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Working parents criticized as nanny tried in baby's death

Published Oct. 12, 1997
Updated Oct. 2, 2005

As she sits quietly in a bland courtroom here, listening to the testimony and charges against her, Louise Woodward, a 19-year-old British nanny, has come to represent every parent's worst nightmare.

Brought to the United States through a program for young Europeans, Woodward is accused of taking out her frustrations with her work conditions on the 8-month-old baby left in her charge, shaking him so violently, and slamming him into a hard surface, that he lapsed into a coma Feb. 4 and died five days later.

Woodward is facing first-degree murder charges in the trial that began last week. Her case, covered live on Court TV, is attracting attention here and overseas. It has sparked a debate about screening for nannies and, more broadly, over the perils that working parents may face when they leave their children in someone else's care.

A similar case occurred nearly two years ago in Loudoun County, Va., involving a Dutch au pair charged with shaking a newborn to death. In that case, a mistrial was declared.

Although it is Woodward who is on trial, public scrutiny has fallen on the mother, Deborah Eappen, an ophthalmologist who had returned to work three days a week after her second child, Matthew, was born.

Eappen has received hate mail and been attacked by callers to radio talk shows, who have blamed her for causing the tragedy by not staying home with her children. Eappen and her husband, Sunil, have another son, who was 2 at the time of Matthew's death.

Sunil Eappen is a doctor, and the family lives in Newton, a leafy suburb west of Boston that is home to many physicians, lawyers and other professionals.

Since the death, Deborah Eappen has seen herself "transformed by personal tragedy into a public symbol of maternal neglect and yuppie greed," wrote Eileen McNamara, a columnist for the Boston Globe.

McNamara wrote of one recent hate letter that accused Eappen of "greed and poor judgment" for leaving her baby with an au pair for the sake of her "lifestyle."

"One of the underlying themes in the case is blaming mom," said Caryl Rivers, a Boston University professor who has written about dual-career couples. "The subtext here is, whenever anything happens to the child, if the mother is working, the mother is automatically to blame. It's never dad's problem."

Rivers said studies of child deaths indicate that babies and toddlers are much more likely to be killed by a parent or other relative than by a babysitter or day care provider.

The case has also focused attention on the government-sponsored au pair program through which Woodward and thousands of other young Europeans, mostly women, are brought to the United States for a cultural exchange.

Woodward's stay in the Eappen home was arranged by E F Au Pair, which operates throughout the United States and is one of eight such agencies recognized by the United States Information Agency.

More than 10,000 U.S. families participate in the program every year, providing a home to a young man or woman from abroad in return for up to 45 hours of child care a week.

The duties of all parties are spelled out in USIA regulations. The rules require au pairs to be trained in child care. Many other agencies supply families with a variety of nannies, babysitters and day care under various terms.

Since the death of Matthew Eappen, some nannies in the au pair program have complained that they have been made to work more hours than the 45 permitted.

Some employers have said that agencies supplying the nannies do not do adequate background checks.

Woodward could face life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.

In his opening statement, prosecutor Gerard Leone Jr. said the evidence would show that Matthew was "violently slammed against a hard object and violently shaken, causing massive head injuries."

Woodward, who was alone with Matthew and his brother, has denied striking Matthew but acknowledged that she may have been a "little rough" with him.

She said she shook him gently to try to revive him after he lost consciousness.

During the first four days of trial, prosecutors called on medical experts and the coroner who examined Matthew. Most of the state's witnesses agree that the baby suffered a violent trauma. A Boston eye doctor Friday testified that bleeding inside the eyes indicated the child was shaken with sudden force.

Under cross-examination by Woodward attorney Barry Scheck, several of the prosecution's witnesses acknowledged that Matthew was not cut or bruised and that some of his injuries could have been inflicted before Feb. 4.