Violence In The Host Family Home: What Should An Au Pair Do?

by cv harquail on February 18, 2013

Because Au Pairs live with families, inside their homes and inside their family lives, Au Pairs often see things that outsiders do not.

Au Pairs see not just messy kitchens or heaps of laundry. Sometimes they also see emotional and physical abuse among host family members.

Violence in the Home

I don’t like to call this kind of violence by its common name, “domestic violence”, because that name suggests there is something smaller and less worthy of our intervention that other forms of violence.

‘Domestic violence’ suggests to some people that the location of the violence makes it ‘none of their business’ or ‘a personal matter’, simply because it happens in private, inside our homes and personal relationships.

Whether or not violence happens ‘in private’ should not determine whether or not we take it seriously.  The violence itself is still violence. It is still dangerous. It is as much our business to report this kind of violence as it is our business to report when we see someone being mugged in a parking lot.

When we know that a Host Parent’s behavior is violent and threatening, we have a responsibility to do something to help the family.

When an Au Pair sees or hears about host parents beating on each or on the host children, s/he has a responsibility to find a way to report that information so that the family members get the protection and professional help that they need.

This can be tricky, though, because Au Pairs need to attend to their own safety — and find a safe place to live themselves– even while they attempt to help the family member(s) being abused.

I received the email, below, from an au pair struggling with how to respond to a violent episode between her host parents. I’ve already replied to her with my own advice (which I’ll add at some point) but I know that many of you will have wise words for her.

We’d especially like to hear from those of you readers who have professional experience in helping victims and their families. 

Dear AuPairMom–

I’m currently an Au Pair in the USA and I have been living here for about four months (seven or so months left to go). I care for two host children, a 1 year old and a 3 year old.

When I arrived, I knew that my host parents were thinking about divorce. Sometimes I could hear them fight with each other, but nothing seemed truly major. Things changed on Saturday.

My host parents started yelling and physically fighting for hours, in front of the kids. I was off-duty, ‘asleep’ in my room, but their fighting was so loud that I could hear it in my room without trying.  On Sunday morning they acted like nothing happened.

However, Sunday afternoon my host dad came home drunk. I was not home at the time; the 3 year old told me what happened. … The host dad hit or pushed my host mom, who was holding the baby in her arms. She fell, and the baby got a little bump on his head. My host mom called 911 and the cops came and arrested the host dad. My host mom went to the hospital for evaluation. She and the baby were okay.

My host mom told me this morning that she is getting a restraining order so the host dad can’t come back to the house.

I have never experienced a situation like this and I don’t know what to do.

Even though I love my host kids and host mom is hard for me to imagine continuing to live here, especially if the host dad ever returns to the house.

But it is not just me, I am also concerned about my host children.

I think that your readers will suggest that I rematch, which I’d like to do after I sort this situation out. I don’t want to seem too concerned about myself, but I’d like to extend (with another family) and I still have education credits to complete before I can do that.

Any advice for me? I’d appreciate it. ~~  AfraidAuPair


CA Host Mom February 18, 2013 at 1:33 pm

I have no experience (personally) with this issue, but I did work in law enforcement — so my exposure to violence (this type, and many others) was from a different perspective. Based on what we know from the message she wrote, I would suggest to AfraidAuPair that she leave this family as soon as she can. I certainly don’t mean to imply that it will be easy (rematch is tough) but she should not be in a situation where she is scared or feels unsafe. She should expect support from her LCC, and leave as soon as she can.

Emerald City HM February 18, 2013 at 7:41 pm

If you were my daughter in another country and you called home and told me about this I would absolutely tell you to leave in a heartbeat.

While it is a good thing that the host mom is taking action and getting a restraining order, it took an injury to her child to get her to that point. The physical fighting the day before in front of the children was already a bad situation that you don’t need to be part of.

I really don’t know what else to say other than to rematch. You can still finish your education credits with a new family.

cv harquail February 18, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Here’s a bit of what I wrote back in my email:
…Ultimately, you’ll want to rematch, and of course violence in the home is an automatic reason for your agency to move you promptly and without any challenge. That’s the easy part.

The harder part is figuring out what if any obligations you might have to the children. Before you leave you’ll want to make sure that ‘the authorities’ are fully aware that the children are in an unsafe situation, so that you know someone will be looking out for them. I know that we have readers with professional expertise In These issues who can give you some guidance here.

Also, and not bc you suggested anything like this but, domestic violence can be hard to respond to when we have personal experience w alcoholics,bitter divorces, or emotional abuse. Not to pry into your own personal history, but do be aware that you may feel personally, privately and deeply hooked by this situation in ways that are challenging to untangle.

… Please take some time today to take a walk, talk with your LCc, your own parents or your friends, and find a strong place from. which to address this.

Anja February 19, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Hi there, I’m the LCC of AfraidAuPair. Thank’s for all your comments.
AfraidAuPair was calling me today and we talked about the situation. I did report it to the agency and will figure things out.
AfraidAuPair is always welcome at my place for shelter and she is a great Au Pair so we will find her a new family.
Thank you!

Skny February 18, 2013 at 9:59 pm

That is a hard one.
I would think if 911 was called, then social services have been advised about the problem already. Maybe?
I know I’d feel tempted to say to give this mom a chance, be a positive presence for the kids, etc… So many changes that maintaining a caregiver would be nice. But in the end your safety is more important.

Taking a Computer Lunch February 19, 2013 at 8:36 am

As much as this AP obviously loves the children and feels for their safety, she should move out promptly. As much as the HM will need and want support right now, there is nothing in the contract that says an AP must put herself in harm’s way. She should call her LCC promptly and enlist her support in finding a rematch placement immediately. As much as the children will long for stability in their lives, the AP should not risk her life for their safety.

There are many times in which having an AP can be beneficial to a family in crisis which would be emotionally difficult for her to experience. I am thinking of a) accident or injury to a family member (not caused by violence within the family), b) death of a family member, or c) illness of a family member, but I’m sure others could list other tough situations. However, the threat of real physical violence, is too dangerous.

My advice – call your LCC immediatly and enlist her support in finding another placement. If she is not up to the task, then call HQ.

NJ Au Pair February 19, 2013 at 8:55 am

Dear Afraid AuPair,

As a mother, a former host mother, an LC and professional trained in conflict mediation, my advice to you is simple. Get your affairs in order and rematch. I’m sure you have a heavy heart, but recognize that you’re not obliged to live and work under these new circumstances.

Your love and concern for the children and host mom notwithstanding, there is no reason why you should jeopardize the rest of your year, your emotional or physical well being, because you feel you need to sort the situation out. Although this sounds harsh, it is not your burden. You came here for reasons other than what you’ve recently been presented with, and you are not obliged to take on the pressure or heavily laden responsibility of living in this type of situation.

You have a good heart, and your concern for the family is evident.
It’s time for you to turn inwards and take care of your own self as this new turn of events is outside the normal boundaries of an au pair’s responsibility. I’m sending you best wishes in moving forward.

DCAuPair February 19, 2013 at 12:18 pm

This is very good advice! I can relate to the au pair, I am also the kind of person that would feel bad about leaving when the mom and kids need my help. But you are totally right, this is not her burden and she should not feel guilty about leaving.

Kelly Hand February 19, 2013 at 9:46 am

I’d say this is a situation where the au pair is not even obligated to commit to a two week rematch period. No au pair should be required to remain in an unsafe situation. It’s promising that the host mom is seeking a restraining order, but women in this situation are notorious for changing their minds and this could be a long process. I’m sure it will be heartbreaking to leave those children behind, but if she remains in the same town and if the dad does stay away, then she could keep in touch with the host mom and kids to provide some continuity for the children. I hope there is a support network in place of extended family, friends, or neighbors.

Julie February 19, 2013 at 10:24 am

Pack up, call the LCC and tell her you are coming to her today. In my agency (I’m a host mom & LCC), I know of an au pair who witnessed abuse and the organization guaranteed a new host family (they would not send her home if she can’t find a family within the two weeks.) Realize that an agency is a mandatory reporter, which means that if an au pair alleges abuse (or vice versa, if a family were to allege abuse against an au pair), the agency is required to report it. The au pair must get out safely and it’s her LCC’s job to work with the agency for next steps. The au pair will likely have to be involved with an official report, but it is extremely important that she not stand back and do nothing. If her LCC hasn’t dealt with it before, she needs to speak with her director. Every agency has dealt with this and should have procedures in place. She is not abandoning the children–by reporting it, she gives the family a chance to get help, and helps herself by finding another safe family, with whom she can have a good experience. Good luck, and if you want to talk au pair, reply to me and I’ll get you information. I may not be with your agency, but I’ll do what I can to help.

AfraidAuPair February 19, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Thank you for your support and great advice.
It would be great if I can get in contact with you, my lcc is great but she is new so she has not deal with a case like this.

APcazzee February 19, 2013 at 2:08 pm

@Julie- sound and solid advice. What agency are you with? :)

I was an au pair in China three times (I was crazy and adventurous!), and there was a culture in the families I stayed with to beat the wife for not doing this right, and the children if they are not focused.
One au pair friend of mine overheard her host child playing around on the piano when he should’ve been practicing, heard the host mother return, heard silence, heard a cry, came to investigate and ten minutes later the host mother emerged from the host childs (locked) practice room… with a wire coathanger in her hand. She was scared that the host dad would lay into her for his poor piano grades.
This is an extreme example, but the fact remains- as a western au pair, it can be very shocking (and shaming) to witness these kinds of things and feel incapable of acting on it. Even more so when you have a host mother who turns to you for support against your host dad.
It can feel like you’re “failing” in your duties to the children and Host mother. I hope this au pair has the support avaliable to her that I didn’t have. It’s part of the culture in that part of Asia, and I’m ashamed to say my western values meant for little when it came to standing up to what I saw.
Its a burden I carry to this day, that I could not do more- say more- against something that is so wrong.

Please, for this au pairs piece of mind, she has to move families before it shreds her self-worth. If her LCC wont move her ASAP, she needs to move herself- cheap hostel, a few days recovery. The Bank of Mum and Dad may make an limited exception for support if she’s very lucky. I never told my parents, I muscled on alone. Stupid, foolish mistake!

AfraidAuPair February 19, 2013 at 3:38 pm

I’m the OP. My hostmom went to court today and got a restraining order for a year. I contacted my Lcc and for some weird reason she was at court today at the same time so she heard the full story. She told me that if I want to stay with them its okay as long as I’m safe and that she will contact me on friday to see if I’m okay or if I want a rematch.

Thank you for your support and advice.

Should be working February 19, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Frankly, I’m shocked that she did not advise you to leave. Or that the agency does not require you to leave. Restraining orders are legally binding but that does not actually physically stop anyone from anything. And this HD was drunk and violent at least once.

How does this LCC *know* you are safe? How do you know you are safe? What agency is this? Why wasn’t the local director notified? I find it scandalous.

Anja February 19, 2013 at 5:39 pm

1st of all, the agency was notified immediately after my Au Pair spoke to me!!!

2nd the AP is an adult and I wanted to give her the chance to make her own decision to stay or leave, rather than force her to do something

3rd the AP has the option to leave the house at any time. She can stay with me, she can stay with friends, she can go into rematch.

So before you judge, please get all the details!
Thank you

anonmom February 20, 2013 at 12:29 pm

I understand that the au pair is an ‘adult’- however by you telling her it is her decision- this does not absolve you or the agency from legal liability. Nor does an order of protection prevent anyone bent on harming someone from committing harm. Simple as that. I work in this field on a daily basis. I am shocked that no one from child protective services as spoken to the au pair, who is en excellent ‘witness’ on behalf of the children and the mother as to what transpired. Moreover, the fact that there is a ‘restraining order’ does not meaen it won’t be vacated, either my the mom withdrawing it, or after trial. Then the kids are not protected. I certainly hope your area director and the headquarters of your agency were made aware of this situation. good luck to all.

anonmom February 20, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I forgot to add, that due to the household situation, the au pair is put in a difficult situation for many reasons, but realistically, she is there to lay the blame on by either parent if the children are hurt. What happens when one of the kids has a bruise, head injury, etc? One parent will blame the other, and the parent that is being blamed will blame the au pair- claiming that the au pair injured the child. This, sadly, is another realistic situation the au pair needs to be protected from. Think back years ago for those that recall Louise Woodward (an au pair from England)- she was convicted of killing the child in her care. There were allegations along the way that perhaps it was the father that actually injured the child. Be that as it may, you as the LCC have an obligation to the au pair to keep her from harms’ way- both physically in the home as well as emotionally should things go south for the family.

Anja February 19, 2013 at 5:42 pm

1st of all, the agency was notified immediately after my Au Pair spoke to me!!!

2nd the AP is an adult and I wanted to give her the chance to make her own decision to stay or leave, rather than force her to do something

3rd the AP has the option to leave the house at any time. She can stay with me, she can stay with friends, she can go into rematch.

So before you judge, please get all the details!

CA Host Mom February 19, 2013 at 5:52 pm

If you take a minute to think about where you are reading/posting, you might realize how we are all trying to give the most sound, helpful, thoughtful advice with the few details that we are provided in the original post (the nature of an anonymous forum). Seems to me that it would behoove you to take that into consideration, and be grateful that there are people who care to help, rather than get defensive. This is not about you — rather the bigger picture of a young person who could be in a very dangerous situation.

Anja February 19, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Hi there, I’m the LCC of AfraidAuPair. Thank’s for all your comments.
AfraidAuPair was calling me today and we talked about the situation. I did report it to the agency and will figure things out.
AfraidAuPair is always welcome at my place for shelter and she is a great Au Pair so we will find her a new family.
Thank you!

EastCoastHM February 19, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Hi –
I am the host mom who is a domestic violence and sexual assault crisis counselor. A quick response now, more later.

First, some information for the au pair involved and her LCC.

The national domestic violence hotline number: 1-800-799-SAFE

There are also local domestic violence hotline numbers in each state. I suggest calling a local number, as the people answering the phone will know your state specific information, which can be helpful when children are involved and you may need or want information about the state department of children and families (or equivalent).

The national number should route you to a local number, but you can easily find a local number by a quick internet search. ?**HOWEVER, I caution you, and the host mom, to NOT search on the family computer. Without knowing the full story or picture of this family, I can’t even begin to make a lethality and safety assesment, so I am taking the most cautious approach to “safety planning” regarding how I respond to this. Perpetrators of domestic violence can be manipulative, controlling and many engage in electronic surveillance.

Also, if you are reading aupairmom and this post on a family computer, you should at a minimum take steps to clear the cache and all cookies. Someone surveiling the hostmom could easily discover that you, or the HM, have been reading this post.

I am not being overly dramatic regarding safety. Abusers are often triggered when their victim takes steps to escape the violence – and something as small as an internet search for a local domestic violence hotline number, or a post to aupairmom, or search terms regarding restraining orders can set off an abuser with harmful, or lethal, consequences.

ERR ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION. You are in a volatile situation — statistically, a woman and her children are in the most danger, including of being killed, during and after the time she takes steps to leave the perpetrator of the abuse. This is an unpredictable time, and a restraining order is only as powerful as the respect the abuser accords it. At the end of the day, it is a piece of paper…not a bulletproof vest. If the perpetrator of the abuse does not fear the legal system, does not fear consequences, and does not respect the terms of the restraining order, it really cannot protect the woman and her children.

Again, I will post more later, but I wanted to convey essential info now. I urge you to consider using a domestic violence hotline to discuss this. People like me –who are trained and state certified domestic violence crisis counselors — answer the phone. We can talk with you about what is going on; we can help you safety plan; we can give you information —- and all of this is confidential AND LEGALLY PRIVILEGED (subject to state law exceptions, and I don’t know what state you are in, but the main point is that you can have access 24hours a day to someone to talk to and process this information and the experience you have had with someone who is trained in these issues and as a counselor). You may not feel you need this now, but you might in the future. Discussing and processing what you have witnessed and your concerns is a strong and healthy step to take.

Lastly, statistically, a woman “leaves” her abuser 7-8 times before she leaves for good. Your HM’s feelings today may change tomorrow or next week. Many women with restraining orders invite their abusers back into their lives, and back into their homes. Your HM and her abuser have children together. Abuse of his wife may well not be sufficient reason for a court to deny him access to his children. As you consider your options, you should keep in mind that the situation is likely to change over time, and no matter what you decide, it would likely be helpful for you to discuss safety planning, for yourself and the host kids, with a DV counselor. If you leave this may not be as essential, but if you stay I *STRONGLY* urge you to do so.

More later….

EastCoast HM February 19, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Ok, I’m back.

Some safety considerations; you may not know the answers to these, but these are baseline safety questions that you should consider:
Are there weapons in the home?
Does HD possess weapons?
Does HD use drugs or alcohol?
What is the most severe physical violence HD has committed against HM, EVER? (You might norm is, but you might hear HM mentionit)
Has HD ever tried to choke or strangle HM? (While every situation is different, statistically this is one of the most predictive factors for future lethality)
Does HM have support? Friends, family, job?

Depending on your relationship with HM, you might share the hotline number with her and encourage her to call.

Keep in mind, you are not responsible for HM, she is. She has to make the decisions that are right for her, and hopefully that will keep her and her children safe. Domestic violence is complex; leaving an abuser is not simple or easy. Most women NEVER leave. You HM might not either. She married HD; she probably loved him, and likely still does. She may decide to reconcile with him. She will almost certainly still have to interact with him bc they have chasten together. Restraining orders aren’t forever. So, you need to keep in mind that the only person you control in this mix is yourself. You are responsible for keeping yourself safe, and most likely leaving this family is the best way to do that.

If you decide to stay, you will need to have an open discussion with HM about safety (including questions like the ones I posed above). HM may not want to do that. If you talk to HM, I suggest that the most helpful way to discuss with HM is not to slam or criticize HD (remember, her feelings for him may be v complicated and she likely still loves him in some way); rather affirm that she does not deserve to be treated that way; that she has made strong and protective decisions for herself and her kids by calling 911, filing police report and by getting a restraining order. Even if you leave, hearing this from you can be your parting gift of support to HM.

(Please Excuse typos, the foregoing was typed with thumbs in 3″ screen)

EastCoast HM February 19, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Ugh, that should have been
*you might not know this….
*they have CHILDREN (nit chasten) together

Should be working February 19, 2013 at 6:26 pm

What fabulous, and also awful, information. I hope the agencies give some of this, e.g. domestic violence hotline info, to all au pairs at orientation. Statistically, some of them will see domestic violence. And some come from it, as I well know from experience, and indeed that can trigger things if they have it in their host family.

I wondered if there is any rule about APs being placed in homes with firearms.

ILoveSkittles February 19, 2013 at 7:35 pm

While this is an awful situation, let’s not make this about homes with firearms. Many, many wonderful host families own firearms and do not have domestic violence issues. Let’s be careful not to offend those of us who have AP’s and who also own firearms.

HRHM February 20, 2013 at 10:16 am

“When I arrived, I knew that my host parents were thinking about divorce.”
I think this says a lot.

First, I’d caution any Au Pair from accepting a match when you know that the family is in a stressful flux. Being a decent HP is hard enough without having to do some while dealing with a crumbling marriage. For the incoming AP, it’s a recipe for misery.

Secondly, if you know your marriage is on the precipice, find live-out childcare. The last thing you need is the stress of another person in your home and in your business. The APs are not professional child care workers, and they don’t get paid enough to deal with HP baggage.

My 2 cents

JJ Host Mom February 20, 2013 at 4:36 pm

This is all great advice.

I’ve been in a similar situation from another perspective. My last au pair had problems with a stalker ex-boyfriend who knew where we lived. We really liked her and wanted her to stay, so I worked with her to get a restraining order against him to keep her and my kids safe.

Getting a restraining order took months, and even once we had one, I never felt like the situation was totally under control. Luckily nothing dangerous happened, but it certainly could have. In retrospect I should have helped her find a new, out of state host family as soon as the situation revealed itself. It would have been safer for her and for my family. And it would have been a lot less stressful.

So my advice to AfraidAuPair is to work with her host mom to help her find another childcare situation, while at the same time, transitioning to another host family. It’s great that you want to stay to help the kids and HM through this, but in reality, you can complete your education requirements with any family. And they’ll be just fine with another type of childcare – preferably live-out, given the circumstances. Or at the very least, an experienced, mature, live-in nanny.

lifestartsnow February 24, 2013 at 2:04 pm

sadly, “domestic violence” is not really part of any AP training and when suddenly having to face such a situation it’s more than difficult for the AP to think straight and see what is so clear to us on the outside: getting out of that situation NOW.
what should be shared with APs is information on where to get help when child abuse (verbal, physical) is witnessed/noticed. there is no whistleblower option for APs – they see something and they know when they report it they’re out. so more often than not APs do not act as they maybe would if they wouldn’t be in such a dependent situation.

what i wish the agency had done in this case was take the family off the program immediately and take the AP to a safe place (friends, LCCs home etc) before allowing her to rematch. yes, the AP is an adult but like i said i don’t think she is in a position to make sound decisions at this time because she sees her $ and time invested in education, she sees her rematch, she sees the potential to having to fly home if the rematch fails — all of that puts tremendous pressure on her for “trying to work it out” with this family. [i’ve been there, i’ve done that — thankfully not with any violence involved though]

ultimately, there are resources for the mother, there are resources for the children but where is the AP going to turn to other than her agency? that is why i think the agency should step up and act. this isn’t just a divorce (which many APs have worked their way through), this is a bitter break-up that turned violent.

i hope the AP is able to make the right choices for herself (yes, it’s time to be selfish now!).

BeenThere April 14, 2013 at 9:52 am

I have been the mother in this situation, and I am sad that there doesn’t seem to be anyone concerned about how she is going to manage now that she’s got a restraining order against the host dad and two babies. My husband physically assaulted me when I was nine months pregnant with my twins – and I already had a two year old. It was the first and only time he physically assualted me. In New York, under the restraining order I received against him, he faced up to 7 years in jail if he violated it, so he left. That is, he left me with a two year old and two newborns. I had no support from family or friends nearby, so I heavily relied on my nanny. At that time, it wasn’t an au pair, but just a live-out nanny. When she decided not to come to the house any more because she was afraid for herself, over the Christmas holiday, I could not find any other childcare help. Since I was up around the clock nursing two babies, I had no sleep, and I was not capable of finding substitute childcare at that time. I eventually found a rhythm where I slept once every four hours for 20 minutes, like the austronauts do when they are in space, and I was able to survive until I found substitute child care. Most people will tell you that if there has not been a long history of domestic violence, and you are dealing with people who can financially afford a home and live in child care, a restraining order against the violent offender is going to stop the violence in most cases. So, I suggest that you definitely find out the whole story of what has gone on before between your host mom and host dad, but please do not abandon the host mom and most of all her small children just because you are afraid for yourself. Most likely, you have nothing to worry about other than putting small children in a bad situation by your own actions.

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