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Sitter background checks pose challenge for parents

By Martine Powers
Globe Staff / January 26, 2012
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How can parents ensure that the people they find on child-care websites are completely trustworthy? The short answer is that they cannot.

The case of David Ettlinger - a Newton teacher arrested on child pornography charges who also advertised his services on online baby sitter listings - sheds light on the limits of background checks and the reliability of endorsements by child-care search websites for who post their services online.

The websites are often subscription-based, and they offer parents a quick way to find a sitter. Potential baby sitters post profiles with a photo, and employers and child-care providers can message one another to make plans for an interview.

Would-be baby sitters are automatically screened to verify their identity and checked against state sex offender registries. And though additional background checks may sometimes be performed by the sites or by parents, Ettlinger’s case highlights their limits, especially in the case of someone who has not been convicted of a crime.

Sittercity.com, a site that removed Ettlinger’s profile from its listings after his arrest, said they stand by their practices.

Yesterday, Mary Schwartz, spokeswoman for Sittercity.com, outlined the company’s efforts to check the background of people in their listings. Parents can also choose an “enhanced background check’’ option, which includes a visit to the courthouse by site employees to check criminal records in person.

Ettlinger, a second-grade teacher at Newton’s Underwood Elementary School now on administrative leave, pleaded not guilty last week to charges of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14, posing a child in a state of nudity, and possession of child pornography.

Before his arrest, Ettlinger had posted a background check with his listing on Care.com, another popular child-care website.

The record included Social Security number verification, along with cross-references against state and county criminal databases, state sex offender registries, terrorist watch lists, and state prison, parole, and release files. No red flags were raised.

That is why some warn that relying on background checks simply is not enough.

“You can’t just go to a website and pick somebody,’’ said Ollie Smith, interim executive director at the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. “There’s no way of vetting people on websites; you just don’t know enough.’’

On websites such as Care.com and Sittercity.com, Ettlinger seems to have extolled his child-care credentials.

“Hello, my name is David, and I am interested in becoming your babysitter,’’ began one of his messages, which he sent through Care.com on Oct. 16. The message was forwarded to the Globe by the parent who received it.

“I have tons of energy and I guarantee I can keep up with your little ones,’’ Ettlinger wrote. “I love doing all sorts of activities with kids and I’m not shy about singing, dancing, or doing anything I’d be completely embarrassed to do in front of my peers.’’

Smith vouched for Care.com, saying it is a reputable website that conducts adequate research on the caretakers it lists. But those checks cannot find someone who has not committed crimes in the past. Ettlinger, she said, was also fit to pass a state background check.

“People assume finding someone on a website is the end of the process,’’ Smith said. “But it’s actually the start of the process.’’

Schwartz, of Sittercity.com, said the company urges parents to perform their own due diligence: Read online reviews and ratings about the person’s past baby-sitting performance, conduct an in-person interview, and check references.

Some websites, such as Care4Hire.com, do not perform background checks themselves, but instead give parents advice on conducting their own research.

Candi Wingate - owner and president of Care4Hire.com, Babysitters4Hire.com, and Nannies4Hire.com - said that while those sites post profiles of potential baby sitters, they do not take on the task of background checks. Instead, they share advice with parents on how to check out potential babysitters or nannies on their own.

When asking for references, she suggested, request land line numbers instead of cellphone numbers, so they can be verified against public records. Compare notes with references with dates and details on the résumé.

Most important, conduct an interview in person and meet in a coffee shop or bakery, rather than in your home. “You can never be too safe,’’ Wingate said.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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