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''It was never intended to be a primary child-care source for infants,'' said Hank Kahn, who developed the first program approved by the Government, in 1986, and is now a consultant to exchange agencies in Cornelius, N.C. ''It was intended to be, and is in most cases, a cultural exchange with child care for toddlers.''
Despite a volley of criticism aimed at the au pair system and the high-profile trial of Louise Woodward, who was convicted of causing the death of her 8-month-old charge, many parents say they intend to continue using au pairs. In fact, the United States Information Agency, which oversees the program, says it does not expect a decline in demand, and three more organizations have applied to become agencies, in an industry that matches 10,000 au pairs with families each year. The au pair year begins in August, so the real impact may not be known until then.
As competing nanny agencies are eager to point out, taking a young visitor into one's home, especially one whose agenda is cultural experience, is not the same as hiring a professional nanny. Stricter guidelines -- including 200 hours of experience for au pairs tending children under 2 -- went into effect this year, and formal screening procedures run from reference checks to the most recent addition, psychological exams.
But host families, counselors and the Information Agency itself say that the au pair system is still a lottery. It is up to parents to insure a harmonious match before anyone gets on a plane.
Karen Fisch, a mother of three in Scarsdale, N.Y., who has had five au pairs and used to run an Internet au pair chat group, has the review process down to a science. For her, applicants must be at least 21 (to avoid the issue of under-age drinking), unattached (boyfriends cause homesickness), able to drive and independent enough to have lived away from home. Her advice: If the young woman's application is more than six months old, families may have passed on her for a reason. Hold out for a better candidate.
Others familiar with the application process urge prospective families to study the applicant's personal essay for thoroughness, neatness and English proficiency, and to prepare specific questions in advance for the phone interview.
When Mrs. Fisch, a management consultant, narrows her choices, she sends candidates a nine-page letter outlining her child-care needs, to avoid surprises.
To Ms. Goldman, one of the most important ways to prevent a mismatch is to paint an accurate picture of the family to the agency and then to the au pair. Parents, she said, need to be ''brutally honest about their family life.''
''Are they really people who want their privacy, or do they want someone to go camping with them every weekend, and will they be upset if she wants to do her own thing?'' Ms. Goldman asked. ''Are their kids really sportsy, and do they want an au pair who says she likes to read and crochet? Do a really honest assessment of who your kids are and how they work. That 8-year-old with attention deficit disorder is a really important thing for the au pair to hear about in an interview.''
''I'd much rather she hear that when she is in Prague, rather than when she is in my living room,'' she added.
Andrea Dunn, a registered nurse in Rockport, Mass., has had eight au pairs from seven countries help care for her triplets since they were born seven years ago. She fondly remembers her first helper, from Holland, who arrived a month early to assist with the newborns, juggling 40 bottles a day and changing 250 diapers a week.
But not all the au pairs worked out. There were tensions over curfews, boys spending the night, even safety issues, like not leaving appliances on. She sent three home. In retrospect, she says most of those problems could have been prevented with an honest interview, and she now quizzes the young women on Red Cross safety procedures and their family life.
''At that young age,'' she said, ''in the transition from childhood to adulthood, the relationship they have with their own parents becomes transferred to the host family.''
Some Questions to Ask in Advance
INFORMATION on the au pair program is available from the United States Information Agency at 301 Fourth Street SW, Room 602, Washington, D.C. 20547. Following are a few questions experts recommend asking applicants:
* What might you have my children do on a rainy day? (Right answer: Age-appropriate and participatory activities, not videos.)
* What is the worst experience you've ever had, and how did you get through it? (To determine problem-solving skills.)
* What jobs have you held? What is your child-care experience?
* When would you spank a child? (A crucial discipline point.)
* What questions do you have? (If none are about children, it may show lack of interest.)Continue reading the main story