Nanny Nightmare

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

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.”

THE BOOK: Padilla's self-published guide to finding a nanny.

Padilla’s allegations had an almost bizarre specificity. The nanny claimed under oath that she had seen Cordell-Reeh wandering around the apartment, and even into a laundry room across the building’s common hallway from her apartment, completely naked, in full view of the twins. She claimed that the mother served her children “tiny portions of food and if they ask for more, she tells them they cannot eat any more or they will ‘end up fat like their father.’ ” Padilla also claimed to have walked into David’s bedroom to put him to bed, only to find him measuring his penis with a ruler. “I asked him what he was doing and he said that he was measuring his ‘wee-wee’ and that ‘mommy says stronger boys have bigger wee-wees. I need to have a big wee-wee.’ “

Padilla swore that she had observed the children obsessively licking various people, including herself, in an inappropriate manner. “I told Danielle that it was not appropriate to lick other people and … asked her why she licked other people. Danielle said, ‘Because it makes mommy happy.’ I then asked Danielle where she had licked her mommy. Danielle said, ‘On her pee-pee and on her poo-poo.’ “

Padilla said she had felt it her duty to contact ACS.

On Friday morning – the day she was served the emergency custody papers – Cordell-Reeh hired a lawyer, but it wasn’t easy to find someone who would champion her case. With her husband’s lawyer assembling a broad assault on her skills as a mother, prompted by Padilla’s devastating abuse allegations, she needed to reverse momentum, turn the fight back against Padilla. Her first lawyer, with whom she worked for three months, was gravely skeptical about her chances. His ultimate analysis, she said, came down to a single sentence: “I hope you’ve got a rabbit to pull out of a hat.”

In fact, she did have one, but she just didn’t know it yet. At the moment Cordell-Reeh felt most alone, two women from her exercise class came forward to recommend their own divorce lawyer, Bernard Clair. By the time the first witness took the stand in the custody hearing, Cordell-Reeh had fired back with a $20 million lawsuit against both Nannies of St. James and Padilla.

Bernard Clair has risen to the elite tier of the city’s matrimonial lawyers in part because he’s made himself the biggest annoyance imaginable – at least to those he intends to annoy, and they are many. He’s a bit of a terrier in the courtroom – slender, excitable, wire-haired, ferocious. He honed his craft as the man in New York for Marvin Mitchelson, the California lawyer who invented “palimony.” And he got his greatest taste of tabloid prominence in 1998, when he outdueled Raoul Felder in winning a $2 million–a–year alimony settlement for Jocelyne Wildenstein, the surgically reinvented former wife of art dealer Alec Wildenstein. This new case provided a forum in which to play out Clair’s most cherished roles – bodyguard and avenger.

“I’m like – what do they call it? – the patron saint of lost causes,” he says with a smile.

“But even he took a week to decide to take on my case,” Cordell-Reeh observes.

Adding to the challenge for Clair was a report by a court-appointed mental-health expert, who found no evidence of sexual abuse in the Cordell-Reeh case but also concluded that Padilla’s judgment appeared to be sound and that she had acted in good faith by reporting the allegations.

Clair immediately took aim at Padilla’s credibility, reasoning that the entire edifice of Owsley’s case would crumble if he could knock out that supporting pillar. There was, in fact, already some progress on that front. A private investigator had uncovered documentation from an unrelated case in which, according to Clair, a therapist’s notes indicated that Padilla said she had worked as a prostitute.

But the real breakthrough was evidence that Padilla might be something other than a reliable “mandated reporter,” to use the legal term, when it comes to child abuse.

A Long Island man – referred to in court documents as “Chris R.” – had a remarkably similar tale to tell of his experience after he severed his relationship with Padilla, the investigator discovered. He had employed the nanny for two years starting in 1993 to tend his sons, who were 7 and 10, after he and his wife separated. In a sworn affidavit, he said that the allegations against Cordell-Reeh bore “an uncanny resemblance to the false and malicious charges Ms. Padilla made against me to the family counselor who I was seeing with my two sons.”

Like Cordell-Reeh, Chris R. learned of Padilla’s accusations shortly after dismissing her – he was moving and no longer needed her services. The employer, she informed the family’s therapist, had engaged in lewd conduct with the children and had sex with various women in front of them, Chris R. said in the affidavit. He had supposedly left them hungry after meals and failed to provide the nanny sufficient funds to buy groceries. This former employer also claimed that Padilla acknowledged having been at previous points in her life an anorexic and an alcoholic. Despite Padilla’s claimed notification of the therapist, no action was ever taken against the father.

And this was not the only prior instance in which Padilla had claimed child abuse, Clair discovered. Padilla’s older brother, who spoke to New York on the condition that his name not be used, says his only sister has repeatedly accused him of abusing her when they were young, charges he vehemently denies. The brother, in fact, endured a grueling custody battle of his own, one which was gravely complicated when anonymous allegations were made to authorities that he had molested his daughter. Padilla has denied any involvement in her brother’s custody case, and insists she never made any allegations to any authorities. She did, however, claim in a recent letter to their parents that she possesses “legal documentation that there was medical proof” that he had molested his daughter.

While the brother finally regained custody of his daughter when she was in high school, he claims he has never recovered from the abuse allegations. “I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I didn’t how to address the monster that was attacking me,” he says, speaking from his hometown of St. Louis. “I was at the point where I considered suicide.”

THE NANNY: Michelle Padilla with Rocky, from an online memorial tribute to the dog.

For Cordell-Reeh, the abuse charges created a Catch-22. She needed to prove to the world – to the social workers observing her, to her kids’ teachers, to other mothers at the playground – that she was a warm, affectionate parent. But with sex-abuse swirled into the mix, “you’re being told not to even touch your kids,” she says. “You can’t hug them. They’re used to you helping them after their bath, and you’re told not to even help change their clothes. If you walk into the bathroom with one of the children, somebody follows you in there. How do you explain who these strangers are? They’re watching whatever you say, whatever you do, whatever you don’t do.Heaven forbid the kid decides to let go of your hand when you’re crossing the street. You’ve just ‘endangered a child.’ So you just freeze. Your movements become wooden.”

By the time the custody trial began, Owsley’s attorney, John Teitler, had already begun to distance the case from Padilla’s charges. “Now, we’re not here to defend or condemn Ms. Padilla,” Teitler informed the court, although he did invoke the “sexually suggestive remarks” the children had allegedly made to Padilla – the remarks that ultimately led to the emergency intervention by ACS. Teitler himself called the abuse allegations “a sideshow,” and proceeded instead with a more generalized attack, to be supported by over a dozen other witnesses, on Cordell-Reeh’s mental health and parental judgment.

Anne Erreich, a highly regarded therapist who had treated both children, questioned Cordell-Reeh’s judgment and testified that she had seen evidence of favoritism toward Danielle at the expense of David. She described the mother herself as a “block of wood” and expressed concern that Cordell-Reeh might be feminizing her son by allowing him to play with lipstick and wear pink socks to school.

Teitler argued that Cordell-Reeh was “not eating properly and the children were not being fed properly,” to the point where Owsley “had serious concerns about his wife’s mental health.” As an example of her alleged “inappropriate conduct and erratic behavior,” Teitler claimed Cordell-Reeh had routinely walked around her apartment nude. In one incident, Teitler continued, she had allowed the children to finger-paint in the nude, and to use their bare buttocks to smear paint on butcher paper on the floor. The children were said to be continuously licking people on the arms, behavior that their mother not only condoned but seemed to encourage by calling them her “kitty cats” and placing a bowl of milk on the floor for them.

Cordell-Reeh, Teitler claimed, was at the very least “strange,” “wooden,” and “robotic,” and, by one (albeit hotly disputed) interpretation of psychological tests administered before the trial, possibly “delusional, paranoid, and schizoidal.”

“They turned me into the Ice Queen,” says Cordell-Reeh.

“Despite her antipathy toward her former employer, another ex-nanny was showing Cordell-Reeh to be a caring, attentive mother.”

Danica Cordell-Reeh and Henry F. Owsley III attended high school together in New Orleans and began dating in 1975. Owsley, the son of a financier, grew up in the exclusive Old Metairie district. Cordell-Reeh, the daughter of a civil engineer employed by the state of Louisiana down at the port, grew up in a more middle-class neighborhood uptown, near Tulane University.

Owsley eventually went off to Princeton to study engineering. Cordell-Reeh followed him north, enrolling in Smith College, where she studied economics. After Princeton, Henry earned an M.S. from MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 1979; Cordell-Reeh earned a master’s in finance from Tulane in 1983. The bride eventually took a job in commercial real estate, and her husband landed a job at Goldman Sachs.

The couple maintained a quiet, if quite comfortable, uptown lifestyle. In 1985, they moved into a sprawling Central Park West apartment with celestial park views, eventually expanding it to seven rooms. Cordell-Reeh retained the home after the couple separated, and they negotiated a $1.3 million lump-sum settlement augmented by $175,000 a year from Owsley, Clair says.

They were typically ambitious uptown parents who lavished the twins with books from the time they were old enough to speak; half their burgeoning library was in French, half in English.

Her closest friends were stunned by the charges, in part because Cordell-Reeh was a deeply engaged parent. “When she first told me about these allegations, I almost dropped the phone,” says Gail Pierris, a close friend of ten years who works at HarperCollins. “I was there from day one, from when Danica was pregnant. This woman, from the minute they were born, was involved with every single aspect of their lives. She made those kids bilingual, she sat with them when they were babies teaching them colors, learning letters, learning numbers. The one thing that my peers have not done well with their kids is discipline. It’s a lost art. But guess who revived it? Danica. She’s a southern lady, and everything she does is a lesson for her children.”

While Cordell-Reeh made her home a sanctuary for her children, however, she doesn’t appear to have made the same allowances for their nannies. Christina Fulcher, hired when the couple was still together, lasted more than two years but testified that Cordell-Reeh’s demands ultimately drove her from the house.

“I couldn’t work for her anymore, Fulcher testified. “She was a difficult employer.” The money was not the problem. Like Padilla, she earned about $50,000 a year (the agency took a 20 percent fee on top of that). The hours, despite the fact that Cordell-Reeh was at home most of the time the kids were there, were crippling: eleven-hour days five days a week, Tuesdays at 8 a.m. through Saturday night when the children went to bed. Her workday wasn’t even really over then. At night, if the mother was out, Fulcher was expected to baby-sit and keep tabs on the children as they slept, via a video monitor in her room. “The job had taken over my life,” Fulcher later said.

“A lot of people are used to being sole-charge nannies,” Cordell-Reeh argues, “and my home isn’t sole-charge. It was Clash of the Titans, two people wanting to be in charge of the situation.”

“Christina had been there through a traumatic year of my life – the dissolution of my marriage, my father dying,” she adds. “I was probably not the most diplomatic employer.”

Before settling on Padilla, Cordell-Reeh scrutinized at least 40 résumés, usually calling at least three or four references on each. Padilla checked out when Cordell-Reeh asked families whose children she knew, and the twins seemed to like her.

“The red flags started coming after I had hired her,” the mother recalls. “She had said she could do certain things, and she just couldn’t. A nanny helps make the kids’ bed in the morning, they’re in charge of taking care of all the kids’ stuff, preparing meals. Her skills in those areas, um, they were not there. Michelle could mind a child and maybe play with him, but she could not do anything else as a nanny.”

Worse, Cordell-Reeh claims, Padilla had the disturbing habit of closing a door behind her when she was playing with the children: “She would shut me out to have privacy. She’d go into one of the bedrooms with a child and shut the door. I’d be thinking, Wait a minute – why?

Her sense of unease continued to grow over the next two weeks, until the final confrontation. One morning, Cordell-Reeh had just stepped out of the shower, naked and dripping, and into her small bathroom strode her daughter. Directly behind her, she says, strode Padilla.

“She just stood there,” spits Cordell-Reeh. “Nobody had ever violated my space, my privacy, like that. But because my daughter was present, I did not take her head off right then and there. I called the agency and told them that this is not the right person.” The next day, before she could say anything to the nanny, Padilla quit.

Ironically, it was Christina Fulcher, no fan of her former employer, who was instrumental in reestablishing Cordell-Reeh’s bona fides as a mother. Fulcher is a pretty blonde in her twenties, an aspiring actress with a thespian’s poise and bearing. At first, she had little positive to say.

It’s true, she testified, that Cordell-Reeh had allowed the children to finger-paint in the nude. She was quite strict on dietary issues. She didn’t keep ice cream or cookies around the house, and even Danielle would say, “I can only have a certain amount of pizza, and ice cream is fattening.”

Fulcher recalled entering the apartment one morning in the winter of 2001 through the back door at her scheduled 8 a.m. starting time and seeing a man’s hat on a chair, then, a few steps later, the man himself, walking toward the front door. Cordell-Reeh, meanwhile, was in the kitchen making pancakes for the kids. Fulcher later spoke with her about whether the children were ready to see their mother’s male friends in the morning before school.

In Fulcher’s view, Cordell-Reeh needed to be more firm about setting certain boundaries with her children. Yes, the children did tend to revert to baby talk more often than the father felt was appropriate. Yes, they did sometimes playfully lick people on the hands, another practice Owsley deplored. And yes, there were times Cordell-Reeh encouraged the children to play games pretending to be animals. David had a favorite one called Crocodile, in which he would crawl around on the floor and grab at people’s feet. Yes, Cordell-Reeh actively played along in the fantasy. And if the daughter was playing with lipstick or nail polish, there were times the son wanted to play, too, and was allowed to, much to Owsley’s horror.

But then the tone of Fulcher’s testimony changed. She spoke of afternoons Cordell-Reeh spent sledding with the children, or swimming with them at a nearby pool. As Clair grilled her, Fulcher recalled her former employer attentively teaching the children how to ride bikes. In the apartment, Fulcher said, the mother played music and the children would dance.

When Clair asked Fulcher about the sex-abuse charges, she replied, “I was shocked by the allegations.” Pressing her, Clair asked if any facts in particular seemed incongruous. “The words Danielle had used were not words I had heard Danielle use before, that she had licked mommy in her ‘pee-pee’ or her ‘poo-poo,’ ” Fulcher responded. “She didn’t use those words to describe those areas of her body.” Rather, Danielle had been taught to refer to her vagina as her petite fleur, or “little flower,” and her buttocks as either her “bottom” or her “bun,” Fulcher said. Ultimately, Fulcher said there was “no doubt in any mind” that the children loved their mother.

Late on a muggy July afternoon, after Fulcher finished testifying, Justice Jacqueline Silbermann called both lawyers into her private chambers and, according to Clair, acknowledged that Fulcher, despite her antipathy toward her former employer, was showing Cordell-Reeh to be a caring, attentive mother. By lunchtime the next day, negotiations were complete: The couple once again shared custody of the twins. Silbermann had brushed aside the abuse allegations.

Through a PR representative, Owsley issued a brief statement: “I have acted in accordance with the recommendations of neutral, third-party mental-health experts. These recommendations are in a detailed forensic report to the court, made after an extensive investigation with interviews of more than a dozen witnesses, including the children’s therapist, my wife’s therapist, three nannies, and others involved with both my wife and my children.”

On June 11 – before the trial had even begun – Cordell-Reeh filed a $20 million lawsuit, demanding $10 million from Nannies of St. James, alleging the agency had failed “to take reasonable investigatory steps regarding Padilla,” and another $10 million from Padilla herself, charging that she had intentionally inflicted emotional distress by making false statements “premised on the worst kind of malice and extreme vindictiveness.” Initial motions will be heard in Manhattan Supreme Court by the end of the month.

Carl Hollander, a lawyer for the nanny agency, told New York that “the terms of business clearly state that ‘whilst the agency endeavors to interview personally potential employees and obtain references, it is the employer’s responsibility to satisfy themselves as to the suitability of the employee for the engagement.’ “

Meanwhile, Padilla has fired back with a $10 million countersuit of her own, arguing that she “has been injured in her reputation and good standing in her community and has been held up to ridicule and contempt by her friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and the public in general.”

Padilla is not without allies. Janet Cook, who runs the New York agency My Child’s Best Friend, says she thoroughly investigated Padilla before hiring her out on a number of temporary nanny jobs starting in February, 2000. Numerous former employers spoke highly of Padilla, Cook says, and a criminal check stretching back ten years found nothing. “She’s definitely an upper-end nanny, and she’s very serious about what she does,” Cook says. “She got caught up in a bitter custody case, and there’s always three sides in any of those – the mother’s, the father’s, and the truth. I don’t know what happened in this one, but Michelle is getting crucified.”

While Padilla herself refuses to speak to the press, her lawyer, David Brickman, recently filed a seventeen-page response to Cordell-Reeh’s lawsuit in which he strongly denied the allegations leveled against his client. Speaking from his office in Albany, Brickman told New York that Padilla stands firmly by her story. Padilla denies that she filed any abuse complaints against Chris R. and insists that “bad blood” between the two stemming from her time under his employ caused him to fabricate the allegations against her.

Padilla’s lawyer says his client stands by her claim that she was molested by her brother, “but it’s not something that she wants to get into.” He disputes that his client ever admitted to being an anorexic. “No, denied,” says Brickman. “You know, what happened is that there was some talk in a deposition that she might get a liposuction.” He also disputes Clair’s assertion that Padilla had worked as a prostitute. “It was alleged that she had been a prostitute and that she had considered going back in the trade. Well, that is not exactly true and correct,” Brickman says. “What is true and correct is that she had done some topless dancing at some point, and that was the trade that she had considered going back into.” Padilla, Brickman says, considers herself the victim.

“She feels terrible,” Brickman says. “She can’t get any work as a nanny. Nobody will touch her right now.”

In mid-August, Cordell-Reeh returned to New Orleans with the twins for a much-needed break from the case, from New York, from everything.

“The pain still hasn’t gone away,” she says, speaking by telephone from her native city. Because of substantial legal bills, she says she now plans to move out of her Central Park West aerie to a more modest apartment for her and the children.

“The most important thing to me is having my kids,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if I end up in a tiny apartment. Neighborhood? None of that matters. I’ve got my kids. So it was worth it.”

Share Your Opinion
How far is too far when trying to protect children from allegedly abusive parents?

Nanny Nightmare