Child care in America on trial with au pair

November 16, 1997|By Susan Reimer

IT WILL NEVER be over for Matthew Eappen's mother and father. And it is not quite over for Louise Woodward. But it is over for the rest of us, and that may be the only good to come from Judge Hiller Zobel's decision in the celebrated au pair trial.

Deborah and Sunil Eappen will mourn their 8-month-old son for the rest of their lives. The teen-ager with the milkmaid's looks and the stone-cutter's heart must stay in Massachusetts until the prosecution exhausts its appeals.

But because Judge Zobel reduced the verdict against Louise Woodward and freed her after time served, working mothers and child-care workers are likewise released from the ordeal of watching their worst fears played out as a Court TV soap opera.

It is over. Thank God. Nothing good came of it.

Working mothers -- I would say parents, but let's not kid ourselves -- saw themselves in Deborah Eappen's place. These women have patched together some manner of compromises for the care of their children, and they have had few peaceful night's sleep since.

How many of us would like to take the stand and defend our choices about career and family, defend our choice of sitters, explain why we weren't there when things fell apart, as they always do, always will?

None of us.

How many of those women who care for our children have worried that a bump or a bruise or a cold or a half-baked child's tale could put them in the docket as Louise Woodward was?

All of them.

Judge Zobel's resolution of the case means we will no longer have to look squarely in the face something we already know: that there will be no support for the decisions a woman has made if something bad happens to one of her children. That there is no defense for a sitter when something bad happens to a child under her care.

We have been a brutally unforgiving public in this case, and yet none of us -- not even the stay-at-home mothers -- could endure the same scrutiny if tragedy struck.

Louise Woodward, with her chilling detachment, has tapped into a rich vein of guilt that travels through the working mothers in this country, and we have responded by trying to shift that guilt away from ourselves.

As television brought us each new installment, each new disconnected detail from the lives of the Eappens, we deflected our own worry with another harsh judgment of the players in this drama.

What made Deborah Eappen think that a 19-year-old from England was any better equipped to deal with long hours and the frustrations of a toddler and a baby than the 19-year-old down the street?

Did no alarm bells sound when she and her husband found themselves disciplining their au pair as if she were their own uncooperative teen?

What did they think $115 a week would buy them? Mary Poppins?

What do you expect from a process that pitches an American adventure to young girls while promising loving, if indentured, servitude to professional couples?

If you are a grieving father, how in God's name do you find it within yourself to go on Larry King?

How can a judge who is a father and a grandfather grant a second bite out of the apple to arrogant lawyers who gambled on legal definitions and lost?

Would this same justice be there for a Haitian or Hispanic woman who didn't have corporate money buying her a million-dollar defense, a defense so flamboyant it guaranteed the eyes of the world would be watching?

If 20 years in jail was too much and 279 days was too little, how many days, how many years would balance the scale on which Matthew's body lies?

And what about that dreadful British mob cheering for their home girl? Don't they care that a baby is dead? How in the name of all that is decent do you pop champagne?

The lessons of the Louise Woodward trial are many, and they go to the heart of the American criminal justice system and the way it repeatedly devalues the lives of its powerless child victims.

But there is a lesson for mothers, too, and it is just as painful to bear.

The care of your children is your responsibility, whether you are meeting them at the bus stop each day or leaving them with someone else while you go off to work.

Some day, some time, things will fall apart -- in a little way or in a horrific way -- and it will all come back to you and the decisions you have made.

And through the Louise Woodward trial, the world has shown just how little sympathy it will have.

Pub Date: 11/17/97

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