Article regarding Elizabeth Docherty and Recognition of Nannies
Home ] Up ] Photo Galleries ] Town Guides ] Notables ] Community ] News ] Places ] History ] Search ] Contact Us ]


STAMFORD -- Forget the image actress Fran Drescher created for millions of television viewers in the 1990s. Real-life nanny Elizabeth Docherty says raising other people's children is hard work and deserves respect.

"Our job is not just making chicken nuggets and changing diapers. There's much more to it," Docherty said. "It's very emotional. It's a very demanding job, and a lot of people don't understand what we do. They look at it as an unskilled domestic (labor), and it's not." Docherty, a British native who lives in Stamford, is part of a national movement for federal recognition of nannies as skilled professionals. "I'd like nannies to come forward and help me better the profession," Docherty said at her home in the Cove section.

"We need standards, we need regulations, we need better education." As chairwoman of the International Nanny Association's Federal Affairs Subcommittee, Docherty has written to first lady Laura Bush, U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Bridgeport, and has traveled to Washington, D.C., several times in the past year to meet with Department of Labor officials. Sheilagh Roth, founder of the English Nanny & Governess School in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, said Docherty's efforts could start to change the way Americans view child care in the home. "We've got to be honest. Most mothers are not home, and we have to make sure people watching their children are educated," Roth said. "If someone paints nails, the government requires hours and hours of training. Yet, when it comes to raising children, we have no standard."

Considering nannies as skilled professionals might be a step toward obtaining medical benefits, Social Security benefits and workers' compensation and help immigration efforts, Docherty said. It also would help differentiate nannies from au pairs -- a common confusion, Docherty said. Au pairs typically are foreign exchange students who help a host family in exchange for a place to stay; they are baby sitters who have little or no special training in child care, according to the National Association of Nannies. Most nannies have years of experience, the association says. Docherty, 35, has worked as a nanny in the United States, Scotland, England, Germany and Saudi Arabia for 15 years. She cares for a 3-year-old city boy while his parents are at work. She takes him to preschool classes, shopping, for haircuts, attends his violin recitals and, on Halloween, helped him choose a costume.

Her work connotes a level of responsibility that sets her -- and other nannies -- apart from baby sitters, Docherty said. "They're distinguishing themselves but the government doesn't recognize it," said Judith Sporn, a Westport attorney specializing in immigration law. "That's the problem." Without that distinction, Sporn said, nannies are lumped into a general category of unskilled workers that makes it difficult to attain legal status. Each year, the government limits the number of unskilled workers who receive permanent resident cards, or green cards. It can take years for foreign nannies to gain permanent residency, Sporn said. Because of federal quotas that give priority to skilled workers, no more than 5,000 unskilled workers can enter the country legally a year, according to officials in the Immigration and Naturalization Service's regional office in Burlington, Vt. About eight times as many skilled workers can attain legal permanent residency each year, INS spokeswoman Amy Otten said.

Sporn's last client to be granted a green card was an inexperienced child-care worker from Britain who waited seven years. "If she had come out of one of the nanny academies in Great Britain, she would have had the same result," Sporn said. "We don't feel that should be the case." If nannies were considered skilled professionals, she said, federal immigration laws would give them priority and their applications would move through the system much faster. Establishing the job as a skilled profession, Docherty said, would widen the appeal of becoming a nanny in America and lessen the demand for foreign nannies. "If you're an American, you're expected to go into a legitimate profession, and a nanny is not considered that," she said. "Here you're looked down upon, almost. In Britain, you say you're a nanny and people say, 'Where do you work?' " British nannies belong to a time-honored profession. Former North Stamford nanny Sheila Houlahan graduated from a two-year college program for nannies in Britain and passed a standardized test called the National Nursery Examination Board. "I came here and found out it's very looked down upon, and I was mortified," Houlahan said. Houlahan, a Redding resident, spent five years working in Stamford before quitting to raise her own family two years ago.

In the United States, Roth said, "The right people are not getting into the profession because it comes without status." Jayne Ehrlich, owner of the nanny placement agencies Hometown Nannies in Wilton and Malibu Mamas in California, said National Nursery Examination Board-certified nannies such as Houlahan are sought after by parents because of their training and expertise. The United States should have a similar certification, Ehrlich said. "I don't think we need to import people to do these jobs," she said. "We have plenty of child-care workers here." One of the stumbling blocks for changing Americans' perceptions of nannies is that those in the nanny business can't agree on what type of training should be required. Bradford Gaylord, chief operating officer of Roth's nanny school, said there is no reason to make the job a skilled profession unless there are education requirements. "Formal education, plain and simple -- that will end (the nannies') concerns," he said.

The private, nonprofit school offers a one-year nanny training program that includes three months of classes studying child development, nutrition, health, hygiene, interpersonal communication with families and other subjects, as well as a nine-month externship. The school recently graduated a class of 17. Gaylord said his school has many more applicants but only a few pass the screening process, which includes FBI, state and local police background checks, a search of driving records, six character references and a psycho-social assessment. New Canaan resident Anna Donahue, who employed nannies when her two children were young, said that if nannies had to pay tuition for school, they might demand more money. Then families such as hers would not be able to afford nannies, Donahue said. "It just sounds expensive to me," she said of the education requirement.

Industry insiders said full-time Fairfield County nannies earn about $480 to $600 a week, depending on the number of children, hours and whether the nanny lives with the family. Donahue, who said she has hired 15 nannies over an 11-year period, believes child-care education would be an attractive quality in a job candidate but would not be enough when choosing someone to watch children. "For me, the most important part of the mix has been attitude, energy, personality, sense of humor -- the chemistry," she said. "Common sense and good people instincts gets you a lot further in this job. I didn't get training as a mother." Docherty said she is unsure what level of education -- if any -- should be required for nannies.

Houlahan said nannies should -- at least -- be expected to speak English so they can communicate with the children they are supervising and teach them as a mother would. "These kids never see their parents, and you need someone in the home who knows what they are doing," she said. "A lot of these families have nannies during the week and then a weekend nanny because, even when they are home, they don't want to take care of them." Nannies said it's common for parents to take advantage of them by requesting they do housework, or asking them to act as chauffeurs or do other favors unrelated to their role as child-care workers. Houlahan said she has been lucky to have found good employers over the years, avoiding situations faced by many of her peers. "I didn't go to college to clean your toilets and make your bed," Houlahan said. "You're there to look after the children. And if they can't take care of the house, then they need to hire someone to clean it."

Some nannies, especially those placed by an agency, have contracts that spell out working conditions. Ehrlich said most of her clients provide two weeks paid vacation, paid holidays, some health benefits and give nannies a vehicle to drive while on duty or reimburse them for automobile expenses. "This is not a free-for-all," she said. A clear definition of the nanny profession would benefit everyone involved, Docherty said. "At the end of the day, a happy nanny is a good nanny -- and that will show in the child," she said.

Copyright 2001, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.