February 24, 1992 12:00 PM

On Dec. 2, William and Denise Fischer kissed their 3-month-old daughter, Kristie, goodbye and headed out from their comfortable Thornwood, N.Y., home for work—he to his auto-repair shop, she to her job as an accountant. Entrusted with the care of their only child was Olivia Riner, the 20-year-old Swiss au pair whom they had hired with glowing references from the EF Au Pair agency in Cambridge, Mass., one month earlier. It was, police have said, tragically misplaced trust. At about 5:30 P.M. that afternoon, someone doused the infant in lighter fluid and set her, and the house, afire. The culprit, police have said, was the baby-sitter. Riner has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and arson. Until her trial later this year, the Fischers must live with the agony of their loss and with the wrenching possibility that, if Riner is indeed guilty, they delivered their daughter into the hands of a killer.

For working parents across the country, that is the unspoken nightmare: the wonderful new nanny—the one whose references were sound, whose thoughts on child-care were informed, whose smile was loving and bright—becomes, in the unseen moments when Mom and Dad are at work or out to dinner, a cruel, even vicious abuser. It is just such a terrifying possibility that has propelled the thriller The Hand that Rocks the Cradle—about a deceptively charming live-in baby-sitter (Rebecca De Mornay) who wreaks havoc on the family for whom she works—to No. 1 at the box office for four weeks, grossing more than $50 million.

Fortunately, in real life such child-care horror stories are extremely rare, and the risks can be minimized (see box, page 64). Still, there are an estimated 8.5 million children under 13 in the U.S. who are left with strangers while their parents are at work. Working mothers and fathers sometimes must turn to whatever help is immediately available or affordable—an informal neighborhood day-care center, acquaintances, the people next door. As the stories below attest, trust can be misplaced—with tragic results.

Her daughter blinded, a mother fights for change

At first glance Elizabeth Phillips seems like any bright and active 9-year-old. And then you notice her eyes. One is unfocused, and the other is a disturbing milky blue. Two white canes lean against a door in her family’s home in Northern California, a constant reminder to Mary Beth Phillips, 37, of her daughter’s blindness—and of her own battle to save other children from the kind of abuse that led to it.

On June 8, 1983, Mary Beth, dashing to an afternoon psychology class at the California School of Professional Psychology, left 6-month-old Elizabeth at the home of her neighbors, Gordon and Sue Piper, under the care of Colette Andrews, their live-in baby-sitter. Colette, Man Betb recalls, “was not the warmest person I’d ever met.” But Mary Beth told herself, “She must be competent or she wouldn’t be there.” Three hours later Mary Beth returned for Elizabeth only to be greeted with the news that her daughter had been taken to Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley. The little girl was in a coma, her eyes bleeding internally. When the infant recovered consciousness 10 days later, her right side was paralyzed, and she could not hold up her head. She suffered frequent seizures and she screamed endlessly from the pain.

Several surprises emerged at Colette’s trial for felony child abuse. For one, Colette’s name had once been Gregory. Second, the baby-sitter was in the midst of a sex change and was in the process of becoming a woman. A doctor testified that Colette had shaken the 16-lb. infant so violently—12 to 15 times estimated one child-abuse expert—that blood vessels in the little girl’s eyes had burst. Colette maintained that the Piper family’s West Highland terrier had done the damage, but a court-appointed veterinarian testified that the dog could not have inflicted the injuries. The animal had a heart murmur, he said, and would have died of such exertion.

Even more shocking than Colette’s crime was the light sentence imposed on her following her conviction for felony child abuse: a $100 fine, five years probation and 2,000 hours of community service. Judge Martin Pulich also said that Colette could continue to work with children; he said he was unwilling to take away her right to earn a living. (A year later he amended his ruling, adding that Andrews’s contact with children must be court approved.) Mary Beth and her husband, Bob, 42, a health-care consultant, were furious. “It stunned me,” says Mary Beth, who is earning her doctorate in clinical psychology. “It seemed immoral to let this person go and be a nanny again.”

Immediately after the sentencing, Mary Beth telephoned Bonnie Reeves, whose son, Evan, had also been the victim of child abuse and had shared a hospital room with Elizabeth. The two mothers began lobbying state and local politicians to establish a licensing system for baby-sitters. Last year the stale opened Trustline, a phone-in service that parents can contact to check the name and fingerprints of a prospective nanny for child-abuse and other criminal records. As for Elizabeth, she has developed into a bright, talkative child who loves to play the piano by ear—but is blind for life. She calls the idea of licensing baby-sitters the Big Rule for Grownups. Says Elizabeth: “If people are going to do bad things to kids, they should go to jail.”

An abusive nanny is caught by a camcorder

When, early last September, 2-year-old Stevie Lewis began striking her head and chanting, “Martha, Martha. Martha,” her father, John, 37, busy changing her diapers, looked up in surprise. Neither he nor his wife, Betty, 30, ever hit their only child, and they had given their baby-sitter, Martha Mendoza, a Mexican citizen who lived with the family in their northern Los Angeles home, explicit instructions about nonviolent discipline. Momentarily alarmed, Lewis, a field rep for an oil company, asked, “Did Martha hit you?” But the 2-year-old said no more, and Lewis let it slide. Mendoza, who had lived with them for eight months, was a wonderful nanny—of this he felt sure. She was cheerful, helpful around the house, and most important, she had always been warm and loving toward Stevie.

So it was with genuine consternation in the following weeks that both he and Betty noticed their daughter begin to cry whenever they handed her to Mendoza. “It was different from her usual crying,” says Lewis. “Louder—and grating.” Then, on the morning of Sept. 23, Lewis was eating breakfast in the family’s modern, two-story home when, over the monitor that piped sounds from upstairs into the kitchen, he heard Stevie in the bedroom. “She was talking to herself and playing and singing,” says Lewis. But the moment Mendoza entered the nursery, Stevie started to scream.

On an impulse, Lewis headed for the family room, where his video recorder was perched on top of the television, pointed the lens toward the kitchen and pushed the on button. He did not tell Betty, who’d already left for her job as a computer programmer in Woodland Hills, an hour’s drive away. Says Lewis: “I never thought Stevie was actually being hit. I just wanted to find out what was going on.”

When Lewis returned home that evening, he switched the video camera off. Later, when everyone had gone to bed, he sat down to watch the 90-minute tape. At first he saw nothing unusual. But then the picture showed Martha carrying Stevie into the kitchen and placing her on the counter to feed her. When the child refused to eat, Mendoza reprimanded Stevie harshly. Next she reached for a wooden spoon on the counter and, as Lewis watched in horror, began hitting Stevie on the head with it, then throwing his daughter to the floor. As the child wailed, Mendoza screamed furiously, “Shut up!”

“I looked at her crying, and I felt so helpless, so guilty,” says Lewis. “Daddy couldn’t be there. It hurt. I felt I had placed my child in the hands of the devil.” Trembling with anger, Lewis went upstairs, woke Betty and showed her the tape. Then they called the local sheriff’s office, whose deputies watched the tape that night before arresting Martha on the spot.

Mendoza pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, cruelty to children, served two months in jail and was deported upon release. Happily, the damage to Stevie seems minimal, but her parents remain shaken. “I don’t think there’s a foolproof way of screening someone,” says John. Betty agrees. “I couldn’t believe [Mendoza] would do such a thing, because of the loving way she’d handled Stevie when we were around,” she says. These days while her parents are at work, Stevie spends her time in a preschool and sometimes with a trusted neighbor. “John might hire another nanny,” says Betty, “but I’m not prepared to do that ever again.”

An infant’s cries allegedly provoke a deadly beating

It was New Year’s Eve morning 1991—and Heidi Jensen was not in a good mood. While others prepared for the night’s festivities, the pretty 28-year-old was contending with a houseful of noisy kids in the small day-care center she ran at her home as well as grooming her beloved poodle, Scooter. Jensen’s neighbors in Arapahoe County, Colo., 15 miles southeast of Denver, had been complaining about the dog’s barking and, in fact, were demanding that she give him away. As the young woman trimmed Scooter’s curly black coat with a pair of electric clippers, little Jacqueline Rosenfield began to cry.

Jensen had been caring for the 10-month-old girl and her brother, Eric, 2, for a week. Their parents, Edward, 28, an engineer, and Susanna, 26, were new to the state, had full-time jobs and needed a 9-to-5 sitter. They found Jensen through a classified ad she had placed in a local paper. Now, as Jacqueline lay on the floor, uncomfortable from teething, her shrieks rose above the buzz of Jensen’s razor.

It was a racket, police say, that the woman just couldn’t bear. At about 9:30 A.M., they charge, while other toddlers—including Jensen’s own 2-year-old daughter, Stephanie—played in the next room, she allegedly grabbed the teary child and, clenching the clippers, struck Jacqueline’s head again and again and again, fracturing her skull twice—and silencing her forever. On Jan. 4, Jensen was charged with second-degree murder and felony child abuse.

Jensen, who denies all the allegations, claims Jacqueline died from falling backward off the second step of a staircase onto a carpeted floor. The coroner’s report, however, showed Jacqueline’s tiny head marred by several bruises and cuts, including one horrifyingly precise imprint of a broken screw from the electric clippers Jensen had been using to groom her poodle. Since her arrest, many who know Jensen have come forward with tales of past neglect and abuse. Jeremy Jensen, 15, the son of Heidi’s ex-husband, Richard Jensen, who lived with Heidi between 1989 and 1991, told police that on several occasions he saw his stepmother strike children and throw them on the floor. As Heidi’s former sister-in-law, who has asked not to be named, told police: “I don’t think there’s one single child in that house that ever got good care.”

On Jan. 2, Suzanne and Edward Rosenfield laid Jacqueline to rest in Philadelphia and retreated into private mourning. Police believe the tragedy might have been averted. Says Arapahoe County sheriff Patrick Sullivan: “Parents did have concerns—unexplained bruises and fears. But they didn’t report these things to the government. They just pulled their kids out.”

“She was my first sitter ever,” says one of those parents, a receptionist in a doctor’s office (she also requests that her name not be printed) who hired Jensen without references to care for her 14-month-old son. “I just kind of went with her.” Alarmed by her son’s swollen lip and black-and-blue nose, she told police, she removed him from Jensen’s care after six weeks. Eleven days later Jacqueline was dead. “I was mortified. I learned a very hard lesson,” she says of the tragedy. “All I can say is thank God I still have a child to worry about.”

A trusted friend moves in, then steals a little boy

Little Tony never liked his mother’s friend, Stacy Bolton, but Marie Brown wrote off his feelings as boyish petulance. A single mother of two boys—Antonio (Tony), then 23 months, and his older brother, Gavino, 3—Marie welcomed the company of the outgoing, intelligent 17-year-old woman who had moved in across the hall in her Lansing. Mich., apartment building in the summer of 1988. The two had much in common, and Marie felt that Bolton understood her problems: Both were young, on their own, unemployed and short on cash. Also, Bolton seemed to adore the boys, especially Tony. “She always wanted to watch Tony, to feed him,” says Brown. About a month after they met, money got so light for Bolton that she had to give up her apartment. Brown didn’t think twice before inviting her new friend to move in. “She seemed like a decent and respectable person,” says Brown.

On Sept. 10, 1988, Marie asked Bolton to watch Tony while she went to a friend’s to do laundry. (Gavino was away, staying with Brown’s mother.) Within an hour, however, Marie grew tense. “I felt there was something wrong with Tony,” she says. “I wanted to go home.” When she arrived, she found a note in Bolton’s handwriting. “It said she was going to a friend’s and would be back.”

But Bolton didn’t come back. In fact she was on her way to a local truck stop where, tearfully claiming to be an abused wife trying to get away from her husband, she and “her son” hitched a ride out of town. “That night I walked up and down the streets looking for her,” says Brown. In the morning she called the police.

Brown’s nightmare—and Bolton’s estimated 4,000-mile cross-country flight—ended two weeks alter it began. Acting on a tip from a trucker who had seen Bolton’s picture on an FBI wanted flyer, authorities picked her up outside Lafayette, La. Back in Lansing, Bolton pleaded guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to one year in prison—but offered neither apology nor explanation. Indeed, Brown can only speculate on why Bolton took her son. “She had always talked to me about having a baby boy,” she says.

Physically, Tony was unharmed. But at night, for several months, says Brown, “he’d wake up screaming, and there wasn’t anything I could do to quiet him down.” Today, Brown depends mostly on relatives to help with baby-silting as she tries to earn her high-school equivalency degree. “Stacy liked Tony so much, I thought I could trust her,” she says, watching her energetic boys run through the apartment. “Now if my kids don’t like someone, I don’t like them either.”

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER

DORIS BACON in Los Angeles, JONI H. BLACKMAN in Arapahoe County, DIANNA WAGGONER in San Francisco and FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Lansing

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