Nanny Scam

Photo: Lara Tomlin

Even when the facts were piling up right in front of us, we thought there must be some mistake. Our perfect nanny of four years, Maria, who had cared lovingly and tirelessly for our two children, couldn’t be stealing from us.

It unraveled in just twelve hours. One night, my husband was looking over our bank account online and noticed that two unusually large withdrawals, of $800 each, had been made that morning. When he asked me why I’d taken $1,600 out of the account, I told him I’d only withdrawn $300. Or, more accurately, I’d sent Maria to the bank with my ATM card to take out $300. She’d made withdrawals for me several times before when I was low on cash and strapped for time.

When Maria arrived the next day, I awkwardly raised the subject, asking, “Do you have any idea how this could have happened?” She shook her head no and looked wounded: “I can’t believe you think I could be responsible,” she said. I felt ashamed for even hinting at the possibility. I told her we were just trying to make sense of it—that my husband was talking to Citibank, and its security office was investigating. We then clumsily talked business as usual: I would take my 4-year-old to her baseball class while Maria went grocery shopping. The small talk, I’m sure, didn’t disguise what I was really thinking: What’s going on here? Is this a passing cloud or a gathering tornado? I found myself peering into her face for clues: Was she lying to me? If not, had I insulted her irreparably? Either way, it was clear this day was going to be a charade of normalcy.

“Half of me wanted to implore her, ‘How could you do this?’ The other half wanted to threaten her: ‘I’m not the fool you take me for.’”

Maria went off to the market, and my husband called me on the cell phone while I pretended to watch my daughter field grounders: “What do you think?” he asked me, as if I’d had some X-ray into Maria’s head. I told him something felt creepy but that could be because she was offended, not guilty. “I’m on the fence,” I told him. “It could go either way.”

An hour later, I was walking home with my daughter when Maria called on my cell phone, and asked me to meet her alone. I dropped my daughter at home with my husband, who had stayed back from work to go over our bank records, and met Maria on our street corner. She walked up to me with tears in her eyes. “I took your money,” she said.

It turned out this wasn’t the only time. Maria had gone on a spree with my ATM card for the preceding three months. The grand total is still somewhat unclear, but suffice it to say it’s an embarrassingly large sum. I asked her how she’d managed it when, except for the day before, I hadn’t given her my card in a long while. She explained that she would regularly take it from my wallet when my purse was in our front hallway. (I would be working in the back room of our apartment, cheerfully calling out “See you later!” when she took my daughter out for a playdate.)

As Maria stood before me looking shamefaced, I felt like throwing up. I heard myself asking her an overdramatic question—something out of a movie-of-the-week, or a confrontation on the Montel Williams show: “Who are you?”

However schmaltzy the line, I was asking a real question. Who was she, really? I was slapped with the realization not just that a friend had suddenly become a stranger but that maybe she’d never been a friend in the first place. No matter how well she’d done her job, how tenderly she cared for my children, we weren’t equals, and the relationship was probably too imbalanced to be authentic.

I had always been aware of the tricky two-step a mother dances with a sitter: She’s in your home every day, but it isn’t hers; she plays with your children, but is paid to do so; the energy she gives to your kids during the workday diminishes the energy she has for her own when she goes home at night. And every day, she’s handed petty cash for your children’s activities—for groceries, for taxis, for birthday-party presents—all typical expenses, but they add up, and the spigot of twenties must appear limitless.

Standing on that street corner, I had a million questions for Maria, but all I could ask her was to give me her key to our apartment. Then I walked away, and halfway up the block started sobbing. My husband met me at the door of our apartment, anticipating the news. His reaction was pure bewilderment. From that moment on, we retreated to our habitual emotional corners: He was composed and practical, while I lurched from incredulity to rage to heartache.

The day Maria left, my kids, 4 and 6, were at school, so we never got the chance to tell them she was leaving. We agonized over how to break it to them (I even called a social-worker friend for advice). Finally, we decided to relate a modified version of the truth: Maria took money from us that didn’t belong to her. We didn’t want them to think her sudden departure had something to do with them, or that she didn’t care enough to say good-bye.

They both cried at the news, and my 6-year-old son immediately came to Maria’s defense: “She’ll give it back! I’m sure she will!” My daughter asked when she would see Maria again. But as the days and weeks passed, the kids stopped bringing up her name. My husband and I were surprised at how easily Maria drifted out of their lives; despite their intimacy, her disappearance wasn’t a major upheaval. We could only conclude that as long as our presence remained constant, their ship felt steady.

The strange thing, though, was that I missed her. I sentimentalized places we’d gone together, little rituals I’d grown accustomed to, the rhythm of our days. I also realized how dependent I’d become on her effectiveness: Things just went more smoothly when she was around.

The story reverberated immediately around the parent circuit, and the reactions were all over the map: Most people who knew Maria were stunned; other people couldn’t fathom that we hadn’t checked our bank balance for three months. Some couldn’t believe that I would give the babysitter my pin number, while others told me they did the same thing all the time.

My mother kept repeating that it wasn’t my fault, assuming correctly that I was beating myself up for blithely giving Maria the keys to the candy store. My sister was on a moral jihad: She said Maria probably viewed us as liberal suckers and if we didn’t press charges, we’d confirm that. My husband’s best friend, a former public defender, was emphatic that we not go to the police, because if we opened the door onto the criminal-justice system, we couldn’t close it and Maria might end up in jail.

A number of close friends imparted stories of being robbed or duped by babysitters, housekeepers, or workmen, stories they’d never shared before. It was a strange torrent, these tales of trickery, and they actually made me feel worse. Implicit in them was that awful cliché: “You can’t trust the help,” a line that made me shudder. I didn’t want to be part of such a cynical chorus. I hated the lessons that this situation seemed to teach: that you have to be suspect of anyone you pay, that just because a nanny is loving toward your kids doesn’t mean she loves you, that if you’re going to hire a stranger to help raise your kids, you get what you deserve.

One would think I would have become nanny-savvy by now. We caught our first sitter lying about where she took our infant son during the day: She said she took him to the playground, but we learned he’d become a regular at McDonald’s, where she arranged to meet friends. The second quit after a month to get married; the third had an emotional breakdown after a fight with her husband. Maria arrived like a savior: buoyant, bright, affectionate. Some voice inside me always said it was too good to be true, but finally (after going so far as to spy on her when she took my kids to the playground), I let go. I allowed myself to feel confident that she was the one.

Maria’s phone messages in the days immediately after her confession jerked me between feelings of pity and a thirst for revenge. I was moved when she wept that she couldn’t face her children, that she desperately missed mine, that “some evil” had overtaken her. But I also found myself tape-recording the messages in case I might need them as proof. Half of me wanted to implore her, “How could you do this?,” but the other half wanted to threaten her: “I’m not the fool you take me for.”

The reporter in me wanted to figure out why, after four years, she’d started filching. It didn’t take much digging: Neighborhood babysitters came out of the woodwork to inform me that Maria had made expensive purchases in the past few months—bragged about lingerie from Victoria’s Secret, fancy face creams from Sephora. They told me that she’d recently separated from her husband—with whom I thought she had a strong marriage—and was dating some guy in Minnesota. She’d even shown off a diamond engagement ring. (I probably paid for it.) Our doorman told me Maria had tried to get her new boyfriend a job; he still had a copy of his résumé that our nursery-school administrator had typed up for Maria as a favor. I wanted to shout, “Why didn’t any of you tell me this was going on?,” but I realized that this was the unspoken fraternity. There must have been rabid whispering among all of them, but it wasn’t their place to warn me.

Of course, it’s odd, or just plain reckless, that Maria would opt for such a traceable crime. If we’d been paying attention, she would have been caught right away. My husband is normally scrupulous about our bills and bank statements, but this happened to be an unusual lapse: He was traveling a great deal for work, and simply hadn’t had the time.

The day Maria came clean, my husband and I—at my urging—walked over to the local precinct to talk to a detective. We told him we didn’t want Maria to go to jail, but that we did want her to pay us back. We gave him her phone number and address, but he advised us to think it over before we decided to press charges. The next thing we knew, he’d called her anyway, and she had confessed to him. She called us in a panic, saying he’d asked her to come to the precinct for a chat.

We consulted our friend, the former public defender, who laid out a bleak picture: “If she goes to see the detective without an attorney, she could be arrested on the spot. And if she signs a confession, it won’t matter if she gets a lawyer after that.” In a classic example of liberal guilt coming full circle, we heeded his advice, called Maria, and urged her to get a lawyer from Legal Aid. Suddenly we were in the absurd position of helping our robber navigate the legal system.

We went back and forth for days about whether to press charges. I wanted revenge and reprisals, but I couldn’t stand the idea of her being arrested, possibly in front of her children. My husband wanted to recover the money, but it became clear the bank wouldn’t use its insurance to pay us since it was our fault—we’d handed her our pin. And he didn’t relish the idea of fighting it out in court. Friends advised us to cut our losses and move on, but something was stopping me. I finally came up with one way to exact some penalty and also to protect future victims: I tracked down Maria’s former references and told them what she’d done. It felt a little devious, because I knew it would dry up the recommendations she’d need for the next job. At the same time, I didn’t want her references to continue to blindly support someone who didn’t deserve it. It was my own stab at justice.

As of now, we’re trying to work out some payment schedule, but we have yet to draw one up. Despite Maria’s initial avowals that she intends to repay us, she hasn’t sent a good-faith nickel. I don’t speak directly to her anymore—I have to go through her deft Legal Aid attorney, who tells me Maria’s having trouble getting work and has no cash to give us. Like an idiot, I feel bad for asking.

After weeks of insomnia—of masochistically replaying every interaction I had with Maria during the time she was stealing, and feeling hoodwinked and humiliated all over again—I stopped obsessing. I began interviewing sitters with a jaundiced eye, and tried to focus on getting things back to normal.

I know we’ve become a cautionary tale to our friends and their friends, and friends of their friends, too. I know that, to many people, the incident could be dismissed as a form of yuppie comeuppance. Some people have scolded me with a gloomy sermon: “An employee in your home will always on some level resent you.” But I still won’t accept that. Not entirely.

I have a wonderful new nanny who I tell people is a godsend—creative, kind, and trustworthy. But now I always add a caveat: “At least as far as I know.”

Nanny Scam