For as long as mothers and fathers have been producing babies, they have been looking for reliable babysitters. Usually the relationship between child and caregiver is free of serious problems. But as the trial of Louise Woodward has brought home so forcefully, the combination of young children and those who tend to them can be volatile and too often tragic.

As the following stories demonstrate, the issues raised by this case are far from unique. And the pain that results from such disasters—for both parents and caregivers—may linger forever.

Unable to run a thorough background check, a couple is fatally deceived

Peggy Leahy Dunne and her husband, Dave, of Rye, N.Y., were so terrified by the headlines about a baby who had died in the care of an au pair that when it came time to find a caregiver for their own firstborn, Kieran, they spared no effort, phoning local and state police and even the FBI to request background checks on applicants. "Basically they told us they couldn't do anything," says Leahy Dunne.

Finally, with nothing to go on but two impressive interviews and a few phone conversations with the single employer provided as a reference, they hired Ann Franklin, a local woman with what Leahy Dunne, 36, recalls as a "bubbly personality." Then on Feb. 25, 1993, Franklin, in a fit of rage after 9-month-old Kieran pulled her hair, hurled the baby across his nursery, causing lethal head injuries. He died six days later.

"We felt we could do a better job checking than an agency would," Leahy Dunne says. But they had fallen for a string of lies. Franklin, who claimed to be a college graduate, had never completed her degree, had been fired from a series of jobs and had an outstanding arrest warrant for petty larceny. The phone reference? A friend of Franklin's with no children.

Franklin, sentenced after a plea bargain to up to 25 years in prison for first-degree manslaughter, will be eligible for parole in 2002. Meanwhile the Dunnes—now living in London, where Dave is an executive with an investment bank and Peggy looks after their three children—are pushing New York State lawmakers to create a registry through which caregivers would voluntarily allow checks of such background information as employment and criminal history. "It's not going to say, 'This is the person you should hire,' " says Leahy Dunne, who would like to see such a program on the national level. "It is going to tell you who that person is." Even an exhaustive background check can't always predict violent behavior, but Leahy Dunne insists that something must be done. "Whenever another child dies," she says, "it makes us sad because nothing's changing."

Losing a baby—and a sense of trust

Since Denise and William Fischer adopted 2-year-old Tonya in June, they have never left her with a babysitter. "She goes out to dinner with us; she goes visiting with us; says Denise, 45, an accountant. "She's with us all the time." The Mount Pleasant, N.Y., couple can hardly be blamed for their vigilance. In 1991, the first time they ever left their first daughter, 11½-week-old Kristie, alone with a babysitter, she was killed in a fire that they believe was set by the au pair.

The Fischers had thoroughly researched child care options before hiring Olivia Riner, then 20, a Swiss woman referred by EF Au Pair, the same Cambridge, Mass., agency that placed Louise Woodward. A month later an arson fire ripped through the Fischer home, killing Kristie. Though prosecutors charged that Riner had inexplicably poured paint thinner on the sleeping baby and set her ablaze, a jury acquitted Riner of murder and arson. Authorities have since closed the case. "We lost our daughter, and that's horrible," says Denise. "But we also lost justice."

They have not given up. In 1993 the Fischers filed a $100 million wrongful-death suit against EF Au Pair, claiming the agency never checked Riner's references, which turned out to be fraudulent. (The agency declined comment.) "We didn't want to see this happen to other people, and it already has," says auto repair shop manager William, referring to the Woodward case.

Only after years of counseling and participation in support groups have the Fischers come to terms with the tragedy. Russian-born Tonya has helped too. "She just makes us realize how wonderful it is to be parents," says Denise, "and how much we miss Kristie."

Acquitted at her third trial, an Iowa babysitter puts her life back together

If Mary Weaver followed Louise Woodward's trial with more than passing interest, it is because Woodward's case was remarkably like one that took Weaver herself to the brink of despair and back again.

One chilly January day in 1993, as Weaver recalls it, she was putting 11-month-old Melissa Mathes into a snowsuit when the little girl, who was dropped off daily at Weaver's Marshall-town, Iowa, home for babysitting, suddenly passed out. "When I lifted her head, her eyes rolled back and she quit breathing," says Weaver. Melissa, who had been ill for days before the incident, died the next day. "I can't describe the shock I was in when I heard she died," says Weaver, now 46.

She was just as stunned when police arrested her on murder charges about four months later, setting in motion a chain of events that would divide a town and nearly destroy her family. "It was like this big machine started out real slow and just kept going," says Weaver's husband, Jim, an auto parts store owner. "Then, after it got some momentum, nobody could stop it."

After her first trial ended in a hung jury, a retrial resulted in a conviction for first-degree murder—and a sentence of life in prison without parole. But like Louise Woodward's British townspeople, many in Marshalltown stood by Mary Weaver, who served two years before new testimony emerged, suggesting that Melissa might have hit her head hours before she died. A third trial was ordered, and Weaver was acquitted in 1997.

Though the verdict meant freedom for Weaver, it only deepened the wound for Melissa's parents, Brad Mathes (Jim Weaver's cousin) and his wife, Tessia, who were so appalled that they moved away to a small Nebraska town. "The nightmare will never end," says Tessia, 28, a homemaker. "It will always be there." Weaver, now a credit analyst for an athletic-clothing manufacturer and mother again to Catherine, 9, and John, 7, tries not to look back. "I wasn't a bitter person before, and I'm not going to be now," she says. "I just look to the future."

Back home in Holland, an au pair continues to be haunted by her past

Like Louise Woodward, Anna-Corina Peeze was a 19-year-old au pair away from home for the first time in 1994, when she arrived in Ashburn, Va., to look after 2-month-old Brenton Devonshire. Two weeks later she was charged with shaking the infant to death to stop his crying. "My life has been destroyed because of that tragic loss," says Peeze, now living in a tiny Amsterdam apartment and unable to get work because of her notoriety.

Though her trial for involuntary manslaughter ended in a hung jury in April 1995, Peeze accepted a plea bargain acknowledging that evidence pointed to her rather than face a second trial. She was allowed to serve out a year's probation back home but was greeted coldly by many neighbors. Her visits to employment offices have been unproductive. "I can almost hear them saying, 'There she is—the one who admitted killing the baby,' " she says.

Peeze gets no sympathy from Sharon and Stephen Devonshire, who are still haunted by reminders of Brent, the strong and happy baby they lost. Sharon, 37, still starts each morning by greeting a baby photo on her refrigerator: "Good morning, Brent. I love you. I miss you."

Shattered and angered by the loss, she lobbied Congress for tighter regulation of the federal au pair program—the same one that brought Louise Woodward to America—but her efforts were frustrated by opposition from parents who wanted au pairs. Now the Devon-shires, who made Brent's heart valves and liver available, saving the lives of three children, honor his memory by promoting organ donation.

Peeze wishes she could find a way to express her own sadness. "If baby Brent Devonshire's parents gave their consent, I would lay flowers on his grave," she says. "I would read him a poem or a letter, just between the two of us." But the Devonshires want nothing to do with her. Stephen, 35, a software developer, and Sharon, a human-resources specialist, have tried to rebuild their lives. But they still aren't ready to try for another baby. "If I don't have a child," says Sharon, "nothing bad can happen to him."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
CONSTANCE JOHNSON in Mount Pleasant, PETER NORMAN in London, ROSE ELLEN O'CONNOR in Ashburn, ISABEL CONWAY in Amsterdam and JOANNE FOWLER in Eldora, Iowa

  • Contributors:
  • Constance Johnson,
  • Peter Norman,
  • Rose Ellen O'Connor,
  • Isabel Conway,
  • Joanne Fowler.