The odd case of a naked nanny

A sitter removes her clothes at a 4-year-old's request. Now a debate rages: Is it forgivable?

Published May 1, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - To many in the Old Northeast neighborhood where Sarah Slicker lived and babysat, she was a Mary Poppins-like figure with a brilliant smile, bubbly disposition and a natural ability with children.

Slicker began babysitting at age 12. She taught Bible classes, helped with Sunday school and worked in the nursery at First United Methodist Church. Her church awarded her a college scholarship and she graduated from Florida Southern College with a degree in pre-K education.

She hoped to become a child psychologist.

So when a Snell Isle family that attends First United Methodist was looking for a nanny, a church employee recommended Slicker.

The arrangement lasted for three months until the day in January 2004 when Slicker made a life-changing mistake.

She was fast-forwarding through a James Bond movie, Die Another Day, when a sex scene appeared. The 4-year-old boy in her care demanded she take off her clothes. Slicker complied, and let him touch her.

The incident shocked those who knew the 23-year-old Slicker. It also split a neighborhood and a church. Some rallied behind her, refusing to believe it happened. Others felt she should go to prison. Parents who had used her for babysitting quietly grilled their children, some of them already in college.

Her outrageous actions became the buzz of the Old Northeast and fodder for Internet bloggers around the world debating what kind of punishment was enough.

Today, Slicker sits in jail, labeled a sex offender. She maintains her actions were not sexual, but a horrible moment that was the result of so many other horrible moments. She snapped from overwork, stress and depression.

"I knew this was wrong," she said during an interview. "It was really hard, it's still hard, to accept that I'd do something so crazy. . . . People are always like, "What were you thinking?' and I say, "I wasn't.' "

The boy's mother said Slicker is a sexual predator whose innocent demeanor makes her all the more dangerous.

"She's young. She's energetic. She has childhood experience with children and she's the biggest threat to mothers and parents in this world because she's not going to be assumed a predator," said the mother, whose name is being withheld to protect her son's identity.

A gynecologist, she walked in on Slicker and her son - and she can't get the image out of her head.

* * *

Slicker didn't want the job at first, even though she was trying to save money for graduate school. She already was babysitting for two other families three nights a week, helping her grandmother, and petsitting for another family.

But the mother was persistent. She and her husband, who sells medical devices, were busy career people who needed someone who would be flexible to look after their 4-year-old son and his 15-month old sister.

Slicker admitted she wasn't good at saying no.

She took the job in September 2003, she said, understanding it would be 35 to 40 hours a week. But before long, it grew to 55 to 65 hours a week. The family said there was never an agreement that the hours would be limited, and Slicker was allowed to have the other jobs as long as it didn't interfere with their needs.

Soon, Slicker estimated, she was working 100 hours a week on all the jobs combined.

She became frazzled and forgetful. She locked her keys in her car at least four times. She would go days without showering or changing her clothes. She gained 30 pounds.

"Part of the problem was that I had a lot of guilt from feeling overwhelmed," Slicker said. "It was so difficult for me to admit I was in over my head. I've wanted to be a parent my whole life and it was hard for me to admit I couldn't handle a parent's schedule."

The 4-year-old's mother said she noticed Slicker appeared more disheveled, but chalked it up to adjusting to the family's schedule.

Friends and family, however, urged Slicker to get out. Two other mothers offered to pay Slicker the $400 to $450 a week she was making in the nanny job for far fewer hours. She refused, saying she had committed to the family for a year.

"I thought she was going to jump off the Skyway Bridge," said Elizabeth Johnson, 38. Slicker babysat her three children for more than a decade. "She looked awful. She went from everyone's favorite babysitter to a complete zombie. She was a shell of a human being. It was a rapid decline."

Slicker also was struggling with the 4-year-old boy. In December 2003, friends and parents like Johnson said Slicker complained to them that he had grabbed at her breasts and her buttocks.

The boy's mother acknowledged her son exhibited the behavior before Slicker arrived, but said it increased during her tenure.

Slicker wasn't sure how to deal with it all.

* * *

On Jan. 2, 2004, the boy's father took his son out fishing with friends. The two returned home in the afternoon so Slicker could get the boy ready for a tennis lesson.

The boy asked if he could watch the James Bond movie. The 35-year-old father, recalling the moment in a deposition, said Slicker mentioned it might be too violent.

"I said, "Sarah, you take control of the remote. I want you to fast-forward through the parts that - you've got 15 minutes maximum, you know, so probably you're going to get started on it and leave, but that's fine."

Slicker fast-forwarded through the movie's dicey parts, but the boy saw a sex scene, she said. He turned to her and demanded she take off her clothes.

Slicker removed her shirt, jeans and Birkenstocks and then lay down on the couch.

It was easier, she says, to do what the boy told her than to fight it. She didn't care about anything anymore. She felt hopeless, powerless and robotic, she said.

"It was like, "Let's get it over with. It's a body.' I was that dispassionate about everything. It wasn't worth an argument or a struggle. I didn't want to deal with any more pressure from a 4-year-old."

The boy leaned in and touched her breast. Then he "touched her vaginal area with his finger," according to the police report. Slicker remembers him doing it but she felt nothing.

The boy's mother walked in. Neither Slicker nor the boy noticed her. The mother said the drapes were drawn, so it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.

She noticed a figure on the L-shaped couch, and realized it was Slicker. Her son was sitting between the nanny's legs.

"What are you doing?" the 34-year-old mother said. She said it again, louder.

Her son jumped down and hid behind the couch. It dawned on Slicker that she was naked. She jumped up and said "Oh my God," three times.

She ran into another room and got dressed.

* * *

On her way to the police station to turn herself in, Slicker called the parents and left a message saying she was sorry.

The couple was still stunned. After feeding their children and putting them to bed, they sat on the couch, wondering what to do.

"We couldn't believe that she would be a person that would do this type of thing," the father said in the deposition. "We were worried about the fact that she might have to go to prison."

Later that night, Slicker called the boy's parents from jail. Could they post her bail?

"We were dumbfounded," the father said. "We said "Sarah, you need to call your parents. We can't talk anymore.' "

Slicker was charged with lewd and lascivious molestation, a first-degree felony that could have sent her to prison from 61/2 to 30 years.

It was a cliff fall for a girl who had shown so much promise. Slicker's parents refused to believe it was anything but a mistake.

"I don't know that there is a better person," said her father, Michael Slicker, a 25-year resident of the Old Northeast. "We know that Sarah is not a sex offender. Sarah has never approached any child with any sexual or malicious intent, any time, anywhere."

As she waited for the trial to start, Slicker worked in her father's antique book store and took her dog, Bonnie, to the Crescent Lake dog park. That's where she met Kevin Smith, a mechanic. He became her boyfriend.

She told him about the charges, but it was hard. "It was terrifying to consider what other people might be thinking," Slicker said.

Over and over, the incident played out in her dreams like a color reel, only she messed with the footage.

What if she had gotten the child ready for tennis?

What if she had turned off the movie?

What if she hadn't taken her clothes off?

* * *

The parents of the 4-year-old didn't buy Slicker's exhaustion explanation.

"She worked for us for nine out of 12 weeks," the mother said. "She had three weeks of paid vacation. She was not making any life-changing decisions. I mean, she's playing with kids. I'm out delivering 15 babies a month and seeing 100 patients a week. She's a college graduate. This is what her degree was in. She's so exhausted she strips down naked? It's a joke."

The trial began in February. The boy did not testify. Slicker did, sobbing through her story.

"She came across like a 4-year-old child herself," said prosecutor Stephanie Bergen, who was pregnant during the trial. "She was just kind of almost clueless about what she was saying and how she was justifying it. She didn't really grasp - I don't know if she'll ever grap - what she did and the trauma she caused this child."

Slicker's lawyer, Debora Moss had commissioned a psychological analysis of Slicker, who said she was a virgin (Slicker and her family say she was not sexually abused as a child).

The psychologist reported Slicker's "sexuality was nonexistent," she was not a "sexual deviant," and she did not derive sexual pleasure from the incident, the report said. But the jury didn't get to see it because, under Florida law, Slicker could not argue that she had suffered from "diminished capacity."

Jurors immediately agreed something wrong had happened and Slicker needed to be punished. But not all thought she was guilty of molestation. Since she had not touched the boy, it had to be proven that she "enticed" him to touch her. After more than three hours of debate, the jury found Slicker guilty of lewd and lascivious exhibition, a second-degree felony punishable by a maximum of 15 years in prison and a minimum of probation.

"We kind of all went back and forth and they had this word, entice, and "did she entice the child?' " said Joanna Butler, 35, a nurse who served on the jury.

"We decided "No, she didn't.' "

* * *

As Slicker's sentencing loomed on Feb. 25, Circuit Judge Brandt Downey III received more than 100 letters.

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Robert L. Ulrich, who attends the same church, wrote that Slicker's "reputation for reliability and integrity has been sterling." Retired Methodist Bishop James Lloyd Knox called her a "sweet but very naive, disorganized young woman" who he believes "when she says hers was not a sexual act."

Many of the letter writers pleaded with Downey to give Slicker probation rather than prison.

"All I ask, on Sarah's behalf, is that you consider the whole person, and not just the isolated event," wrote friend Rachel Price. "Sarah is a sweet, loving, compassionate person who made an error in judgment under stress."

Others urged Downey to punish Slicker, and treat her the same as a man.

"I understand that it is difficult for most persons to accept that women may be pedophiles," wrote Robert L. Arnold, professional development coordinator at the Hospice Institute of the Florida Suncoast. "We wish to see women as benevolent and nurturing. However, Ms. Slicker's behavior was clearly intentional and predatory and her sentencing must be reflective of this."

At Slicker's sentencing, about 200 people crowded into the courtroom. The boy's family passed out stickers that read, "Protect our Children." Many of Slicker's babysitting families sat behind her.

Parishioners from First United Methodist sat on different sides of the courtroom.

The boy's mother told the judge she was worried how the incident would affect her son's perception of women and sex in the future. And she was "overwhelmed" by Slicker's supporters, the mother said. She wondered if they were in denial because they didn't want to think it could happen to their children.

Downey sentenced Slicker to 15 years in prison, but suspended part of it. In the end, he gave her a year in the jail, two years of house arrest and 10 years probation.

"I thought long and hard before I imposed her sentence," Downey said. "You're talking about a relatively young defendant . . . making a terrible mistake."

News of Slicker's conviction and sentencing spread on the Internet with hundreds weighing in on half a dozen blogs. Many thought she had been treated too harshly. Others thought she deserved her fate.

"If you can't disarm a situation where a 4-year-old demands that you get naked with a simple "no' followed by strict instructions to go to his room and wait until his parents get home, then maybe you have not got what it takes to make it in the highly stressful world of babysitting," wrote one person on FARK, a Web site on which an article about Slicker's conviction was read 34,309 times. "Aren't most small children curious about everything?" countered JoeV. "Would it have been "lewd and lascivious' if it had been his mother who complied and showed him her naked body? Bad judgment? Sure. Fire the sitter? Sure. Prison time? I think not."

* * *

A few weeks ago, the gynecologist was driving with her son to Lowe's when out of the blue, he asked if Slicker was still in jail. The mother said yes.

The boy, now 5, paused and said that was good. He had jumped down behind the couch, he said, because he thought he did something wrong. "But you know now that you didn't, right?" the mother replied.

"Yes, I didn't do anything bad. She did," the boy answered.

The parents have vowed never to use a nanny again. A grandmother now cares for the boy and his sister.

Slicker should have received more time in jail, the mother said.

"If this had been a man with my daughter, he would have been convicted and put away for the 30 years maximum," the mother said. "But because it was a woman and she claims it was my son's curiosity, we don't even have a molestation charge."

She is incensed by Slicker's argument about her son's behavior. Her pediatrician said some boys are naturally curious at this age.

"She wanted to blame it on everybody else," the mother said. "It's hard to listen to a 23-year-old blame a 4-year-old."

Slicker cried when she heard the mother doesn't think she has taken responsibility.

"I can't imagine feeling any more guilty or upset than I do," Slicker said. "If she could just understand there was nothing sexual, if I could just let her know for her own peace of mind."

In jail, Slicker cleans the bathrooms and visitor's area and helps the GED teacher with inmates getting their diplomas. She has learned to be a little more assertive and she is on an antidepressant, Lexapro.

She will forever be a registered sex offender, though in 20 years she can apply to have the designation removed. Once she gets out of jail on Oct. 14, she must attend counseling and submit to a polygraph exam each year of her treatment. Any contact with children must be supervised until she has completed her treatment. She can never volunteer or work at a school, park, day care or playground, though she can live within 1,000 feet of them.

Slicker is not sure what she will do when she is released, maybe clerical work.

Her thoughts now are on her wedding to Kevin Smith, the man she met at the dog park last summer. They got engaged over the two-way TV cameras during a jail visit recently. They talk about wedding dresses and tiered cakes.

And when her lawyer showed up to visit, Slicker lowered her head and asked her in a whisper, "Are kids going to be able to be at the wedding?"

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Staff writer Leonora LaPeter can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or 727 893-8640.

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