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Octuplets' mom has tough balancing act with media

Nadya Suleman has repeatedly pleaded with the paparazzi to leave her and her 14 children alone. But the mother of octuplets has a much more complex relationship with the media than, say, A-list celebrities trying to maintain their privacy.

Almost from the moment she gave birth, those close to her say, Suleman understood one thing: To provide for her family, she was going to have to sell their story.

And Suleman has been selling. For nearly a month, she's been the star of regular "video diaries" on celebrity website RadarOnline. Suleman has appeared on " Dr. Phil" 7 times and escorted "Dateline NBC" and "The Insider" into the hospital to see her babies. On Tuesday, the New York photo agency Polaris Images began selling glossy, posed photos of Suleman and six of her octuplets inside her La Habra home. (Some media outlets say they have not paid her anything; others, such as Polaris, declined to comment.)

But in recent days, Suleman has also been getting some unwanted attention.

Members of the nursing group Angels in Waiting, in a deal brokered by talk-show host Phil McGraw to help care for her children, were fired after they called child protective services and questioned whether Suleman was exploiting her babies. Then, earlier this week, Kaiser Permanente announced that 23 workers had been fired or disciplined for snooping into her records.

The incidents underscore Suleman's difficult balancing act as she tries to protect her children while also providing for them in one of the few ways she can -- by selling access.

Some, including the Angels in Waiting nurses, said they believe Suleman's children might be better off in foster care. But child welfare advocates say their mother should not be condemned simply for selling their story.

"This woman does not care for these kids. . . . She is in here for the paparazzi, the media," Linda West-Conforti, the founder of Angels in Waiting, told McGraw last week.

In news conferences and on television, West-Conforti has described a scene of mayhem at Suleman's house on the night the first two babies came home, with dirty camera cables snaking through the nursery and reporters and their looky-loo family members allowed to wander at will through the house. She said that some reporters screamed at her to "get out of the shot" when she tried to care for the babies and that Suleman sometimes seemed more interested in shopping than in caring for her children.

West-Conforti, no stranger to the cameras and news conferences, has been accused of trying to capitalize on the media, a charge that her attorney denies. Suleman said Angels in Waiting nurses made her feel like a stranger in her own home.

Suleman's expenses are substantial. West-Conforti said Suleman had six nannies during the day and five more at night. Even if the nannies are being paid minimum wage, it comes out to more than $1,000 a day, 365 days a year. Added to that are the costs of housing, feeding and clothing 14 children in Southern California.

The public has a proven appetite for stories about large, multiple-births families -- with at least 10 TV shows in the last year.

But Suleman's case -- a single mother without a job, a secret sperm donor, a feuding family -- was an order of magnitude bigger. And her story broke just as the economy was spiraling down, making her the focus of great populist rage -- her publicist received death threats, and Good Samaritans who helped her have received angry calls and letters.

"The attention is there whether she wants it or not, and she simply tries to deal with it in her own way, which is essentially trying to avoid most of it and wondering if there is some way she can support her family as a result of it," said her attorney Jeffrey Czech. "She can't win; she's stuck. . . . She's not media hungry. . . . She needs a lot of money to survive. It's not like she can get a 9-to-5 job."

Joann Killeen, Suleman's former publicist, said she doesn't necessarily agree with Suleman's course, though she acknowledged it's a Catch-22.

"I would like to see something more strategic, more beneficial that would have longer staying power," Killeen said. "I don't agree with the venue that she's chosen."

Linda Spears, vice president of policy and public affairs for the Child Welfare League of America, said Suleman is in a "very, very difficult situation."

"I think many of the families of multiple-birth children have -- in some way -- supported the needs of the family by selling their story," said Spears, a former Child Protective Services investigator. The difference in Suleman's case, she said, is the number of media outlets willing to pay for her story -- and possibly without paying enough heed to the needs of the children.

Suleman's challenge, she said, is to make good decisions "so she's not overwhelmed managing the media and overwhelmed managing the care."


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