Louise Woodward, the 19-year-old British au pair who was convicted Thursday of second-degree murder in the death of the baby she was hired to watch.
Marion Berg is a 19-year-old German au pair who cares for two small children in suburban Newton, Mass. Berg says she likes her job very much. But these days she prefers not to advertise her specific job classification. “Better you say nanny than au pair,” Berg said in an interview Friday.
Before Woodward went on trial in Cambridge last month, with gavel-to-gavel coverage on Court TV that helped spark a national debate on child care, most people did not know the difference between nannies and au pairs.
Court TV did not exactly clear up the confusion: It named the 3-week-old drama “The Nanny Murder Trial.” Journalists covering the trial used the terms interchangeably. But as many parents and child care providers, as well as the nannies and au pairs themselves, have made clear in recent days, nannies and au pairs are not the same.
The International Nanny Association, a nonprofit professional association for the in-home child care industry, issued a press release midway through the trial. The headline on the release: “Journalists Make Horrendous Mistake Hurts Entire Multi-Million Dollar Industry - It’s an Au Pair Not Nanny on Trial!”
Au pair is the designation for the young foreigners who are brought to this country under a program overseen by the U.S. Information Agency - a cross between a cultural exchange and a relatively low-cost child care service.
Woodward, who was charged with handling 8-month-old Matthew Eappen so roughly that he suffered fatal brain damage, was brought to this country by EF Au Pair, of Cambridge, one of eight such agencies in this country.
The au pairs - the term is French for “as an equal,” because an au pair is to be treated as a member of the family - are generally much cheaper than professional nannies, because they receive only about $140 a week plus room and board.
In September, the government agency announced stringent new rules for au pairs. Those who care for children under 2 years of age must have at least 200 documented hours of child care experience, and au pairs may only work 10 hours a day and 45 a week.
The more nebulous term of nanny is generally used to designate more mature, professional and experienced - and more costly - care givers.
In the wake of the trial, debate has swirled on this question: Are au pairs too young and inexperienced to care for young children?
At a bustling playground in Boston’s Back Bay section Saturday afternoon, Jill Wennstrom, a 28-year-old nanny, was closely supervising a 3-year-old girl named Ariel who was playing on the jungle gym. She said she earned $450 a week as a nanny, plus health insurance, with at least two weeks of paid vacation a year. She works a four-day week, and hopes to become a pediatric nurse. “It took me seven months to find my family,” she said. “You have to have the right chemistry.”
Wennstrom said she knew au pairs who were not treated well by their families. “They make them clean the house, and work six days a week,” she said.
Berg, who came here 14 months ago, said she wanted to be an au pair because she likes children. And, she added, “I wanted to go to the States.” She said she took care of the children - two boys, ages 2 and 3 months - Monday through Thursday, with weekends free to explore Boston. She said she has her own bedroom, and the use of a car. “The most important thing is to care for the children,” she said.
But it is not the child care aspect that the EF Au Pair agency has been advertising on its Web site, “Discover America with EF Au Pair.”
The Web site offers: “Picture yourself spending a year in the U.S.A., living with an American family, visiting places you’ve only dreamed of and making lots of new friends from all over the world.”
Andrea Dunn, of Rockport, Mass., is the mother of 7-year-old triplets. She and her husband have employed eight au pairs over the years. “I don’t know what I would have done without the au pairs,” said Dunn, who is a registered nurse.
But not all the au pairs she hired worked out. Three had to be sent back to Europe; they were more interested in socializing than in caring for the triplets, Dunn said.
“The parents are really responsible for screening the girls,” she said. “The agency backs you up. But you really have to be your own judge.”
Sarah Lewington, who is from Germany, earns $350 a week as a nanny in suburban Chicago. She cares for two girls, ages 3 and 8. Lewington, who is 23, said she came to this country five years ago as an au pair.
“I wanted to travel,” she said. She looked after three boys, ages 6 months, 2 and 4 years old and earned $120 a week. “They were lively,” she said. “But I enjoyed myself.”