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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CAREERS / BALANCING WORK AND FAMILY : Teens Get Short Shrift When It Comes to Day-Care : Experts say youths are most apt to join gangs and experiment with sex and drugs during these impressionable years.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s hard enough to find good child-care. But what happens when your toddler becomes a teen-ager? What kind of supervised care can working parents plug into when their children reach that crucial age?

Precious little, say parents, child-care consultants and other experts.

“Teen years are the most dangerous time, yet there’s not much available out there for older kids,” concludes Choral Brown, president of Childcare Consulting Services in Culver City.

With two-income families the norm these days, more than 75% of children aged 14-17 have mothers who work, up from 56% 20 years ago. Many of those teens are unsupervised after leaving school. But these are also prime danger years, when experts say youths are most apt to join gangs and experiment with sex and drugs.

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If they are lucky, parents can sign their teens up for after-school programs on campus or at community centers. But not all schools and communities have such programs--especially once kids reach 13. Consider Esther Swisher, an administrative clerk with three teen-agers who lives in Watts and works in Mid-Wilshire. Only one of her teens was able to find an after-school tutoring program, and that meets only two days a week.

For the most part, Swisher’s teens take the bus straight home each afternoon and stay there until she arrives at 6:45 p.m. Throughout the afternoon, Swisher’s office phone may ring numerous times.

One is calling to check in. Another needs help with homework. A third wants permission to visit a friend.

“They complain a lot, they want to be active, but I live between two rival gangs and the biggest problem I face is trying to keep them away from the gangs,” Swisher says. “I sure wish there were more things for them to do. But at least I have a very understanding supervisor when they call me in the afternoons.”

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James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families & Work Institute in New York, says it is crucial for businesses to offer employees flextime and telecommuting options so parents can work at home as needed. Levine would also like to see a readjustment of corporate culture that makes it more acceptable for dads to use flextime too, not just working moms.

Today, “there’s an assumption in the culture that fathers shouldn’t use it,” Levine says.

Child-care consultants urge businesses to invest in community centers and after-school programs. One who has is Hughes Electronics Corp. in Westchester, which three years ago established a K-12 Education Center that promotes the teaching of math, science and technology in Southern California schools. As part of the program, company volunteers tutor physics and calculus after school at Westchester High School and run science clubs at Mullholland Middle School in Van Nuys and in the Lennox Unified School District, said Sylvia Connolly, Hughes’ K-12 education manager.

Connolly knows what a valuable service her employees provide. She recalls her own days caring for teen-agers, when either she or her husband--both were teachers--would race home after school to supervise their youngsters.

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Some parents keep in touch with kids by beeper and say knowing where their kids are helps them focus on work, which pays off with increased productivity. One study found that working parents miss five to eight work days a year because of breakdown in child care.

One firm that offers backup child care is Children First, a Boston-based company that serves 75 blue-chip firms nationwide. This month, Children First is opening a center for children three months to 13 years of age in Downtown Los Angeles that will serve about 10 corporate clients and offer children an educational curriculum that includes field trips, walks, computer lessons and classes on the universe and marine life.

“There’s a huge demand for older [preteen] kids,” says Andrea Goodman, director of marketing for Children First. “During school closings and holidays, we’re real busy.”

If they are lucky, working parents can enlist relatives to help ferry teens from school to afternoon activities. Patty DeDominic, who owns PDQ Personnel Services in Los Angeles, relies on her ex-husband, her current husband and even her older children to take turns driving her 15-year-old son to activities.

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Other parents hire fee-for-service vans that drive youths around. One in South Orange County, called Kiddy Kab, receives 40 calls a day. Kiddy Kab has a $35 enrollment fee and a three-mile minimum. A typical short trip to school and back costs about $12 a day, although fees vary.


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