Commentary : Tell Latchkey Children We Care

Constance Underhill is founder of the Placentia Latchkey Project

If an old-fashioned circus pulled its bandwagon through your town today, the majority of the kids jumping on it would be latchkeys; or to use a less offensive and more inclusive term, children in self-care situations.

Up to 80% of children between the ages of 6 and 13 fall into this grouping at some time or another. In Orange County, an estimated 54,000 youngsters return from school each day to either an empty home or one without adult supervision. Often it's because mom and dad are both working and there's nobody available to look after Johnny but himself or a slightly older sibling.

Money might be a factor in why there's no sitter. The length of unsupervised time is another: Mom's just away for a short time, and Shannon does fine for the 15 minutes that stretch to two hours if traffic is bad and there is a line at the store.

Latchkeys are touted as a byproduct of the women's movement. Child care, once a family matter, has been elevated to national concern, and day care centers proliferate as "the answer" to the problem. If results of day care studies are reliable, they solve the problem for children up to age 6 providing, of course, the parents can afford this type of care or can find a vacancy.

The real child care problems begin about age 7. Ironically, many moms postpone working until their children enter school. Satisfactory child care alternatives are severely limited for the 7 to 12 age group. And that's why we have this bandwagon full of unsupervised children.

What's your community offering to compete with the drinking fetes, cheap drugs, cable pornography, free sex and the joys of loitering available to youngsters in contemporary America?

If your community is like mine in Placentia, there is probably nothing organized for children who don't have a nonworking parent and transportation available at random times.

Free programs, such as those sponsored by Parks and Recreation, went out with Proposition 13, so we have a lot more kids excluded from the few organized activities that there are. But that doesn't mean we can't make a few adjustments to accommodate children and ensure that more of them grow up having some of the right experiences.

Parents, of course, have a primary responsibility to supervise their children, and California law prohibits leaving children under the age of 12 at home unattended. The PTA first organized to remedy the latchkey problem caused by the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s. Child labor laws and school attendance laws were the outgrowth of its early efforts.

With school now being the pivotal point of every child's life, this may be the best place to begin reaching out to say: "We care." It's one area where a great deal can be accomplished with a minimal expenditure: The facility is already in place.

Any extension of the school day, as police and fire departments will affirm, results in a reduction of the latchkey problem. So why don't we immediately suspend the minimum school day?

There's void time in every latchkey child's day stretching from the ring of the dismissal bell until mom or dad returns from work. How about some activities to keep them healthfully occupied a couple afternoons a week? After school sports, clubs, game centers--maybe even study halls staffed by high school students--that would utilize facilities already vacated for the day are super; but we again run into that old snag--how are we going to get the kids safely home when there's no parent able to pick them up?

Transportation is a major block when planning programs for children too young to be walking home at dusk. Can we swing a deal with the public transportation system? If Dial-A-Ride will come out for one passenger, would it bend the fare structure each afternoon and take on five children from the same starting point to a neighborhood area for the price of one adult? That would result in a rise in ridership while providing the community service that public transportation is all about.

Some kids are still going to be going home and fending for themselves despite all the programs we might dream up. They should have adult supervision that can be given in some secondhand ways: perhaps by a neighbor they check in with periodically. Employers can be sympathetic about those calls from employees' children and maybe designate a person the kids can report in to and pass messages on to the parent.

After-school help lines, such as PhoneFriend, are easily started ways for a community to say it cares. Legislation, too, is as sorely needed now as it was at the turn of the century. So is money to fund innovative solutions to the real latchkey problem.

The government could legitimize child care earnings by declaring them exempt from income taxes and by providing such incentives as tax credits, to attract women in marginally profitable jobs into providing child care in their home.

There's no way to make an overnight difference in something as complex as the latchkey problem. But a simple program can make a difference to a child caught up in the latchkey life style and give that child some memory to carry into adulthood almost as warming as the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

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