Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer
Nov 5, 2016

Host of problems

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Every year, thousands of young people travel to the United States from other countries and work as au pairs. The term au pair is French for “a relationship of equals.”

These 18-to-26-year-olds live with a host family for one to two years and provide up to 45 hours of child care a week in exchange for room, board and an annual stipend of about $10,000.

It seems like a win-win situation. The au pairs – usually women – get to travel and experience new cultures in safe settings. The families get live-in help with child care for far less than a nanny would cost.

The U.S. State Department oversees the au pair program, and sets guidelines for its operation. But that federal agency leaves almost everything – from how much host families pay to how disputes are resolved – to au pair agencies. These are mostly for-profit organizations that pay the State Department for the privilege of running the program.

On this episode, Noy Thrupkaew of The Investigative Fund and Reveal’s Fernanda Camarena examine what happens when au pairs in this country encounter long hours, low pay, cultural misunderstandings, occasionally abusive host families and the sense that they have no one to turn to when troubles crop up.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Are au pairs cultural ambassadors or low-wage nannies?

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
    • Camerado, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
    • Alice Coltrane, “Journey in Satchidananda” from “Journey in Satchidananda” (Impulse!)
    • Blue Dot Sessions, “Blood Petal” from “Nursery”
    • Blue Dot Sessions, “Night Light” from “Nursery”
    • Blue Dot Sessions, “Callow” from “Nursery”
    • Loch Lomond, “Listen Lisbon (Instrumental)” from “Pens From Spain Instrumentals” (Needle Drop Co.)
    • Blue Dot Sessions, “Petaluma” from “Nursery”
    • Ketsa, “Last Look Back (remastered)” from “Untying the Knots” (Ketsa Music)
    • Jim Briggs, “GoBox Groove 3” (Cut-Off Man Records)
    • YEYEY, “Am I the Devil (Instrumental)” from “The Vision Instrumentals” (Needle Drop Co.)
    • Blue Dot Sessions, “Blood Petal” from “Nursery”
    • Blue Dot Sessions, “Petaluma” from “Nursery”
    • Blue Dot Sessions, “Corner Aisle” from “Nursery”
    • Blue Dot Sessions, “Stuffed Monster” from “Nursery”
    • Tycho, “Source” from “Epoch” (Ghostly International)
    • Blue Dot Sessions, “Craypaper Wrapper” from “Nursery”
    • Lake Mary, “Sleepy Bones (tanked remix)” from “Sleepy Bones Remix Digital EP” (Eilean Records)
    • Steve Combs, “Sex and Death and God” from “These Latest Lies”
    • Tycho, “Field” from “Epoch” (Ghostly International)
    • Loscil, “Union Dusk” from “Strathcona Variations” (Ghostly International)
    • Loscil, “Union Dusk” from “Strathcona Variations” (Ghostly International)
    • Tycho, “Field” from “Epoch” (Ghostly International)
    • Tycho, “Receiver” from “Epoch” (Ghostly International)
    • SUBSET, “Arequipa” from “Series70”

TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Al Letson:

From The Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. When Andrea [Bea 00:00:11] came to the US an au pair, she was excited.

Andrea:

I always wanted to learn a second language, especially English.

Al Letson:

The au pair program is billed as a cultural exchange. Families get help with childcare, au pairs get to be a part of an American family.

Speaker 3:

Andrea's very upbeat, positive, super helpful, super friendly. She goes above and beyond what you ask her to do.

Al Letson:

When Andrea moved on to a second host family, she says she felt more like an overworked servant.

Andrea:

I was like a mom, father, and teacher at the same time.

Al Letson:

Some au pairs are ending up leaving the program and getting stuck in the US.

Speaker 4:

You just feel like you're lost. If it doesn't work out, what am I going to do?

Al Letson:

Coming up today on Reveal.

Speaker 5:

Support for Reveal comes from the Scholar Strategy Network, and their podcast No Jargon. No Jargon is a weekly interview with top researchers. It covers the politics, the policy problems, and social issues facing our nation today in a half hour or less. Powerful research, intriguing perspectives, and no jargon. Find No Jargon on iTunes or wherever you get your favorite shows.

Al Letson:

From The Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. It's summer time in Arlington, Virginia. The air is thick and hot, but kids aren't slowing down. Two boys play on a swing set, another rockets down a hot steel slide. The sun has just reached its peak in a neighborhood park at the end of a peaceful suburban cul-de-sac. We all want scenes like this for our kids, it's an essential part of the American dream, but what about the people who care for those kids? Nannies, baby sitters, and in this park, on this day, au pairs?

 

Across the United States, thousands of young people travel from other countries to become au pairs. These 18 to 26 year olds live with a host family for one to two years and provide up to 45 hours of childcare a week, in exchange for room, board, and a yearly stipend of about $10,000. The application process is simple, but it tells two different stories. For families the hook is affordable childcare has never been so simple.

Speaker 6:

Now we have Ana, and she is one great au pair. She watched the boys so I could see Chloe score her first goal on Saturday, and Liam, well he still throws spaghetti, but with another set of hands, it doesn't stay there for long. Ana helps maintain the balance in my life while giving my family the chance to experience her culture.

Al Letson:

For young people, the pitch goes like this, an opportunity to experience America. They eagerly post YouTube videos on agency websites to attract attention from potential host families.

Speaker 7:

I'm 19 years old and I'm from Columbia. I'm full of patience, and seriously, patience is what your children need, someone grateful of helping, full of energy, friendly, and really happy. Your children is the most important thing for me, and understand my responsibility I will do the best as your au pair.

Al Letson:

Sounds like a win-win situation. The au pairs usually live in, get to travel, and experience new cultures in safe settings. The families get live-in help with childcare for far less than any nanny would cost. It all started back in 1986 with a hairdresser from the UK.

Gail:

I was working in a salon in Yorkshire, in Leeds in Yorkshire in the north of England. Life was fun, but I thought it'd be interesting to try something different.

Fernanda:

An ad in a newspaper opened a whole new world for Gail [Markland 00:04:16].

Gail:

It was just a little square ad in the paper asking for people that were interested in being an au pair in the United States. I snipped out the advertisement in the paper and wrote off asking for more information.

Al Letson:

Gail become one of the first au pairs to visit the United States through a pilot program.

Gail:

That was the first time that I traveled internationally, and it was quite a big journey. We were the guinea pigs.

Al Letson:

Au pair is a French term meaning on par with, a relationship of equals. Before the US started the program, it was a common practice in Europe. When Gail went to the US, she ended up with a family in Westchester, New York where she began caring for a baby and adjusting to life in America.

Gail:

In England, most moms use nappies, terry towel and nappies, and you have to [steep 00:05:13] them and wash them and dry them, and it's a fair amount of work. Whereas in the US, most moms were using diapers, disposable diapers. It makes changing nappies a lot easier. That was something to look forward to.

Al Letson:

Despite here introduction to the disposable diaper, Gail says life in the au pair program wasn't easy.

Gail:

They had this cultural aspect to it, and it really is a cultural experience, I think, for both the family and for the au pair. It's still a job, you still have to do your hours, you still have to fulfill your obligations.

Al Letson:

In other words, she says the host parents saw it as a job.

Gail:

You're not really a priority for them. I think you're a glorified nanny.

Al Letson:

After seven months in the US, Gail got homesick and returned to England. Today, au pairs face similar problems and more. Long hours, low pay, cultural misunderstandings, occasionally abusive host families, and a sense that they have no one to turn to when troubles crop up. The state department oversees the program and sets up the guidelines, but they leave almost everything, from how much they charge families, to how they resolve disputes, to au pair agencies. Those agencies make most of their money from their clients, host families.

 

Noy Thrupkaew, the investigative fund, has been investigating the au pair program for two years. She and Reveal's Fernanda Camarena take a look at how a program meant to be a cultural exchange can be abused. Here's Fernanda.

Speaker 10:

That one you need, wait, let's see, one teaspoon. Here's that.

Fernanda:

In cooking, as in life, little things make a big difference. Here the secret ingredients are nutmeg and ground cloves.

Speaker 10:

Three of these, the brown sugar.

Fernanda:

On a lazy Sunday in the Clark's kitchen, the family makes banana bread. The nine year old twins Ella and Zoe get their hands into every ingredient.

Speaker 10:

I think we need another nutmeg nut. Oh no, we're good.

Fernanda:

Their mother Eva lets the girls lead the way. Their father William peeks over their shoulders. It's a sleek, modern home in a village called [inaudible 00:07:41] tuck in the countryside in southeast France, near the Swiss border. The family has lived here for a couple of months after relocating from Arlington, Virginia for William's job at the United Nations.

Speaker 11:

The Clarks know the au pair program well. When they lived in Virginia, they needed help with the twins. When the girls were babies, they had a full-time nanny.

Fernanda:

As they got older, Eva says they didn't need full-time help around the house.

Speaker 12:

We realized that it might be better to at some point have an au pair. That was something that we were considering. We thought, wow, Andrea's perfect.

Fernanda:

That's Andrea Villa. The Clarks knew her because she had stayed with them when she was a 25 year old exchange student studying English.

Speaker 12:

We just had a really good time, it was just really fun. We would take her sight-seeing and show her places to go, and spent a lot of time just talking in the kitchen having coffee. We were always around each other, together quite a bit, which is why we thought it would be great if she could come back.

Fernanda:

Eva called Andrea, who was back in Colombia. She asked Andrea if she wanted to come back to the US and be their au pair.

Andrea:

I say, "Yes," because to be honest, I knew what I wanted but I didn't know how to get there.

Speaker 11:

That was five years ago. Today, Andrea is 32 with shoulder-length brown hair, fair skin, and green eyes. Fernanda and I dropped by her apartment in Alexandria, Virginia.

Fernanda:

Andrea is a very welcoming person who just brims with enthusiasm. She has a serious side, too. She grew up going to a Catholic school, and her faith is as strong as her curiosity about the world.

Andrea:

I always wanted to learn a second language, especially English, because wherever you go then you will be able to communicate with someone else who also knows this language. I always wanted to learn English.

Speaker 11:

That's part of the reason Andrea agreed to come back to be an au pair for the Clarks. She didn't know anything about how the program worked, so the Clarks got in touch with Au Pair International, one of 16 agencies that now run au pair programs in the US. A lot of agencies use third-party oversees recruiters to handle applicants, and au pair-

Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]

Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Noy Thrupkaew:

Third party oversees recruiters to handle applicants and Au Pair International put Andrea in touch with their local recruiter in Bogota.

Andrea:

Then I did all the paperwork, they want me to have a certificate in first aid, so I did a certificate at the Red Cross. I need a certificate that I knew how to swim.

Noy Thrupkaew:

The agency required a psychological assessment and a pregnancy test. At least two agencies have legal agreements that allow them to terminate any au pair who becomes pregnant. Au Pair International isn't one of them.

Fernanda:

The Clarks paid Au Pair International roughly 6 thousand dollars, but the local recruiter also asked Andrea to pay 16 hundred dollars. That's about 3 million Colombian pesos.

Andrea:

If you have 3 million pesos monthly in Colombia, you have a good salary. I told Eva, "Hey, they're asking me for money," he had to say, "What? For money? We already paid them here a lot of money. Why they want money there?"

Eva:

I didn't know a lot of the au pairs paid those fees, that's a little bit disturbing, and I certainly didn't want Andrea to have to worry about that.

Fernanda:

This surprises a lot of people. Families like the Clarks assume they're picking up the cost of the program, but that's not the case. Au pairs can pay anywhere from a few hundred to 3 thousand dollars in various fees.

Eva:

That's a lot of money for them to have to foot the bill for, and if that's the case they should let the host family know that, because we're already paying a certain amount.

Fernanda:

Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico are 3 of the top 5 countries sending au pairs to these states. People from developing countries often don't have 3 thousand dollars so they borrow the money or scrap it together with help from family. They assume they'll be able to pay it back with their au pair earnings, but that means that they start out their stay in the US in debt.

 

Eva says when she heard about the recruiting fee she got in touch with Au Pair International to complain.

Eva:

I also told Andrea that that shouldn't be the case and to push back and let them know and so she did.

Fernanda:

The agency ended up reducing the fee and the Clarks picked up the tab. Au pair agencies have told parents that getting rid of recruitment fees would increase the costs of the program.

Noy Thrupkaew:

Yeah, let's talk about how much this costs a host family. First, there's the initial fee topping out around 85 hundred dollars a year. The families provide room and board, plus 500 dollars for au pairs to take a class. They also pay the au pair a little less than 2 hundred dollars a week. They pay the same amount whether they have 1 kid or 4, so that adds up to about 20 grand for a family, about half of what a nanny in the DC area would cost.

Fernanda:

Eva says the difference in cost is why some families use the program as a substitute for nannies.

Speaker 5:

I think that's a very unfortunate, a very big mistake, because there's a huge difference between, I think, an au pair and a nanny in your expectations and cost. I know a nanny is 2 to 3 times more expensive, but you're also getting a different level of work.

Fernanda:

Eva says she never expected that much from the au pair program. Andrea worked 5 hours a day while Eva and her husband were at their jobs.

Andrea:

My duties were take the girls at 9 AM at school, so I used to help them to dress up, get them breakfast, get their lunch ready, drive them to school, pick them up, go for play dates, give them a snack, give them bath.

Fernanda:

when the twins were at school, Andrea did a little touring around DC. Mostly though, she studied for an English as a foreign language test.

Noy Thrupkaew:

This is part of that pitch to au pairs. They get an education. It's in the federal regulations. They have to earn 6 academic credits a year. Without these credits, some agencies say they may not cover any au pairs return flight home.

Fernanda:

The other part of the pitch? The cultural experience. Andrea says that worked out pretty well for her when she was with the Clarks.

Andrea:

I went out for breakfast, they were there, "Hey, Andrea, good morning." When I used to come from school, they made the dinner. I used to sit down with them to watch American shows, they talked to me, "How was your day?" They are like family. They're like great family.

Eva:

We'd spend hours out in the snow and she'd be out there by herself making snowmen and we'd all run out and join her and make her come in and have hot chocolate.

Fernanda:

It was great, everything Andrea had hoped for. She liked it so much, she wanted to stay longer than her initial 1 year contract. The Clarks could have extended her stay, but the girls were getting older and they didn't need much help.

Noy Thrupkaew:

Right. That meant Andrea needed to find a new host family or return to Colombia. Andrea thought that Au Pair International, the agency that brought her the US, would help her find that family, but she says that's not what happened.

Andrea:

The agency jut told me, "You need to join Care.com, look for a families that are looking for other au pairs."

Noy Thrupkaew:

Care.com is the Eharmony of babysitting. It helps families and childcare providers find each other, but it's not an au pair agency, so if Andrea connects with a family through Care.com, she and the family will still need an agreement through Au Pair International or another sponsoring agency.

Fernanda:

We requested an interview with Au Pair International multiple times over several months to find out what kind of support they offered Andrea, but they never responded.

Noy Thrupkaew:

Andrea says she posted an add on Care.com, but only heard back from one family.

Andrea:

That was the only interview, the only one. I was so afraid if I don't get this family, it's going to be hard for me to go and see other families and my Visa might expire. I didn't want to pay a ticket back to Colombia.

Noy Thrupkaew:

The mother told Andrea she was training to become a firefighter so she'd arrive home late most nights. The dad worked in law enforcement, another demanding job. Andrea and the family reached a new agreement with Au Pair International.

Fernanda:

It didn't sound like an ideal situation, but Andrea felt this suburban DC family with 2 children was her only option.

Andrea:

I didn't have a lot of savings because I spent a lot of money going to school here for the first year as an au pair and I need a job. I couldn't be picky, I didn't have that time.

Al Letson:

Andrea's experience is not unusual for au pairs. They come here looking for opportunities, but can end up being caught in the system where they have very little control.

 

When we come back, Andrea finds out what life is like with a family who needs a lot more childcare than she signed up for.

Andrea:

I was like a mom, father, and teacher at the same time.

Speaker 5:

There's no checks and balances that I can tell that are in place. In terms of hours, in terms of pay. I guess it's all up on the family and you hope that it's a good host family.

Al Letson:

That's next on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Cole:

Hey there listeners. It's Cole Goins here from Reveal. You've heard quite a bit this hour about the problems au pairs face when they come to America. Putting this story together, we got to wondering if any of you have had an experience with an au pair, either working a one or hiring one for your own family. We want to hear your stories. You can share them with our newsroom by heading over to RevealNews.org/aupair. Again, that's RevealNews.org/A-U-P-A-I-R.

Al Letson:

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Au pair programs bring young people from all over the world for what's billed as a cultural exchange. They get to come to the US and experience the country. In return, they take care of the host family's children. The state department regulates the program, but it's run by independent au pair agencies. You have to sign up with one of them in order to come to the US, or if you need to find a new host family once you're here.

 

That's where we pick up the story of Andrea Villa. She came to the DC area from Colombia and needed to find a new family after her first one year contract ended, but when she went to her second host family she started to see how easily the system can be exploited. Reveal's Fernanda Camarena and Noy Thrupkaew of the non-profit newsroom, the investigative fund, continue her story. Here's Fernanda.

Fernanda:

From the moment Andrea moved in with her second host family she says things didn't go well.

Andrea:

I was crying every day because when living with the Clarks it was such an amazing experience and they were so totally different.

Noy Thrupkaew:

The new family had young girls, 4 and 6 years old, both the mom and dad left home early and worked late, and Andrea says that meant she started early and worked late.

Andrea:

I started working, I think it was [inaudible 00:19:35] ocho, nueve, [inaudible 00:19:37], uno, dos, tres, quatro ...

Fernanda:

Andrea counts her hours on her fingers. She started at 6:30 in the morning making breakfast for the girls. She'd take the older one to school and babysit the younger daughter all day long. Andrea says it often added up to 12 hours a day, 60 hours a week. That's way more than the 45 hours allowed by the au pair program. Andrea says-

Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]

Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Voiceover:

Hours allowed by the au pair program. Andrea says in addition to taking care of the kid, she also cleaned and mopped the kitchen, and vacuumed the entire house.

Andrea:

I did a training for this agency online back in Columbia. All the chapters, all the chapters were about kids. Nothing was about how to mop a floor, how to vacuum.

Voiceover:

Cleaning the house might not sound like a big deal, but the au pair rules are pretty clear, and they are there to make sure au pairs aren't taken advantage of. All work should be related to the kids, so straightening the kid's rooms, making their meals, that is okay. Becoming a full time maid, that is not okay. Yuka Yamata worked for the same family as Andrea. We reached her by Skype.

Speaker 4:

Can you tell me about your work? What is one day of work like for you?

Yuka:

7:30 I wake up, and go to the kitchen, make some breakfast for girls.

Speaker 4:

Yuka is from Japan. She is living in China now. She said she would also occasionally work 50 to 55 hours, but she got paid extra. She didn't seem to mind the additional work, and is still close to the family.

Yuka:

[inaudible 00:21:20].

Speaker 4:

I have interviewed dozens of au pairs who say extra chores and extra hours are pretty much a given. They say they feel like they have no choice, but to do what the host family wants, or they might get kicked out of the program.

Voiceover:

Andrea felt like she was being taken advantage of.

Andrea:

I was like a mom, father, and teacher at the same time.

Voiceover:

But she didn't know what to do, so she called her friend and host mom Eva Clark.

Eva Clark:

Andrea is very up beat, positive. Super helpful, super friendly. She goes above and beyond what you ask her to do. I could see that it was effecting her mood.

Voiceover:

Eva didn't think it was fair that Andrea was working extra hours and not getting paid. She encouraged Andrea to ask for money for those extra hours. At the rate nannies in the area made, $12 an hour. Andrea went to the host dad.

Andrea:

Could you please pay me 12 per hour for the extra hours? Then he said, "No. I am not going to do that because we are already providing you room, and food, and transportation. That costs money for us."

Voiceover:

But the families are supposed to provide room and board as part of the program, and they are not allowed to ask them to work more than 45 hours a week. Whether or not they are willing to pay. Andrea says the host dad finally agreed to $6 an hour for the extra time, but soon after she got her raise, things went downhill. It all started with [Chippy 00:23:00] went missing. That is what the youngest girl called her favorite stuffed animal.

Andrea:

Then she started crying. "I want my Chippy, my Chippy." I say, "No, you have to look for Chippy."

Voiceover:

Andrea says she looked for the toy, but couldn't find it. She says the little girl went upstairs crying to be consoled by her mom. Andrea, she went to bed. She says the next day the host dad sat her down.

Andrea:

He said to me, "Well why you didn't stay downstairs folding clothes?" Then I stay quiet. I didn't say anything, but it makes me feel bad, like I can't believe he didn't say, "I'm sorry about that." It passed the limit. I thought, I'm done. I don't want to be here in this house anymore.

Voiceover:

Andrea asked her local coordinator for a new family. She spoke to the host parents and they agreed Andrea should leave by that Friday, but Andrea says that when she spoke to the dad-

Andrea:

He said to me, "Okay, so we talked to the agency, and if it's not coming from your heart to take care of the kids then you should leave." I said, "Yes. I have to leave. Now what I'm going to do." He said, "That's not my problem, and actually you won't leave this Friday. We want you to leave tomorrow."

Voiceover:

When Eva found out what happened she said she called the State Department.

Eva Clark:

I remember that now actually. Making that call, and I thought who can I possibly call to get help? There has got to be some sort of monitoring of this program that we can report them to, or at least get them to look into this situation.

Voiceover:

There is supposed to be someone monitoring the program. US State Department, and the au pair agencies.

Janie:

You've actually got these agencies that are telling au pairs that they should come to them with complaints.

Voiceover:

That is Janie [Chwan 00:24:55]. She is an attorney in Arlington, Virginia who pointed out big flaws in the au pair program in a law review article.

Janie:

Depending on whoever the local counselor is, that complaint may or may not be communicated to the right channels to actually address it.

Voiceover:

A local counselor works for the agencies. Janie says au pairs can face real barriers if they try to report problems.

Janie:

From the agency's perspective why would they want labor oversight? It works well for them. They've got host families that they want to encourage to come back.

Voiceover:

Au Pair International the agency that sponsored Andrea wouldn't do a recorded interview for the story, neither would any of the 15 other agencies, but the State Department which regulates the program for the US government, did agree to talk to us. Deputy assistant secretary Kerry [Laurie 00:25:45] says if they hear of a problem they will do something about it.

Carrie:

If a sponsor is not holding a host family accountable, then that is where we will take action with that sponsor.

Voiceover:

But we don't know what action that is. Laurie wouldn't tell us citing privacy issues. She did say that the government plans to make changes since it completed a year long review of the program in 2015, but what are they?

Carrie:

I would love to address that, but I can't because it's part of the federal regulation process that is currently in draft.

Voiceover:

Meanwhile the clock was ticking for Andrea, who needed to find a new family. When an au pair leaves a family early, she has about 2 weeks to rematch. Though the amount of time is really up to the au pair agency. It doesn't matter if it's the family's fault, or the au pair's. If the au pair doesn't find anyone, she will lose her J1 visa. That is the variety for people in cultural exchange programs.

Andrea:

I was attached to a visa, to the J1 visa, and the J1 visa made me attached to the family, and the family made me attached to the job, so I feel I didn't have freedom.

Voiceover:

Janie says this is part of the reason au pairs are afraid to complain. Even when they are being forced to do work that they are not supposed to do. She thinks that that the State Department should consider black listing families who violate the terms of the agreement to prevent exploitation, but she doesn't hold out much hope that will happen.

Janie:

I think there is a sense that a few bad apples, or as what they might characterize as only a few bad apples shouldn't poison the program, but that doesn't change the fact that you can still have those bad apples, and nothing can be done about it, or nothing would be done about it in practice. You know if we were to create situations where there is black listing of bad families that would significantly narrow the pool of potential clients for these agencies for instance, so there is no incentive to do that.

Voiceover:

We asked Carrie Laurie of the State Department about that idea.

Carrie:

Perhaps, that is not our role in this.

Voiceover:

Laurie says overall au pairs are happy with the program. Since 2011 they have only gotten 237 complaints, including at least 47 from this year. Agencies report other incidents to state, but the department won't share details or numbers about those. She says most of the problems come with the au pairs and host families aren't on the same page.

Janie:

You know it's expectations before someone comes on the au pair program, along with the expectations of the host family, and then it is secondly once an au pair is with a host family, if there is any miscommunication or misunderstanding about the program that we are able to address that, obviously us and the US sponsor.

Voiceover:

Janie says the biggest different in expectations has to do with the program itself. Au pairs see it as a way to learn English, experience the US, and make some cash. Many families just see it as cheap childcare.

Janie:

This sense that domestic work isn't work has to do with our general discomfort with this notion that providing care for someone shouldn't be characterized as work. You want that relationship to be an emotional bond, not an employment relationship. This is a labor program, right? This is an employment relationship between the host family and the au pair as much as they want to frame it as a cultural exchange.

Voiceover:

Andrea's first host mom Eva says that for au pairs it is a roll of the dice.

Eva Clark:

I mean there is no checks and balances that I can tell that are in place, right? In terms of hours, in terms of pay. I guess it is all up on the family, and you hope that it's a good host family, right?

Voiceover:

As for Andrea through an au pair friend, she was able to rematch with a new family. For the rest of the year, she took care of a 7 year old boy, and had time to study between her work hours. While her experience ended on a positive note, she felt that no one was looking out for her best interests when she needed help most.

Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]

Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Noy Thrupkaew:

She felt that no one was looking out for her best interest when she needed help most. We found that the state department doesn't even keep a record of families who violate programmed rules. That means families are free to continue churning through au pairs, potentially violating the rules and taking advantage of the young people in the program again and again.

Andrea:

America has a good side and a bad side as all countries have. Sometimes things make sense and others don't. For the au pair program there are many things that don't make sense to me and I don't understand why the Department of Labor doesn't regulate this program. It's like a double face.

Al Letson:

After leaving the au pair program, Andrea got a student visa and graduated from business school. She's now working at a painting company and learning about payroll, invoices, and estimates. Andrea considers herself lucky to know the Clark's and other friends who helped her along the way. Without a support system things for au pairs can turn much worse.

Daniella:

I didn't know how to really survive in the country. I didn't know how to work here, what to do, how to look for jobs.

Female:

We do not want to leave an au pair in a limbo situation where they feel like they don't know what their rights are, how we will take care of them.

Al Letson:

That's coming up next on Reveal.

Byer Duncan:

Hey podcast listeners, Byer Duncan here, Reveal's community manager. The election is right around the corner. This year, we're part of election land. It's a big coalition of news rooms led by Propublica. We're working to cover access to the polls. We'll have reports fanned out across the country. If you've got a tip, you can help us track voting problems or debunk false ones on election day. It's simple to sign up. Just text 'reveal' to 69866 and we'll be in touch. Again text 'reveal' to 69866.

Al Letson:

From the center of investigative reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. As we've heard, when au pairs leave the host family in search of a new one, things can get complicated. Their support system sometimes breaks down. In rare circumstances that can lead to dangerous situations. That's what happened to Daniella. We're not using her real name because we don't disclose the identities of abuse victims. Warning though, this next story contains accounts of physical and sexual abuse.

Daniella(actor):

Tears, bruises on my body, being beaten for no reason just because he is in a bad mood. This is not life. If it is it is only the life of a slave. Am I really such a bad person that I deserve this kind of life and treatment? I can no longer live being scared all the time.

Al Letson:

That's an excerpt from Daniella's diary, read by an actress. Daniella did talk to us, but she says it's too painful to talk about the trauma she suffered. Throughout the story you'll hear an actress reading from her diary. Noy Thrupkaew of the investigative fund picks up the story in Chicago.

Noy Thrupkaew:

I arrive in a neighborhood with green, flowery, front yards. Two story homes and quiet streets. Daniella is standing in her driveway wearing a bright yellow dress that flows to her ankles. She's holding her arms around her belly. She's 8 months pregnant. This home is a world away from her small village in the Ukrainian country side.

Daniella:

At home, we have usually, if you live in the village you have pretty big piece of land. The biggest piece would be potatoes. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, basically anything.

Noy Thrupkaew:

Daniella left home when she was 22 years old. She was studying for her master's degree in English and French linguistics in Ukraine when she noticed this poster in the hallway with a huge unmistakable image of the Eiffel Tower.

Daniella:

It said something about au pair program, which I've never heard about before. There was a number so I just called.

Noy Thrupkaew:

Daniella spoke to a local recruiter for interexchange, that's an au pair agency. They matched her with a host family right outside Paris. After she graduated, she took off for France. It was her first trip outside Ukraine.

Daniella:

We just go to the park, playground, go into the swimming pool, basically having fun. Not hard at all.

Noy Thrupkaew:

She worked for a family who had three kids. Everything went great. After her year was up Daniella returned home. She went back to Interexchange and applied to be an au pair in the US to improve her English.

Daniella:

They would show me this map. Which part do you want to go? I didn't really care at all because that's the US. The same country, I didn't know where to go. Plus, it's a huge country. What's the difference?

Noy Thrupkaew:

Daniella didn't know Fargo from Fort Lauderdale, but what she did know was that she wanted to land somewhere with cold, Ukrainian style weather. She was matched with a family with three kids in Illinois along the shores of Lake Michigan. With an icy winter all but guaranteed, she boarded a plane in August 2008 and jetted off for a new adventure.

Daniella:

I was sitting in the airport and my mom texted me something like a goodbye text and i got these tears. I don't even know why I cried but I just felt so sad, I don't know why. I never done that before. Then it was okay. It was fine.

Noy Thrupkaew:

When she moved in with her new host family, she says things quickly soured. She says she stayed in a dank basement room. The kids misbehaved all the time. She was treated more like an employee than someone in a cultural exchange program. After three months, she decided to leave the host family and rematch with another one. It was right around Thanksgiving, during that time of year few host families are looking for a new au pair. Daniella says she had two weeks to find a new placement but nothing came through.

Daniella:

That was one of those moments when you just feel like you're lost. You don't know what to do next. If it doesn't work out what am I going to do? That was the first time I went, "Oops. What am I doing now?" It was a scary moment of being lost.

Noy Thrupkaew:

Interexchange wouldn't agree to a recorded interview. In an email, the agency told us it tried to reach out to Daniella several times after the rematch period ended and never heard back. Since Daniella left the program early she had to pay for her own way home. That's part of the agreement she made when she came here, but Daniella says she didn't have the money for a plane ticket and felt she had nowhere to turn.

Daniella:

So I was like, "Oh, what do I do?" I didn't want to ask for money from my parents because I was an adult kind of and it was so embarrassing asking for money. I didn't know how to really survive in the country. I didn't know how to work here, what to do, how to look for jobs.

Noy Thrupkaew:

A friend told her about a potential job at a massage parlor called the day and night spa.

Daniella:

She told me about that and I said, "Was the only option?" I did take it.

Noy Thrupkaew:

Daniella didn't want to talk directly with us about what happened next. Many of the details you hear come from her testimony in court and her diary read by an actress. The entries were originally in Ukrainian and French but they've been translated into English.

Daniella(actor):

November 23rd, 2008. And now I am at a new place. Yesterday I left my host family. I do not know whether it was right, but did not have a particular choice. I have not the slightest idea how I would live, where I would live, what would I live on? Scary. I see no future.

Noy Thrupkaew:

Alex Campbell was the owner of Day and Night Spa. He hired Daniella as a masseuse. She worked from 10 in the morning to 10 at night, 6 days a week. Alex promised that he would help her find a new place to live. After a few days Daniella moved into the new apartment Alex had prepared for her. He charged her 325 dollars a month and loaned her a car.

Daniella(actor):

November 30th, 2008. I am simply shocked. Things changed so fast. I simply cannot even reflect what is happening to me. Yesterday I moved into an apartment. I live there by myself without any roommates and I feel human.

Noy Thrupkaew:

Daniella felt she owed Alex everything. He controlled her entire life and she began a relationship with him that turned physical within a month. She told the court that after a couple of months he began getting jealous. He insisted they keep their relationship a secret from the other spa employees. He nicknamed Daniella, Precious and made her call him Daddy. He gave her two rings that resembled wedding bands and demanded that she wear them at all times.

Daniella(actor):

January 27th, 2009.

Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]

Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:52:30] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Speaker 1:

January 27th, 2009. I am a bitch. Again, the same thing from beginning. I allow the man to manipulate me. I lowered myself to the lowest level. Sex in the office, that is too much. Shame. This is all for what? I do not want this.

Speaker 2:

Daniella told the court she asked Alex for her passport and social security card, but he kept them locked up and refused to give them to her. One day, Daniella testified, a customer tried to hit on her. She and Alex had been together about five months and he flew into a jealous rage.

Speaker 1:

April 12th, 2009. He hit me on the face and forehead, several times. He speaks of trust and he controls every trifle. The surveillance cameras installed everywhere and now, in my workroom, there is another one installed specifically for me. That was the reason for the fight. He shook me, took me by the throat and my scarf, did not give a damn that he could strangle me.

Speaker 2:

Another day Daniella testified, she went to the gym without telling Alex. He tied her up and beat her with his belt. He threatened to have her gang raped, ordered her to get on her knees and apologize and call him God.

Speaker 1:

Now everything is totally obvious, all clear. He does not hide himself any longer, his real personality. Me, I only suffer. He is full of evil. He enjoys hurting others. I am very disappointed. A man I loved, and even wanted to marry, has changed.

Speaker 2:

Alex took her money and most of her documents. He destroyed her phone with all of her contacts in it. He said he had connections at the police department to keep Daniella from going there. The beatings and abuse continued. Later that summer she says his threats got worse. Then one day, she suddenly remembered the number of an old friend and called her.

Speaker 1:

August 20th, 2009, Thursday. Freedom. Right in the middle of the night. I took my things and fled, spent the entire day at the police. Dear God, take this situation under control. Let this pass the best way with your will. Amen.

Speaker 2:

The police investigated. It turns out that Alex had been trafficking another former au pair and two other young women who had come to the US as students. They were all here on J-1 Cultural Exchange Visas. Alex was charged in a federal human trafficking case for everything he did to Daniella and the other women. Controlling their lives, forcing them to work without getting paid, and forcing some of the other women to perform sexual acts on clients at several spas he owned. Today, the state department has a hotline and an e-mail for reporting abuse. This is a fairly recent addition that wasn't in place nine years ago when Daniella went through her experience.

Kerry Lowry:

When we get involved, is when a complaint comes forward to us directly.

Speaker 2:

That's deputy assistant secretary, Kerry Lowry.  She manages the state department's exchange visitor program. The au pair agency she says ...

Kerry Lowry:

They are responsible for letting us know when either a host family and/or an au paired, either have ended the program early and/or they've concluded the program.

Speaker 2:

If agencies don't update their records, it's hard to know how many au pairs are staying illegally in the country. Lowry says the state department has methods to track that.

Kerry Lowry:

We work in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and also local law enforcement and the sponsors to ensure that those individuals know the consequences of overstaying their visa, overstaying their program.

Speaker 2:

But Daniella says no one from homeland security or law enforcement contacted her. There may be more undocumented cases like hers.

Kerry Lowry:

We do not want to leave an au pair in a limbo situation where they feel like they don't know what their rights are, how we will take care of them.

Speaker 2:

Daniella's testimony and diary helped to secure Alex Campbell's conviction. The court sentenced him to life in prison. Today, Daniella's life is back on track. She's married and since we visited her for this story, she's delivered a baby boy. Her husband does not know her full story and Daniella wants to keep it that way. That's another reason we're not using her real name. Daniella says, she's a different person than when she arrived in this country.

Daniella:

I took a lesson out of it and it's something unforgettable to trust people. It doesn't happen automatically anymore. Before, it was automatically. Since that moment, I've got this skill not trusting and I still don't.

Al:

Thanks to [inaudible 00:46:01], the investigative fund, and reveals [inaudible 00:46:03] for bringing us this story. What happened to Daniella is an extreme example of what can go wrong for a young woman who comes here as an au pair. But a more common issue for au pairs has to do with compensation. Au pairs don't make a lot of money, just south of 200 dollars a week. Far less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Au pair agencies have argued that women also get compensation for room and board, and that makes up the difference. We reached out to all 16 au pair agencies to ask them about wages and other concerns raised in this story, but none of them agreed to record an interview with us. Still, we have an opportunity to hear what they think about this issue because they've been vocal in their opposition to something called a domestic worker's bill of rights.

Judge:

Okay, I call to order the hearing for labor and workforce development of three bills here today.

Al:

This is a hearing at the State House in Boston, Massachusetts back in March. Law makers were discussing a proposal to exclude au pairs from the domestic workers bill of rights. A state law that ensures that people who work in the home get things like state minimum wage, rest days and notice of termination with severance pay. At the hearing, Natalie Jordan, Senior Vice President at Cultural Care Au Pair, argued to au pairs are already protected but in different ways.

Natalie:

This is a unique program with requirements and oversight simply not in place elsewhere. The federal program regulations already address many of the requirements of the domestic worker bill of rights and actually provide even further protections. An exemption for au pair participants is critical as in fact, there are several provisions which are in direct conflict with the federal regulations. Including decreased weekly rest periods, unpaid rest periods, a provision for being on duty for 24 consecutive hours and banking of hours. To include the J-1 au pair participants would actually confuse participants and lead to potential vulnerabilities.

Al:

Massachusetts state senator Dan Wolf remains skeptical of the au pair programs cultural merits.

Dan:

There are a lot of examples that we can argue are cultural exchange. For example, if I ran an art gallery should I be able to bring people in and pay them $4.00 an hour because working in an art gallery is cultural exchange. If I ran a food restaurant that served American food, God help us, and I was bringing people in from foreign countries so they could learn how to cook American food, why would they want that. Should I be able to pay them $4.00 an hour and honestly, you know, if you're going to hire somebody to come and help you with your home situation. You know, part of it is you're going to look for what the best bargain is and I think part of our concern has to be that we are now putting our domestic workers that we have taken a huge step forward on behalf of. On a huge competitive disadvantage economically with an au pair program.

Natalie:

When a family chooses to host an au pair, there's an immense amount of responsibility that they are taking on in doing that and it's far different than bringing someone in to. For example, an art gallery or a restaurant, because there is a sort of out sourcing element to that. Right? But it doesn't come into your home. Choosing to have your children be a part of an au pair relationship is again, a very specific kind of choice, it's a very small.

Dan:

If I could interject, you're not questioning whether the relationship is employer/employee correct? I mean, in spite of all the great benefits, the emotional ties, the cultural exchange. It still is an employer/employee relationship, is it not?

Natalie:

I think to some degree, but it's a cultural exchange program first and foremost.

Al:

So far Natalie Jordan of Cultural Care has failed to convince law makers in Massachusetts to exclude au pairs from the domestic workers bill of rights. But here's the thing, advocates told us that even in the seven states with these types of laws on the books. They haven't heard of a single instance where agencies have increased the amount of the money au pairs are paid.

 

Today's show was edited by Cheryl Devall, [inaudible 00:50:28] was our lead producer. Thanks to the investigative fund and editor Sarah Bluestain. A version of this story appears in the Washington Post Magazine. I am super excited to tell you about one of my favorite podcasts it's called, how to be amazing, and it is the story of my life. It's all about me people, all about me. I kid, I kid. It's a podcast by Michael Ian Black. Now Michael sits down with some of today's most provocative writers, entertainers, artists, thinkers and politicians for these crazy thought provoking conversations. They dive into the creative process and it gets some of these influential voices to give us advice and share stories of success and failure, all while having a laugh.

 

Some of his past guests include, Lynn Manuel Miranda, David Sedaris, Valerie Plane and Sonya Monzano. I am so jealous that he interviewed Sonya Monzano, I mean Maria, she's Maria. Anyway, check the show out every week on Itunes, Sound Cloud, Stitcher and more. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Claire "C-note" Mullen. They had a little extra help this week from Paul Vicas. Mwende Hahesy is our production manager and our head of studios is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our editor in chief, Susan Weaver is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan.

 

Our theme music is by Camerado [inaudible 00:51:58]. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, Ford Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. McArthur Foundation, the John S and James L Knight Foundation and the ethics and excellence in journalism foundation. Reveal's a co-production for The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.

Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:52:30]