NEW YORK — These nannies are no Mary Poppins.
One sold her charge's Adderall pills for $300. Another eavesdropped on her Wall Street-employed bosses to pick stocks. Another left a toddler alone outside while she went shopping.
While most nannies are responsible, some are not, giving rise to a booming cottage industry: Nanny spies.
More than 5.6 million American families leave children under age 6 in someone else's care when both parents are at work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There’s no data on how many use nannies, but in recent years, nannying has gained more legitimacy, as salaries have gone up for applicants who are college-educated or have other marketable credentials.
The bulk of nanny spying is conducted by professional investigators, many of them former police or military officers.
At a cost of up to $350 an hour, the services aren't cheap. But Vincent Guastamacchia, a retired New York Police Department hostage negotiator who is now partner at private investigation company Perimeter Agency, says the peace of mind is priceless.
"You're leaving your child, your most precious possession, with a stranger. You really need to know who this person is," he said.
On a recent stroll through a playground on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Tom Ruskin, a 21-year NYPD veteran who also offers nanny spying through his firm, CMP Protective and Investigative Group, zeroed in on a nanny in the distance. The woman was chatting with another nanny while the girl she was watching — who looked to be about 2 — ran off.
It took the nanny nearly a minute to notice the child was missing and start glancing around for her. When the girl scampered back, the nannies looked relieved and continued their conversation.
“That nanny had no idea where she was,” Ruskin said.
A generally jovial guy whose phone ringtone is the "Law And Order" theme song, Ruskin's face darkens when he recalls episodes from his career as a police officer that inspire him to keep working to protect kids: searches for missing children; a girl he resuscitated from the brink of death, only to have her later die in his arms.
For $1,250, Ruskin's firm will do a comprehensive background check on a potential nanny. For $2,500 and up, it will assign a pair of investigators to do surveillance on a nanny who’s already on the job. He said the company gets requests from all over the country.
For surveillance missions, nanny spies will make sure they fit into their surroundings by dressing up as, say, construction workers taking a lunch break in the playground. Others just don sunglasses and a hat. The spies tail their targets with undercover cameras disguised as everyday objects like coffee cups, keychains and pocketbooks.
Reconnaissance can last for days or weeks, easily running into the thousands of dollars. That's not a problem for clients, who tend to be wealthy; among them are top plastic surgeons, TV personalities, and celebrities who only give their initials so as to conceal their identities, the nanny spies told NBC News.
When a nanny abandoned her charge while she went into a store to shop, Ruskin's investigators moved in closer than they normally would to make sure no one harmed the child, and immediately informed the parents, who debated pressing neglect charges.
“It was going to get some press exposure probably if the nanny was arrested,” Ruskin said. The family ultimately decided against it because the father was a “known person in the city in New York.”
Tragedies involving nannies are rare, but business picks up whenever a case makes headlines, he added.
While many clients prefer a quiet dismissal, nannies don’t always avoid responsibility for wrongdoing, Ruskin said, recalling a case in which a nanny was discovered trading stocks on information about prospective financial deals she was hearing from the parents. The clients reported her to the Securities and Exchange Commission and she was arrested.
Guastamacchia, the Perimeter Agency partner, advocates cameras to keep an eye on nannies. His firm installs discreet pinhole cameras in ' homes, and he also recommends having visible cameras, such as the Nest Cam, to deter bad behavior.
Some nanny wrongdoings border on the absurd, such as one who snuck non-organic food into the kids' diets — a firing offense for the mom who hired another nanny spy, Limor Weinstein, a former nanny herself.
But Weinstein, who runs a family solutions agency, has witnessed worse than that: nannies stealing, doing drugs on the job, even abusing children.
One client, a psychologist with a 2-year-old, told Weinstein that her daughter had recently started putting pillows over her doll's face during play.
"It's probably nothing, I'm probably just a neurotic psychologist," the client told her, Weinstein recalled.
“When we put a camera in the bedroom, everything was fine until the kid started crying," Weinstein said. "All of a sudden this nanny switched, and was like, 'You spoiled brat … I told you to be quiet. I'm going to get you.' And she's holding a pillow, she's holding a hand around her neck."
Weinstein called the mother, who ran home and fired the nanny.
"We as moms have this gut instinct," Weinstein said. "Sometimes it's nothing, you're a crazy first-time mom. But when there is something else, your child is regressing, there are all these red flags ... observe the nanny."
That “something else” can run the gamut.
In one of Weinstein’s cases, a hidden microphone in the bathroom revealed a nanny raiding the medicine cabinet and selling Adderall. That put an end to her five years of employment with the family.
In another, Weinstein discovered the nanny was having an affair with the kid’s father. She was stumped about what to do because the mother, who was on TV, was on the road nearly all the time, and the nanny treated the child wonderfully.
"I always put the child first," Weinstein said. "I know it sounds weird, but this (nanny) was the best thing for the child." Conflicted, she told the mom the nanny was great with the child but under a lot of stress, and stopped working for that client.
Unlike the former police officers, Weinstein sometimes interacts with her targets, bringing her daughters to a park where she expects the nanny will be. She says that enables her to use skills she acquired while serving in the Israeli army to assess the nanny, including reading body language and watching for good eye contact with the child.
Then she offers recommendations for parents, ranging from termination in the most extreme situations to corrective actions. Sometimes she will suggest parents pay for therapy for the nanny through social workers Weinstein works with or receive training from the variety of experts she works with, including child sleep specialists and dietitians.
Not every nanny is salvageable — Weinstein says she has encountered “a lot" of alcoholic nannies — but some are just overworked. For those nannies, she recommends parents make sure the nanny knows she can rest when the child naps, as opposed to cleaning or cooking and being “on” for the duration of her shift, which might last from 7 a.m. to as late as 9 p.m.
She also recommends parents show appreciation. A gift certificate for a manicure for a nanny can go a long way, she said.
Not all parents need to snoop on their nannies, the spies say. Good communication about expectations often can prevent trouble. They recommend parents do a trial of a month or so with a new nanny to make sure she or he is the right fit.
At the same time, they say, parents need to look out for warning signs. They might even want to play nanny spy themselves on occasion, said Guastamacchia, the ex-hostage negotiator.
"If you want to know who somebody is, watch how they treat the waiter or waitress, or the busboy,” he said. “Your best face goes to people who can do better for you, and then you show your real self to people who can't."