Decked out in their pajamas, Bodhi, Kai, Drake and Roman colored with markers and listened to a complete stranger read aloud √Pete the Cat while their moms and dads slipped out the front door.
That the young boys didn’t know Melissa Rincon meant little; meeting new sitters is old hat when you’re between the ages of 3 and 6. But tonight, their parents had only met Rincon 15 minutes earlier when she knocked on Jodi Gallant’s door and introduced herself as the babysitter from the Internet.
In a matter of minutes, Gallant versed Rincon, 24, about acceptable snacks, bedtime tricks and procedures for operating the television remote, while Drake and Roman’s mom checked out her vibe. Feeling assured, the parents were then on their way to the SoHo Beach House.
“Good luck,” Gallant said.
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This version of date night, facilitated by your friendly online babysitter service, is becoming the norm as parents in South Florida and around the country increasingly turn to the Internet to find sitters and other child-care services. At a time when babysitting horror stories are just a Google search away, moms and dads are hiring strangers to watch their kids based on website profiles and clean record guarantees rather than hiring a friend of a friend or the high school senior from church.
They are finding sitters in virtual marketplaces, or filling out forms online and waiting for the nanny to arrive. And for those who need to book their sitters on the go, there’s an app for that, too.
Gallant’s husband, Stuart Sheldon, calls the service “convenient” and trustworthy.
“These guys are great. I had no hesitancy at all,” he said of TLC for Kids, the Miami company that employs Rincon.
But to others, the concept is unimaginable.
“We would never go online to hire a sitter,” said Teresa Becerra, a writer whose son has autism. “Regardless if our child was special needs or not, that’s just crazy.”
There are without a doubt millions of babysitters seeking work online, and plenty of parents finding them — and good money in being the middle man.
In the United States alone, there were 61 million children 14 years and younger during the spring of 2011, according to a U.S. Census report released this month. Depending on the source, the country’s child-care market has been estimated between $47 billion and $240 billion in combined services and goods.
Venture capitalists put the online market at a couple billion, easy.
Sandy Miller, a general partner of Institutional Venture Partners, which in August helped provide $50 million in financing to a leading Internet care provider, Care.com, has called the market “a global need without demographic or geographic limitations.”
“We’re in an early phase of the trend, really,” he said of Internet-facilitated care. “It’s not going to completely replace the kid next door babysitting, but it’s going to be a big part of the way parents find their child care.”
Through sites like Care.com and Sittercity, parents can become members for a fee — somewhere between roughly $35 and $140, depending on length and services — and gain access to thousands of sitters or nannies in South Florida who post their credentials on the sites. Users can find sitters like Rebeca F., the 37-year-old clinical psychologist who says she was laid off by Jackson Health System, and Candice J., the 21-year-old Broward College freshman studying to become a social worker.
Parents pay sitters directly.
But drawing sitters to these sites may have been the easy part. The largest roadblock to success has been user confidence.
“Since finding child care is an extremely trust-based decision, some parents had reservations going online because they were accessing a network of ‘strangers,’ ” said Melissa Marchwick, a spokeswoman for Sittercity, created in 2001. But she said through background checks, bios and a recommended screening, “parents often end up with much more information about who they are hiring through Sittercity than if they had found the individual through their personal network.”
Together, the two sites attract about 2.6 million unique visitors each month, according to the website analytics firm Compete.
Still, there have been a few disasters. A California man who advertised on both Sittercity and Care.com was charged in 2011 with molesting two boys he was paid to babysit.
“It’s not foolproof,” said Adam Koopersmith, a partner with New World Ventures, which has invested millions in Sittercity. “We’re playing a matchmaking service. You still have to do your references and your work. We help provide guidelines and questions to ask and how to try and prevent some of this stuff from happening. And I think the vast majority of folks who work with Sittercity have great outcomes.”
It’s the idea of being in the unfortunate minority that can be mortifying.
“It’s a little terrifying at first,” said Silvia Zavala Garcia-Serra, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom who lives on Key Biscayne with her attorney husband and daughter, 2.
Garcia-Serra said she used a local franchise of Seeking Sitters for the first time a year ago after the sitter she trusted with her baby moved back to Mexico. A friend told her she knew a company representative and said that the service screens and backgrounds its sitters. Longing for a night out, and with her lone South Florida family member living in Doral, she gave it a shot.
“I think I called the owner like five times when I was having dinner,” she said. “Are you sure she’s not going to kidnap my daughter? You know where she lives right? You have a current picture?”
Now she uses the site regularly.
As more parents are willing to consider the Internet to source sitters, and more are won over, local options are increasing. In Miami, that includes TLC for Kids, which came to Miami in January after 20-plus years operating in St. Louis, and MiamiBabysitters.net. Parents can also turn to Just Ask Boo, and Florida Atlantic University, to name a few sources.
Some of these services go by the marketplace model. Others, like TLC for Kids, are more like nanny services that have adapted to the Internet.
Co-president Sharon Graff-Radell argues that a service that sends its own employees is the better model, because companies like hers are liable for damages and therefore are sending employed sitters who have been vetted more thoroughly. She said sites that register millions of sitters may not catch everyone who has a red flag in their background, or who isn’t qualified to watch kids.
“The problem with these online sites is people have a false sense of security,” she said. “They’re Internet companies. They’re not child-care companies. They’re the Amazon.com of child care.”
Graff-Radell said TLC lets registered users submit jobs and then the company connects them for a fee with one of its sitters, all of whom have minimum credentials like CPR certification, and have undergone fingerprinting and background checks. Families can also request sitters they’re familiar with.
“I have to take responsibility for everyone I send out, so it’s safer to use a service like mine than really to hire the high school kid two blocks away,” she said.
That commitment, a bio they received about TLC employee Rincon, and a phone conversation the night before was enough to make Jodi Gallant, her husband and their friends visiting with their boys from California feel comfortable. Rincon said she works at a day care at Florida International University, where she’s studying early childhood education.
“She called me and wanted to know what the boys were interested in, and she brought her own coloring books. Most babysitters never do that,” said Gallant as Rincon got to know her kids. “I just instantly felt a good feeling.”
Then Rincon brought out the goody bag and Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes. And with the boys distracted by the story of how Pete stepped in a pile of strawberries, the parents quietly headed to Miami Beach.
“We don’t want to make too big a deal of it,” said Drake and Roman’s mom, Shawn Forbes. Outside, with her arms to the sky, she shouted: “Date night!”
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