Who's minding the sitter? Reaction: In the wake of the murder of Shen Dullea Poehlman, area teens and their parents discuss ways to be safe on the job.

July 31, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF Sun writers Rasmi Simhan and Judith Forman contributed to this article.

Potential baby-sitting horror stories are not hard to come by: The stranger who appeared at a playground looking for baby sitters and asked two teens for their phone numbers.

The baby sitter who posted her name and phone number and received a call from someone who had no children.

These situations may turn out to be innocuous -- that stranger at the playground could be a new neighbor. But other situations could be fraught with risk. Who knows what could have happened had the baby sitter been lured to the childless home.

Undoubtedly, when baby sitters and their families learned that 17-year-old Shen Dullea Poehlman was strangled this week in Reisterstown after agreeing to baby sit for a stranger, they shivered at the thought of having close calls with tragedy.

That potential is particularly troublesome when the baby sitter, like Shen, is on the threshold of adulthood, has a driver's license, expanding autonomy and, as her mother said, a youthful sense of invincibility.

In a world of random violence, a sitter's safety has become as important as that of the children being watched, says Jane Aksoy, a health and safety specialist for the Central Maryland chapter of the American Red Cross.

Parents and guardians of teens increasingly on their own must confront the big world "out there" that beckons -- but also threatens -- their children. How do you set guidelines for young adults who need to work, go out with friends and crave independence? How do you guarantee safety for any age?

Anita Stewart, a single Baltimore mother of girls ages 16 and 14, says she wakes up praying and goes to bed praying that her daughters will not be harmed as they go about their lives.

She offers them safety advice applicable to their every move: If someone approaches you on the subway and demands your leather coat, give it to them.

If your tires go flat at the mall, go inside and get security. If a strange man offers to help you and gets in your car, return to the mall.

"They listen," Stewart says. "They read the paper just like I do."

Many parents of young baby sitters set guidelines. All of Marybeth Furman's sitting jobs have been for her mother's work colleagues or neighbors, she says.

Marybeth, soon to be 14, has friends who seek sitting jobs by posting signs with their phone numbers at the pool. The Timonium teen quotes her mother's reaction to that practice: "Never, ever do that. You don't know who is going to hire you. Even if you meet someone [who asks you to sit] check it out and talk to someone who knows that person."

Rosemary Peternel, mother of Betsy Shapiro, 13, and Rebecca Shapiro, 18, of Baltimore, is careful to ensure her daughters enter into safe sitting situations: "I am very cautious about what my kids do because I am a city person. I would not simply freely assume that a stranger would be reliable. I'd check resources and make sure there were some personal connection [with the person] before my child could go baby-sitting."

Alexa Nilder, a 21-year-old senior at Smith College, is home in Bolton Hill this summer, earning money as a lifeguard and baby sitter. In Baltimore, she has always sat for the same five or six families and their referrals. At Smith, while she baby-sits regularly for a couple of families, she has, on occasion, answered strangers' requests for baby sitters posted on campus.

"I never really thought about it that much," she says.

Kristin Schenning, 18, of Cockeysville has worked as a baby sitter for five years. Whenever she has a new employer, "my brother and I go together, and we tell the parents that one of us would baby-sit the next time," she says.

Indrani Chakrabarti makes it a point to always be at her Cockeysville home while her daughter, 17-year-old Preetha, is baby-sitting. "It gives me piece of mind."

The Red Cross, which offers baby-sitting courses, stresses that sitters should not take jobs with strangers or found on postings in newspapers and public places.

"You should always have your antennae out, and if you're not sure, talk to your parents and see what they might think about it," says Aksoy, the safety specialist.

It's important to meet with a family before working with them, she says. You may decide that it would not be a comfortable situation, or that problems could arise, such as an older child returning home with friends who are doing drugs or drinking alcohol.

Aksoy stresses the importance of intuition. If you have a sense that a sitting arrangement might be risky, pay attention.

Shen Dullea Poehlman lived in an area where murder and violence are rare. But living in Carroll County was no protection. "Something like this can happen anywhere," Aksoy says.

And it doesn't serve to live in fear for our children's safety, says Linnea Anderson, public relations director for the Maryland Red Cross chapter. The random nature of tragedy is always going to be with us, and "ultimately we can do very little to protect them once they're past [a certain] stage of life."

Sitter advice

The Central Maryland Chapter of the Red Cross offers suggestions to ensure sitters' safety:

Know the parents or guardians and the families of the children you will baby sit.

Tell your parents or guard- ians where you will be, when to expect you home and how to contact you. Know where they will be and also how to contact them.

If baby-sitting for a family makes you feel uncomfortable, don't do it.

Make your own arrangements to get to and from the job safely. Have a backup plan. (Example: If you are uncomfortable riding home with an employer, have a code word that you can use on the telephone to let your parents or guardians know that you need a ride home.)

Know and respect your own limits. Don't take a job or try to do something you're not sure of.

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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