In Unsafe Hands

After sex abuse charges, a Lake Oswego au pair agency denies placing a woman in harm's way.

She was 18 when she came to Oregon from Germany as an au pair and moved in with an Intel manager and his family in September 2010. She agreed to provide live-in child care so she could go to school and have an enriching cultural experience.

But the young woman says she instead fought off the host father when he touched her breasts and put his hand between her legs. She fled the house and told the police.

Back in Germany, she filed a lawsuit Oct. 5 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, accusing a Lake Oswego au pair placement agency of negligence and fraud.

The suit alleges that US Au Pair Inc. and its owner, Helene Young, knew two previous au pairs had reported sexual advances made by the father, Ashish Gupta.

The suit says Young didn't warn the German woman about Gupta before placing her in his home. The suit—seeking $990,000 in damages—says the woman, now 19, later became suicidal.

Experts say this is the first lawsuit of its kind in the U.S., and it reveals how au pairs lack adequate protection from abuse.

Gupta declined to talk to WW for this story. Young, whose firm was paid $6,000 by Gupta for the placement, denied the allegations.

"There is no basis for the charges," she says. "They are totally unfounded. Anyone who knows me and my organization knows that what is being said is not true."

The U.S. State Department says its au pair program is "a mutually rewarding, intercultural opportunity" for young people (typically women) aged 18 to 26 to study here while working for and living with a host family. 

The State Department has approved 14 au pair placement agencies in the U.S., and ensures au pairs get 32 hours of training in first aid, child development, cultural awareness and other issues. 

What they don't get, placement agencies say, is training on how to deal with sexual harassment.

Edina Stone, founder and CEO of Au Pair Clearinghouse, an online advocacy group, says it's not easy for au pairs to speak up when things go wrong. 

"The au pair agencies have pretty much depended on the fact that these girls are young and foreign," Stone says. "They're here alone, and they don't know how to get legal representation.

"The German au pair did the right thing by bringing the lawsuit, because it's the agency's responsibility to make sure they're screening both sides of the contract."

The lawsuit says US Au Pair's Young told the German woman's father that "the Gupta family had a few au pairs working with them in the past, there had been no problems reported, and the au pairs had enjoyed their experience.” 

Records obtained by WW show that police turned up a very different story.

Washington County sheriff's investigators found notes in US Au Pair's files showing that an au pair in 2009 reported that Gupta had asked if she was a virgin and said he wanted to see her in a bikini.

An investigator interviewed another au pair who said Gupta in 2008 rubbed her thigh and back, told her to leave her bedroom door open, and came into her room and lay down in bed next to her. She reported his behavior to US Au Pair staff, the sheriff's report says, and says Gupta had tried to punish her by refusing to let her attend school.

The German au pair said Gupta touched her inappropriately on five occasions, and that she was initially too scared to say anything when Gupta put his hand between her legs while they sat on a couch. 

At one point, she said, he grabbed her bottom. "She was shocked," the sheriff's report says, "and [he] then asked, 'Can I touch it again?' and she said 'No.' He then said, 'Can I at least smack it?' and she said 'No.' She said he then laughed and made fun of it afterward."

She said she resisted when Gupta kissed her neck and touched her breasts; when she rejected him, Gupta cut her pay and denied her use of the family's car.

When a sheriff's investigator interviewed him, Gupta denied any wrongdoing. He told the investigator that he gave the au pair back rubs, adding, "where he works at Intel, it is common for people to give each other shoulder massages."

The Washington County District Attorney's Office charged Gupta in January with one count each of sexual abuse and harassment, both misdemeanors. Gupta pleaded not guilty and hired Stephen Houze, a well-known Portland criminal attorney. 

The DA dropped the case after the au pair and Gupta reached a civil compromise—a confidential agreement that she wouldn't pursue the case. Gupta is trying to get the record expunged.

Rayney Meisel, Washington County deputy district attorney, says her office didn't agree with the deal but didn't fight it. (The settlement didn't include US Au Pair.)

"The victim was in Germany, and it would have taken a lot for her to be able to come out here,” Meisel says. “A civil compromise was a better situation for her.” 

Au Pair Clearinghouse's Stone hopes the case will encourage placement agencies to screen host families more thoroughly and give au pairs sexual harassment training. 

"There should be an awareness campaign that says if you are abused, if your host parent does something to make you feel uncomfortable, you need to document it," Stone says. “That’s what the agencies should be doing.”