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How well do you know your child's caregivers?

The story out of Hollywood, Fla., would make any parent cringe. A couple hired a nanny from a reputable agency. She cleared all background checks and seemed to adore their baby girl. But after a few weeks the baby cried more and more when she was left with the nanny.

The suspicious parents installed hidden surveillance cameras in their home and began watching hours of tapes each night when they got home from work. After a few days they saw a shot of the nanny slamming their 5-month-old on the floor. In another clip, she shook her like a rag doll, with her head snapping to the front and back, then laid the baby in her lap and kissed her forehead.

Fortunately the baby has come out of this with no injuries. The nanny has been charged with four counts of felony child abuse. This terrible incident has many parents questioning how they know for sure their children are in the best of care. Others are lucky that they trust their child care providers completely.

"You have to really know who your children are with and you have to feel good about it," said Mary Tingiris, a child care advocate and former director of the Florida Family Child Care Home Association. She urges parents to do more than pay their nanny every afternoon and send her on her way, or pick up the kids from day care and rush out the door.

Somehow parents need to make time to sit down on a regular basis and form a relationship with their child care providers. Go out for pizza together on weekends. Invite them to a Sunday cookout. Get to know their families. Surface chitchat is fine with the plumber or the mail carrier. But you should know the person taking care of your child as well as your own family.

While you're building that relationship, there are other things you can do. Pop in for visits to your child's day care center or home. See how happy your child is. If the presence of a parent makes other kids want their own mommy, then watch through a window or cracked door.

Sometimes kids at any age may complain about child care or cry when their parents leave. Tingiris, who cared for children in her licensed home in Tampa for 12 years, told of a little boy who screamed every time his dad left but was playing happily in less than five minutes. She asked the dad to sneak back in after the first departure to see that his son was actually very happy there.

If you can't get that reassurance and you have some concerns, listen to your gut. If you're really worried, I wouldn't even spend the time it takes to rig up cameras and watch tapes.

"If there is a flag that goes up, it's your children, for God's sake," Tingiris said. "Whether you know for sure there's a problem or not, make a change. Don't risk it."

We found ourselves in this very situation several years ago when my oldest daughter was 2{, and my youngest was 6 months. We had hired a nanny through a classified ad, checked references and completed a background check on her. She and the girls seemed happy together until the third day, when, after she had left, my oldest daughter told me the sitter had hit her.

I can still picture where I was when I heard these terrible words. Olivia went on to say she had thrown her sippy cup down and the sitter had hit her on the leg. My girls had been lightly spanked on their bottoms on occasion, but only by their father or me. I had instructed the sitter to use timeouts and tell me if there were any discipline problems.

I called her and somehow managed to ask in an unthreatening way if she had spanked Olivia. She assured me nothing of the sort had happened.

We were puzzled. Olivia had never made up something like this about other babysitters. She was certainly unaware of the serious ramifications of hitting a child, then lying about it. We sided with our 2-year-old over an adult we didn't know and fired the sitter.

Mike Peros, owner of Privacy Electronics in Pinellas Park, said his company installs hidden cameras for about 100 families a month who want a secret look at their child care. Often they find nannies stealing, snooping and neglecting the children.

"They see them leave them sitting up on the kitchen counter or the nanny is talking on the phone inside while the baby is playing out next to the pool area," Peros said.

His company can install surveillance cameras for $59 and up. He has a $600 package that allows parents to view their home on their computer at work via the Internet. Personally, I can't see hiring someone I feel uncomfortable enough with that I need to spy on her. And I can't fathom working at a job where my bosses are spying on me.

Bad nannies are still a tiny minority among all the caregivers in homes today. Debbie Brown, owner of the Nannies Who Care agency for 15 years, said that more than 85 percent of the time families have a long, happy relationship with their nannies. The placements that haven't worked out for her agency stem from personality conflicts, not abuse, neglect or theft.

Brown agrees with Tingiris that if you have the right relationship with you caregiver, you won't be sitting at work with knots in your stomach all day.

"She should be like a member of your family," she said. "Interview her several times. You might ask if you can do a second interview at her house." You don't need to be inspecting the dust on her windowsills or her bedside reading, but you can see how she interacts with her own family and pets. Brown also collects many references on each nanny she places.

If you are placing your child in a licensed home or center, you can check public records for any filed complaints or any infractions during county inspections, said Mary Bennett, program administrator for Child Care Resource and Referral, the county's free program that helps parents find child care. She also advises parents to really watch the kids when they visit, look for lots of interaction with caregivers, and count to make sure the child-to-adult ratio is in place.

For more tips go to the Coordinated Child Care of Pinellas Web site: www.childcarepinellas.org.

_ You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at snowsmithverizon.net; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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