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Nanny Nightmare

Accused of mistreating her kids -- and suddenly at risk of losing them -- she was too shocked to panic. The charges could have come from only one person: the ex-nanny.


NO SURRENDER: Danica Cordell-Reeh and Bernard Clair, the tenacious attorney who helped her win back joint custody of her children.  

It was already after dark on one of the first crisp evenings of autumn, and with her 4-year-old twins splashing happily in the tub after a long, busy day, Danica Cordell-Reeh wasn't expecting any visitors to her Central Park West apartment.

But there, nonetheless, was her doorman's voice crackling over the intercom. "There are these people here," he said, uncharacteristically vague. "You gotta talk to them." Cordell-Reeh had known her doorman for years, but tonight, it just didn't sound like him. There was an odd sense of urgency in his voice, of discomfort.

"You gotta let 'em up . . . "

She opened the door to find two nicely dressed women who introduced themselves as social workers from the Administration for Children's Services. The nature of their visit, they said ominously, was very serious.

"It just seemed like I was suddenly standing in a heavy fog," Cordell-Reeh, an attractive Wall Street wife and mother of two, recalls. "I didn't know what I was getting hit with, and I was petrified."

After several innocuous questions regarding the twins' daily routine, the visitors informed Cordell-Reeh about a number of allegations against her. She stood accused -- by someone, as yet unnamed -- of depriving her children of food in an apparent quest to make them as svelte as their mother. More disturbing, there were allegations that Cordell-Reeh had coerced her daughter into a number of lurid acts of oral sex.

Too shocked at first to panic, Cordell-Reeh said she began to deconstruct the charges in her mind. Who could be out there spewing such accusations? Who was it who wanted to destroy her life?

Her first thought was to call her husband. Although she had separated a year earlier from Henry Owsley -- a founding member of Goldman Sachs's technology group who later launched a boutique investment-banking firm, the Gordian Group -- the one-time college sweethearts from New Orleans had remained amicable. Just the night before, in fact, Owsley had tagged along with her and the children -- who we'll call David and Danielle -- to a family benefit party at the Museum of Natural History, where Cordell-Reeh volunteers several times a week leading children's tours.

"I called my husband. I said, 'Do you know anything about this? Do you know what's going on?' And the response I got was just this: No comment. I don't even remember hanging up that phone."

But it couldn't have been Henry, she thought; everything had been so friendly between them. A few days earlier, he'd dropped by and chatted before taking the kids out shopping for Halloween costumes. Not long before that, he'd swung by unannounced with a bread pudding he'd baked. Besides, he hadn't lived in the apartment for a year, and although the couple shared custody of the children, he was never inside the home for bedtime or baths or any of the other times when such awful things were alleged to have occurred. No, this could have come from only one person, she concluded: the new nanny she had decided to let go the day before.

"You’ve just been handed your scarlet letter A, for abuser, and even some of your friends don’t want to be seen walking down the street with you."

There are few greater leaps of faith a parent can take than hiring a nanny. That said, Michelle Padilla had just the sort of credentials a demanding New York mother dreams of. Padilla had labored to make herself an authority in her profession, even writing the self-published Official Guide to Finding a Great Nanny -- and Keeping Her. A nanny for nine years, she came courtesy of the exclusive, London-based Nannies of St. James, preferred by many of the city's most well-heeled parents.

Two years ago, Padilla was one of five Nanny of the Year nominees chosen by the International Nanny Association, which celebrated not only her diverse interests -- she was described as a black belt in karate, a skilled dancer, a faithful churchgoer, and a dedicated animal-rights activist -- but her work organizing nanny-parent seminars around the country.

"She was not flashy and not overly conservative. Not over-made-up, not under-made-up," Cordell-Reeh recalls. "Physically, she was not heavy and not thin -- just solid. There were no red flags whatsoever with her." Padilla moved into the studio apartment the family kept for their nanny across the hall in early October 2001. As it turned out, her stay would last less than three weeks.

After an hour of polite questioning, the women from ACS departed, leaving the children with their mother until they could be examined by a doctor and other child-abuse caseworkers.

Determined to maintain a sense of normalcy for the children, she did what she always did in the evening. "We curled up in bed and read stories," she says with a smile. "We had a great snuggle."

It was only the next morning that the nightmare truly began. Her husband of nineteen years, with whom she shared custody, had filed an emergency motion with New York Supreme Court, seeking immediate sole custody of the twins until further order of the court. "Over the past several days," Owsley said, "my children's new nanny, Michelle Padilla, has made various disturbing statements to me regarding my wife and my twins . . . While I do not know if the allegations of sexual misconduct are true, I do know that something is terribly wrong at Danica's apartment."

Indeed, from the moment those papers were served, something was terribly wrong in Cordell-Reeh's home, as even the mother would agree. For the first six weeks, instead of sleeping there five nights a week -- Owsley had weekends -- the children were allowed to spend only five hours a day, three afternoons a week, with their mother, always with someone else present. Eventually, the restrictions loosened, but only slightly. For the next several months, the children were allowed only two or three nights a week in their mother's home, and only under the watchful eye of a court-appointed supervisor, who slept on the living-room sofa. At times, the court allowed a friend of Cordell-Reeh's to serve in this role. At other times, it required a credentialed social worker.

"My whole world just crashed," Cordell-Reeh says. "It was like being in a snowstorm, where you're walking into that wind, it's coming heavy, and you're just trudging, as hard as you can, but you're not getting anywhere, and you don't even know where you're going."

The most insidious chill came from the growing sense that she was guilty until proven innocent: "It's like, where there's smoke there's fire," Cordell-Reeh says, her voice quivering. "You've just been handed your scarlet letter A, which stands for abuser, and even some of your friends don't want to be seen walking down the street with you."

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