With the rising cost of child care nationally, it's no wonder that many parents are looking for alternatives.
One alternative, in particular, seems to be a growing trend. No, not asking grandma or your young niece. Using au pair programs.
An au pair is a domestic assistant from a foreign country who works for, and lives with, a host family temporarily. Au pairs have been around in the U.S. since the early 1990s and the programs are overseen the Department of State. The programs typically allow young international students a one-year stay that can be extended to two years.
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Melissa Fredette, executive vice president of Cultural Care Au Pair, based in Cambridge, Mass., said they have seen a 20 percent jump in clients from last summer and a 50 percent increase in applications.
"Certainly the rise in child care costs is one factor. I think the spread of social media among moms is spreading the word," Fredette explained. "What we're seeing is that our web-based traffic has gone up and inquiries have gone up that way, so I think it's just moms being much more active online on Facebook and on blogs."
Mount Airy resident Tami Montroy and her husband learned about au pairs from a friend. They've used the program since January 2011 when their daughter was three months old. They are currently hosting Judi, a 21-year-old from Mexico.
"Everything we found that met our minimum criteria was considerably more expensive than the au pair program and didn't allow us the flexibility and hours," Montroy said of traditional child care centers. "Today, our flexibility can be whatever we want it to be because we're working with one individual who's under our [employment]. We don't have to worry about her getting to work."
Au pairs are limited to 45 hours a week and are not maids. While the yearly transition can be difficult, Montroy said the pros outweigh the cons, adding that their daughter has learned Spanish. They have even arranged Judi's hours to allow them a date night every so often.
"It's kind of an added person in your home and they're not just there to take up space and eat your food," she said.
More children, more savings
For families with more two or more small children, the cost of an au pair can be cheaper than full-time day care at a licensed center.
Cultural Care au pairs average out to about $350 per week, not including room and board, but the cost stays the same regardless of the number of children.
The agency requires full payment up front or in monthly installments.
Setting up safety net
One major question families have with the au pair concept is safety. Tami Montroy, a manager at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said they have set up a system: they pay for the au pair’s cell phone so that she can text before she leaves the house and keeps a daily log.
They also set up a few nanny cams — with full disclosure — to ease their concerns.
“We write all of this down and then every day I review what happened,” she said.
Fredette, of Cultural Care Au Pair, estimated that “less than one-tenth of one percent” of their au pairs have been involved in criminal incidents in 25 years, noting that such instances are “very, very rare.”
Au Pairs must be:
Proficient in English
A secondary school graduate or equivalent
18-26 years old