If you’re like most parents, finding a reliable and trustworthy sitter for your children can be an exhausting and heart-wrenching process. Several online companies have tapped in to this need by offering caregiver websites geared toward busy parents who need to find a sitter-- whether it’s for long-term employment or just the occasional stay.
"My schedule is kind of hectic,” says working mom Liliana Martin. "Sometimes I need somebody to be able to come with very short notice. You don’t want to leave your child with someone you don’t fully trust."
But exactly how trustworthy is the information on these sitter websites?
NBC Chicago’s Unit 5 Investigative Team set out to test two popular companies designed to help find a caregiver online: Sittercity, which is based in Chicago, and Care.com, based in Massachusetts.
Both companies offer a wide range of applicants, from sitters and elder care helpers to pet-walkers and house-sitters. For a monthly fee, a prospective employer can sign up and view thousands of profiles of potential applicants. On both sites, a sitter applicant can sign up and create a profile for free.
Unit 5 posted ads seeking sitters on both Sittercity and Care.com. We then sought out four applicants who agreed to create sitter profiles on each site and then apply for our positions as part of our investigation.
Once they applied, we requested background security checks on each of the four applicants.
These background checks are a prominent feature on both Sittercity and Care.com. They range from a basic check of criminal records to more "enhanced" checks, which can include a broader search of criminal records and a check of an applicant’s possible traffic violations.
Sittercity promotes its series of background checks as part of its "four step screening process." The site goes into great detail about what’s included in each type of check, as well as what the limitations are for each type of check.
On both websites, these background checks carry a fee. A complete background check of both of driving and criminal records on Sittercity costs nearly $85.00 for each applicant. On Care.com, the battery of enhanced security background and motor vehicle checks costs a total of $79.00.
Therese He is one mom who thinks it’s worth it.
"Quite honestly, when it comes to the safety of my kids, that gives me a peace of mind," she said. "I would definitely pay for that."
So how did Sittercity and Care.com do on the background checks for Unit 5’s four applicants?
The first applicant who agreed to work with us -- "Caroline" -- passed her Sittercity check with flying colors. The website added a set of badges to her online profile; one showing she’d passed a criminal background check and the other showing she’d passed a screening for traffic violations.
But Caroline has at least three speeding tickets in three different states -- including one in Illinois. Her record is easily accessed on the computer database of Cook County Circuit Court’s traffic records.
Unit 5’s next applicant -- "Dominic" -- was also cleared by both Sittercity and Care.com. He got Sittercity’s badges showing he’d cleared both the criminal and traffic screenings, and on Care.com his clean background record was featured on his profile.
Neither website found what Unit 5 easily uncovered on the computer database of Cook County Criminal Court. Dominic has four separate arrests on his record ranging from charges of criminal damage to property, possession of marijuana, battery with intent to cause bodily harm, and domestic battery. That same database shows that Dominic has received two traffic citations.
But even with this long rap sheet, Dominic has never been convicted of a crime in Cook County, only charged. That may justify why both websites missed him in their background checks. A person is considered innocent unless proven guilty. But it did little to quell the concern of working mom Rhonda Hoff, who’d previously thought Dominic might be a good hire.
"That’s amazing," she said. "Amazing."
Unit 5’s third applicant -- "Jack" -- was flagged by Sittercity for one speeding conviction. The company did not find any criminal record, however, and Jack got a prominent badge added to his sitter profile showing he'd passed the Enhanced Background Check.
But in fact Jack does have a criminal record. He was arrested and charged with felony assault and resisting a police officer and convicted of reckless conduct. He was put on one year’s supervision, fined, and made to undergo drug and alcohol treatment. He was also required to work 100 hours of community service. All of this information is readily accessible online on the database for the criminal court in the county in which Jack resides.
What’s more, Jack also has several speeding tickets.
This was one case where the results were very different at Care.com. Its series of background checks did find Jack’s arres
ts and his speeding tickets. Care.com immediately sent him a letter notifying him that the company was suspending his sitter profile.
Unit 5’s final applicant was "Linda." Once again we paid to run the entire battery of background checks at both Sittercity and Care.com, and Linda was completely cleared by both companies for both criminal and traffic histories. She was awarded the badges and documentation to show it.
The truth, however, is that Linda has been convicted of several counts of prostitution. A quick search of her county’s criminal files reveal the convictions online.
"I feel emotionally betrayed when I hear this," said He. "You trust some of these sites, and you trust that they’ve done the job that they say they do and that you pay them to do. I think it’s just terrible."
Representatives from both Sittercity and Care.com declined Unit 5’s requests for sit-down interviews, but both companies issued statements in direct response to Unit 5’s findings. In part, Sittercity says "each caregiver’s identity is authenticated ... [and] checked against public sex offender registries … If a … check reveals that a caregiver has a criminal record, the caregiver is immediately terminated and removed from the network."
In its statement to Unit 5, Care.com said, in part: "The safety of our community is of paramount concern to us and we are deeply disturbed by these findings … The unfortunate reality is that currently, there is no centralized database encompassing all criminal convictions, charges, arrests and violations..."
LexisNexis, the company that conducts background checks for Sittercity, also released a statement to Unit 5, saying in part that it cannot discuss the details of the companies with which it contracts.
But for moms like Rhonda Hoff, who pay to access these caregiver sites, the expectation that the companies are providing reliable background checks is paramount.
"We're giving them our trust, assuming that they are screening these people, for the protection of the child." she said.