Family Law

Who's Watching the Babysitter?

The children played contently. Only a few squabbles interrupted their games. One by one, they climbed on chairs and tables. They reached up into the highest cupboards, looking for interesting playthings: A lighter, medicine bottles, candles. Where was their babysitter?

She was outside by the pool, oblivious to the activities going on inside. Could this happen to your children?

Real Life Tragedy

It's not an exaggeration or make-believe. Bad things happen. For example, in 2009, a 17-year-old babysitter and her family grabbed national headlines. One of the twins the sitter was hired to watch fell into a swimming pool and drowned.

The parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit, and eventually agreed to a $1.1 million settlement from the sitter's family. The lawsuit didn't bring their child back, but it serves as a reminder that parents, sitters and the sitters' families all need to be careful.

Potential Legal Problems

Baby-sitters - and sometimes their families - can be liable for injuries and deaths of children they watch. There's civil (non-criminal) liability, much like any personal injury case. When there's a tragic death, a wrongful death suit usually follows.

There may be more serious legal problems, too. A sitter may or may not face criminal charges; it depends on the facts of the case. A tragic accident usually doesn't lead to criminal charges. However, if a babysitter falls asleep and a child gets hurt, or if the babysitter intentionally harms the child, it's quite likely the sitter will face criminal negligence, assault or child endangerment charges, just to name a few possibilities.

Parents Take Charge

As a parent looking for a sitter, there are things you can do to find the right one for you and your children.

Use References to Find Out about the Sitter

Parents may feel uneasy about asking a potential babysitter hard questions about important qualities. Questions such as "How do you like children?" and "What's your description of yourself?" or "Do you have a temper?" However, other people who know the sitter can provide valuable insight, whether they know the sitter personally or have hired the sitter in the past.

It's important to get opinions from a variety of sources. Current babysitting clients and the sitter's personal friends may be reluctant to give negative comments. You may get a more balanced opinion if you talk with previous clients, former employers and neighbors.

Your community may also have a service organization such as the YWCA that offers a sitter referral service, with comments and references from previous clients. Some even provide certification classes.

Ask for Credentials

Don't hesitate to ask whether the sitter is a licensed or certified day care provider. Many sitters don't get certified because of the costs and time involved. So keep in mind that a certified sitter may charge more. Just because a sitter is certified or licensed doesn't mean that they are perfect, but it does indicate a willingness to follow child development, safety and health rules.

You should also ask about any medical or first aid training the sitter has, such as CPR training. It's a comfort knowing a sitter can handle some medical emergencies.

Investigate for Red Flags

Many local court systems offer free, easily accessible on-line case searches. This is an easy way to determine if there have been criminal convictions or pending charges against the potential sitter. It's best to search not only in the county where the sitter lives, but also in other nearby counties and counties where the sitter used to live.

Searching official police records or welfare agency records will be virtually impossible unless the sitter gives you express written permission to obtain them. And asking for the sitter's permission may create an uncomfortable aspect to the relationship.

You could consider checking her background1 or hiring a private investigative search firm to search databases to which you can't easily gain access. However, make a request for a fee estimate upfront before entering into an agreement for these services.

There are also many online resources you can use for research.

Keep & Share Information

Keep a written log handy with essential information, such as:

  • The child's full name and birth date
  • Allergies to foods, medications or animals
  • Parents' full names, and birth date
  • Key phone numbers including parents, other relatives, pediatrician and dentist, and the name of a preferred hospital or clinic
  • Names of everyone authorized to, or prohibited from, picking up the child

You should also make sure your sitter has this information handy and update it regularly.

For the Babysitter

As a babysitter, you need to take steps to make sure the children you watch are safe, while at the same time protecting yourself from potential legal problems.

Consider Certification

While it's not usually required, certification can help get you more jobs and often a higher pay rate, so the program's cost is offset. Not only that, but the training and the confidence it gives you will make you a better sitter. It's definitely a good idea to look into these programs in your area.

Stay "In the Know"

To protect yourself and the children in your charge, always review with the parents the child's safety and health knowledge. It makes you better prepared for emergencies and helps you avoid problems to begin with. It also increases the chances of being hired again by the parents.

Even if you've babysat for them previously, staying up-to-date on safety and health issues is not a responsibility to take lightly.

If the Unimaginable Happens

In the event of a serious accident or injury involving the child you're watching, above all else obtain medical care for any physical injury and immediately notify the child's parents or guardian. Also, you should:

  • Carefully document and investigate the event
  • Call your insurance company, especially if you're babysitting in your own home.

An attorney will help you understand the likelihood of a lawsuit, or may offer suggestions for working toward resolution through negotiation or settlement, or informal discussions with the other party.

Most parents are uneasy leaving their children with someone else, whether the children are 10 months or 10 years old. But you can enjoy your time out of the house by carefully choosing the babysitter for your children. The responsibility goes both ways; a babysitter has to be prepared for anything as well.


1A division of LexisNexis.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My sitter cares for my children in her home, and her application for a home day care provider license is pending. What kinds of regulations for home day cares and sitting apply to her services now, and after the license is issued?
  • I use a home day care provider for babysitting and she wants me to sign a release so I can't sue her if my children are injured while in her car. Should she really expect me to sign such a release?
  • Does the place where I babysit children control whether I'm the parents' employee or an independent contractor providing a service in their homes, and what if we disagree as to that status? What does that status mean for taxes and the insurance coverage I should carry?
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