To tell or not to tell?
That's the burning question for many parents when it comes to videotaping the nannies they bring into their homes to care for their children.
For some, it's a no-brainer _ do it and keep mum about it. They validate their decision by pointing to incidents of suspected abuse caught on tape, including the recent case involving a Long Island, N.Y., couple whose hidden camera revealed their longtime nanny slapping, kicking and attempting to smother their 10-month-old daughter.
Of nearly 4,000 moms responding to a 2003 survey conducted by Parenting magazine and America Online, 82 percent agreed they would secretly videotape their nanny not only if they suspected their children were not receiving proper care and attention, but also to protect their caregivers from false accusations of abuse. Some also said they would resort to videotaping only if they suspected abuse. Otherwise, they said, it was unethical to use cameras secretly.
While 18 percent of respondents said they objected to using hidden surveillance, some admitted they had videotaped their caregivers _ only not in secret.
As video surveillance technology gets smaller, easier to conceal and less pricey, it is becoming a popular way for people to keep an eye on those who are supposed to be watching everything from their kids and homes to their pets and aging parents. So says national security expert Richard Soloway, chief executive of Napco Systems Inc., an Amityville, N.Y.-based electronic security systems manufacturer.
Interest has spiked in recent years as cellular phone companies have added built-in cameras and videotaping capabilities and as more places such as cybercafes and high-tech hotels have opened up "where you can put your computer down on a table and scan the world," Soloway says.
Meanwhile, experts in law, ethics, privacy and electronic surveillance are split over whether it's right or wrong to use it in secret. Some nannies don't exactly welcome a camera watching their every move _ or, if one is, they want to be told about it.
Legally, the decision is up to the parents when it comes to using so-called nanny cams, says Alec Farr, an attorney in the Washington, D.C., law office of Bryan Cave LLP, who specializes in matters of privacy and technology. "It's your home. It's her workplace you are providing to her. She has no reasonable expectation of privacy in your home," he says.
While it may be legal to secretly videotape your nanny, Harold J. Krent, dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology and an expert on personal privacy, questions whether it's ethical.
"It strikes me as unethical," he says. "I would suggest that people put the shoe on the other foot. What if a camera were focused on you at work? What would your reaction be if your boss decided to record phone conversations or monitor e-mail? Wouldn't you want to know about it ahead of time?
"My advice would be to tell the nanny," he says. "I think it's a matter of respect."
Rhyder McClure, owner of the Manhattan-based New York Nanny Cam Co., is on the opposite end of the spectrum.
"Ethics, schmethics," scoffs McClure, who started tinkering with video surveillance equipment in 1996, after a burglar broke into his Manhattan apartment. "I don't think ethics is the issue. I think the child's welfare is the issue."
Parents have rights, but so do nannies, says Katy Cardinale, who runs a branch of Nanny's USA in West Hempstead, N.Y. The placement agency specializes in offering domestic services, including nannies, housekeepers, elderly companions and baby nurses.
"Whenever we have a client that comes to the agency, we give them a nanny bill of rights. It says if cameras are going to be used to tell the nannies," she says. "As for the nannies, we tell them to work with the assumption that there are cameras in the home, whether they're told about them or not. A professional nanny has no problem with cameras in the home."
Several nannies, including Cardinale, who worked as a nanny for four years in the 1990s for families on Long Island and in New York City, say they'd like to know for reasons of personal privacy and modesty, not to get away with anything.
For instance, no one wants to get caught on tape doing things _ scratching themselves, wiping their noses, undressing _ that they might feel perfectly safe doing in private.
As a professional nanny for 15 years and current president of the Raleigh, N.C.-based National Association of Nannies, Kristen Kanoski says parents have many other ways of finding out how their caregiver is doing besides resorting to high-tech surveillance.
One of the most important things is "always, always, always check the references," she says. "There's nothing wrong with checking them twice."
She also suggests asking the nanny to babysit on a Saturday night as a trial run; taking a week off to observe your child and the nanny together firsthand; inviting the nanny over for a day and observing how he or she interacts with your child; calling home or dropping by unannounced during the day; having a neighbor drop by; coming home early. Kanoski also urges parents to look for warning signs, such as the child crying or appearing afraid when the nanny is around, or bruises on the child.
For some, whether to tell isn't the issue. Diann Kelly, assistant professor at Adelphi University's School of Social Work, says she knows parents experience anxiety about leaving their children alone with a stranger, but relying solely on nanny cams isn't a good idea.
"You're relinquishing your parenting authority to someone who may or may not care about your child," she says. A better way is to undertake a "rigorous" search for a qualified child-care provider.
"It's not enough that they bring their references. Family members, grandparents, godparents also should interview that person, so that the individual working for the family understands they're not just working for you . . . but they're also responsible to an entire family system."
When it comes to nanny cams, professional ethicist Bruce Weinstein's advice is just don't do it.
"Just think about it: What kind of relationship would you have with someone that would prompt you to secretly record them with your children? The premise of the whole experience is preposterous," says Weinstein, who analyzes ethics for CNN, writes the syndicated column "Ask the Ethics Guy" and is author of the forthcoming Life Principles: Feeling Good by Doing Good (Emmis Books, June 2005).
"If you really take the well-being of the child seriously to begin with, you would get someone who is so trustworthy you wouldn't need to watch them in the first place."