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Library Latchkeys : Children Left Alone Amid the Bookshelves Create Perplexing Problem

Times Staff Writer

It’s a sign of the times.

“All children running loose will be towed away and stored at owner’s expense.”

The sign, a humorous approach to a serious problem, was posted this week at Pomona Public Library. But the same sign could go up at libraries all over the San Gabriel Valley, where concerned staff members are grappling with the growing problem of unsupervised “latchkey” children of elementary school age and younger who spend long hours at the library instead of at home or at day-care centers.

The problem came to light late last year when Penny Markey, children’s services coordinator for the county public library system, received a phone call from a desperate librarian.

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“She said she had dozens of kids using the library for child care,” Markey said. So Markey began an informal survey of the system’s 92 libraries to see if the problem was isolated or widespread.

“We found we were providing child care for 1,000 kids part time and half of them full time,” she said.

There are no exact statistics on the number of library latchkey children in the San Gabriel Valley or Los Angeles County.

Markey said that her informal survey showed that the problem exists to some degree in libraries of all sizes and in all neighborhoods. It is a matter of concern to all librarians, who say that leaving children at libraries for extended periods is not only disruptive but also unsafe.

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Markey said that the growing number of working parents and the lack of affordable child-care facilities are forcing more parents to seek what they regard as an adequate and inexpensive solution--a seemingly safe, supervised public facility.

Local librarians say that during the school year, elementary school-age children, often with a younger sibling in tow, show up at the library after school and stay until it closes.

The children, who in the summer often bring their lunch, quickly become bored and restless. Most libraries have after-school and summer programs, such as movies and story hours, but cannot provide them on a continuous basis.

“The kids are disruptive even though I try to keep them quiet,” said Bescye Powell-Burnett, children’s librarian at Hacienda Heights Library, a county branch with a severe library latchkey child problem.

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“They are tired of doing what they have been doing all day in school, but the library is not the place for them to play. It is hard on the kids because they need to play.”

But what is of greatest concern to librarians is the perception that the public library is a safe place to leave children.

“Every library has its bag ladies and dirty old men,” said one librarian who asked not to be identified.

“Every librarian I’ve talked to has a ‘flasher’ story,” said another.

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“Some parents think their kids are safer at the library than at home alone, but this is not true,” said Hal Watson, Pomona city librarian.

“Libraries can be equated with shopping malls--both are public places where anybody could hang out and neither place is where you should leave your child alone for any period of time.

“The library is a public place where anyone can come. We have street people and we have some men who hang around the children’s area. People have the naive view the library is a place where people are safe but this is not the case because we don’t have the staff to watch the children.”

The safety issue arises regardless of where the library is.

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In relatively affluent Arcadia, “the library has become an area where a lot of street people come in for shelter,” said children’s librarian Kathy Meacham. “Some are drunk. The library is not a safe place to leave children because we can’t supervise them.”

And although the typical library latchkey child is there because of working parents, Meacham said that is not always the case.

“Sometimes children are left here nights when we are open because their mothers are taking night classes. One 9-year-old boy was here all day Saturday for several weeks. When we asked him why, he said his mother had a new boyfriend at home.

“People do regard us as a baby-sitting service. One mother phoned and asked if the librarian could sit and read books to her child while she shopped.”

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Although some libraries report severe problems, others say it is only a minor annoyance. No one knows why some libraries are more attractive than others to latchkey children.

A pleasant environment may explain the problem in Arcadia, which has a large air-conditioned library near several schools.

In Alhambra, however, children’s librarian Marj Rubinfeld reports that her crowded library does not attract many latchkey children.

“We have seating for only 30 children so the children’s room is not a comfortable place,” she said. “And we don’t have an after-school program.”

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Powell-Burnett said the Hacienda Heights library, in a middle-class community, has 15 to 20 latchkey children every afternoon. She said one reason might be that the library is close to a school.

Said Pomona’s Watson, “Our library is within walking distance of kids who come from a lower-income environment and it is spacious and air-conditioned.”

Most libraries with a problem have instituted a variety of short- term solutions while trying to work out an answer to the situation they fear can only get worse.

If a child is alone at closing time, librarians try to locate the parents rather than turning them out on the street. Occasionally it is necessary to call the police.

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Sgt. Michael Aranda of the Industry Sheriff’s Station, which serves La Puente, Industry, Walnut, Diamond Bar, Rowland Heights, Hacienda Heights, Valinda and Bassett, said his station has received only a few calls.

He said that two years ago, a La Puente librarian spent two hours after closing time trying to reach a parent and finally called the station.

“In a case like that,” he said, “we pick up the child and take him home. If nobody is home, we take him to the station. If the child is under age 10, we would write a report and the Department of Public Social Services would be responsible. The parent is taking a chance on being investigated by the DPSS for lack of parental supervision.”

Detective Allen Maxwell of the Pomona Police Department said that if a parent cannot be found, the police call the social services department. He said he would discourage parents from leaving their young children unsupervised in a library for any length of time.

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“Any public place that is unsupervised presents extreme danger to juveniles age 13 and under,” he said. “A perverted person goes any place where kids gather and would think a library the ideal spot.”

In Pomona, Watson said, “we called the police once to report a child was not getting proper supervision. We had been unable to contact the parent, who was very upset that we had reported the situation to the police.

“We prefer that parents stay with the younger children or leave them but come back in a reasonable time. One of our signs states that children may not be left unattended for more than 15 minutes, but this is ignored.”

In Hacienda Heights, Powell-Burnett said she has asked parents, not to leave their children in the library alone for more than an hour, and that she has talked to school principals about the problem.

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Arcadia’s Meacham said, “We are trying to get the school district to institute after-school programs and also get the Parks and Recreation department involved. We are still feeling our way because this is a relatively new problem that cropped up only in the last couple of years. But we would like to get all the agencies together and do something as a group.”

The county library’s Markey said, “We are adding more programs in libraries where there are a lot of children, but we can’t provide full-time after-school programming.

“We can provide child-care information for local parents and will work with other agencies.”

Markey has devised a variety of stopgap solutions but said most of them will not really solve the problem. The library has contacted individual parents, explaining that the library does not provide child care, and offers lists of local child care facilities. But, she said, parents generally respond angrily, incensed that their child is accused of being a problem and that their solution for child care is inappropriate.

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She said the library could enforce a policy that kept unattended children out of the library during after-school hours or placed limits on the amount of time they could stay, but she fears this would be unenforceable.

And she said that adding after-school programming and activities would be a drain on already-strained library resources.

She has also considered a program under which the county library system would work with other community agencies to develop solutions, and another in which the library would seek volunteers to monitor, tutor and lead activities to provide suitable supervision.

“But a program using volunteers, while giving the kids something to do, would just encourage the situation,” Markey said.

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In a report to her librarians, Markey said, “Restrictive library policies may alleviate the symptoms in the short run but restricting access to library buildings and materials is discriminatory.

“The problem is a social one and is caused in part because parents lack information and have limited solutions for child-care problems.

“Ultimately what is needed is a unified community approach to dealing with these problems.”


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