Child safety advocates urge caution as online baby sitter ads persist
December 6, 2010
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — A month after a military judge convicted a child rapist who found his victims by advertising baby-sitting services online in the Kaiserslautern area, parents are still making last-minute pleas for baby sitters on the website, a move experts say is ill-advised and could have devastating consequences.
New ads seeking child care are posted every several days on ramsteinyardsales.com, the popular online classifieds for Americans in Kaiserslautern where Joshua Adam Smith, 27, an Air Force staff sergeant, trolled for victims.
The needs vary, from full-time care to a sitter for “date night.”
Some ads express urgency, such as one from Nov. 16 headlined, “Baby sitter needed ASAP,” because of the start of a new job. Others show lack of planning: “Looking for a sitter for a 3 mos old girl while we go out on the town … from 10pm-5am if anyone is not doing anything and wants to make $20 let me know! … i know its last minute but hoping someone will help me out …”
But since Smith’s Nov. 5 conviction of raping and molesting three young girls whom he baby-sat and his sentence of life without parole, some parents are being extra cautious when vetting potential sitters.
In her latest ad on ramsteinyardsales.com, posted last month, Army spouse Rhonda McMullen tells prospective baby sitters up front: “Due to the recent event in Ramstein all potential candidates will be interviewed and screened prior to providing child care services.” She prefers a baby sitter come to her house, where she has a “nanny cam.”
“I do take more precautions now than I did before,” she said. Smith had contacted McMullen about a baby-sitting ad she posted last spring, before he was arrested, McMullen said.
She was surprised to get a response from a male airman: “By instinct, I found it peculiar and told him that I had already found someone,” she said by e-mail.
Child safety experts say that’s one of the first rules to follow when looking for child care.
“An instinct is one of the strongest barometers for when something is OK and when something is not OK,” said Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of Safely Ever After, an organization in Santa Monica, Calif., that educates parents and children about preventing child sexual abuse. “As parents we ignore our instincts a lot of the time. Either we want to believe in the good in people or we’re just so needy, we want to believe our instinct is incorrect.”
Child predators will pounce on weaknesses, she said.
“Families that are overseas, they are more vulnerable just by virtue of the fact that they’re away from home and need assistance,” Fitzgerald said. “Predators know that.”
Based on statistics alone, experts say, hiring a male babysitter is a bad idea.
“Ninety-three percent of sex offenders are male,” said Jennifer Mitchell, co-president of Child Lures Prevention/Teen Lures Prevention in Shelburne, Vt. “I would never hire a male baby sitter, period. I’m talking as a mother. I have two children of my own. I can’t do it, knowing what I know.”
Child safety experts caution against finding any baby sitter online.
“I cringe when I see it, because it’s a grab bag. You never know what you’re going to get,” Fitzgerald said.
She urges parents to “reach out to people you know who have children … connect to people in the real world as opposed to putting ads out.”
But even when parents try to follow all the advice, things can still go dangerously wrong.
The mother of Smith’s 7-year-old victim said she first sought hourly care through one of the child development centers on Ramstein. In Stuttgart, where hourly care is readily available, she was able to drop off her kids to go to doctor appointments, she said.
At Ramstein, “they told me that they didn’t do hourly care,” she said in an e-mail. “I was very disappointed and asked what I was supposed to do in my situation.”
She was handed information about family child care, providers licensed by the Army or Air Force to provide full- or part-time care in their homes, on or off base.
But not one of the home providers could take all three of her kids at the same time, the mother said.
That’s when she posted the ad online, she said.
The high demand for child care on base can leave parents without many options.
Airman 1st Class Skye Kinder, who recently posted an online ad for a nanny four days a week to care for her two boys in Otterbach, said the Smith case has her worried about seeking a baby sitter through the community at large. But as a shift worker at Sembach, her options are limited.
“I am not a single parent or dual military, so my children will never get into the CDC or after-school program,” she said in an e-mail, noting the family was on the Kapaun school-age program waiting list for more than a year before giving up.
Military officials acknowledge there’s a need for more child care spaces in the Kaiserslautern military community. The Air Force and Army are adding more spaces through renovation or construction of new child care facilities, but currently, almost every child development center and school-age program at military bases in Kaiserslautern have waiting lists, according to military officials.
The Air Force CDCs offer hourly care, said Dorothy Choate, Airmen and Family Services Flight chief, 86th Services Squadron, but only if there is a vacancy, due to an illness or vacation. Parents must call that morning to see whether space is available.
Eric Hsu, a former law enforcement officer, father and felony prosecutor from Richland, Wash., who speaks out on child sexual abuse prevention, urges parents not to shy away from uncomfortable questions when they look for a baby sitter: Why do you want to baby-sit? Have you ever accidentally invaded a child’s privacy? Have you ever done anything inappropriate with a child? Have you ever been accused of abusing a child?
“If they can’t answer those questions, I think there is something wrong,” he said.