Alexander is 7 years old and there is a strange scratching noise at the door. What should he do?
Katie is 8 and can't finish her homework. Does anyone understand word problems?
Daniel is 6 and he was just wondering . . . could someone please read him a story?
They are all home alone.
Every day after school, they step gingerly into empty apartments and lifeless houses. The lucky ones might be greeted by a pet. Even luckier are those who can pick up the phone to check in with parents at work.
But for many, there is no call, no one to tell about the A on a spelling test, the winning soccer kick at recess or the bully on the long walk home.
As the winter days grow darker and colder, more and more children are reaching out to PhoneFriend--Southern California's only confidential "warmline" for latchkey kids.
Housed in the tiny space between the chaplains' offices at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, PhoneFriend is a free call-in service for any child in any of 90 participating elementary schools in Glendale, La Can~ada Flintridge, Burbank, Pasadena, Eagle Rock, Highland Park and Hollywood. Originally covering only areas in the 818 area code, the service added a new line this fall in the 213 area code, and the phones have not stopped ringing.
The callers may be frightened--"I think somebody followed me home!"--or anxious--"My best friend says she'll never speak to me again"--or just curious--"How would a person get gum out of his hair?"
Before this school year is out, the volunteer-run service expects to answer more than 15,000 calls--the highest volume since its founding in 1989. That volume may require a substantial increase in PhoneFriend's modest $20,000 budget, which to date has been funded solely by the medical center and a handful of corporate and individual donors.
"There is no way of knowing if there are more kids home alone here than before," says PhoneFriend supervisor Bruce Nelson, "but we do know there are an awful lot of kids out there who desperately need someone to talk to."
Although there are no reliable statistics on the exact number of latchkey children in California and the United States, children's rights experts estimate that at least 4.5 million of the nation's 30 million schoolchildren are left home alone to care for themselves occasionally, if not regularly.
A landmark survey by the Child Welfare League of America reported that in 1990, as many as 28% of the nation's kindergartners were being left alone and as many as 77% of third-graders were spending time home alone. The league is a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy federation that for 76 years has been an outspoken voice for children's rights.
While those figures have not been officially updated, researchers say there is good reason to believe the number of kids in so-called self care has not diminished. "This is still a serious problem, and it is likely to get worse soon," predicts Wellesley College research scientist Beth M. Miller. "With welfare reform, we're going to see more and more low-income single mothers going to work. All of them will have a very, very difficult time providing care for their children when they do."
And the children left home alone can expect to face a very difficult time on their own. In the 1990 study of latchkey children, the authors found that elementary-school-age children were unable to safely handle even the most ordinary situations in their homes.
The researchers looked at how children reacted to such commonplace occurrences as answering the telephone and handling the delivery of a package and found that few children answered the phone properly. Many freely told the caller their names and that they were home alone. All the children failed the package delivery test with most of them opening the door to the stranger with the package.
"This inability to deal with potentially harmful situations placed the children at great risk," the researchers concluded.
Those who operate PhoneFriend call their service a "warmline," not a hotline for kids in crisis. But on any weekday afternoon, there can be crises on the line.
There was the little girl left home alone all day because she was too sick to go to school. "She was very young, maybe 7 or 8," Nelson recalls. "And she told us she had been vomiting all day. Her mother wouldn't be home till 5:30, and she was clearly so distressed and so very sick, we offered to call her mother for her but she refused. She pleaded with us not to call for fear she would get in trouble. We offered to call medical help for her, but she resisted that as well."
Finally, after more than an hour on the phone, the sick and weepy girl announced with relief that "Mommy's here now." The absent mother--a nurse in a Los Angeles-area hospital--took the receiver, thanked the PhoneFriend volunteer for keeping her child busy and hung up.
That child, like all of the kids who call PhoneFriend, got the service's number from her teacher when school started in September. The Glendale Adventist community services staff hands out 50,000 cards and stickers with the PhoneFriend numbers: 241-KIDS in the 818 area code and 254-KIDS in the 213 area. Calls are answered Monday through Friday from 3 to 5 p.m. during the school year as well as during the summer months. The service is closed during school holidays.
When a timid second-grader arrived home one rainy afternoon to find his house ransacked, the first number he called was the one on the PhoneFriend sticker in his kitchen. The boy was under strict orders not to bother his parents at work. And he was afraid to call 911 because he wasn't sure he could recite his entire address.
The PhoneFriend volunteer kept the boy on the line while she called his father at work and alerted police to the break-in. Although the police who arrived to investigate did not bring any charges against the parents, they could have.
"If a child is in danger because of neglect, then we will usually step in," says Det. Steve Carey, a bureau consultant to the Los Angeles Police Department's juvenile division. "The law says only that a parent or adult who willfully causes or permits the health or safety of a child to be placed in jeopardy is guilty of endangerment. But, we get calls weekly about kids 7, 8 or 9 being left home alone. And that, in and of itself, is not necessarily endangering."
When both parents work and there is no easy access to affordable child care, leaving kids home alone may seem like "the best answer" for many families, Carey says. "I was one of those kids myself from the age of 9 or 10. Sometimes that's just the way it has to be."
But when very young children are found alone--or worse, caring for even younger siblings--authorities do step in. Police blotters are full of cases where children as young as 7 are left by their parents to oversee babies or toddlers.
When children are in trouble--or real danger--the volunteers at PhoneFriend alert social services workers or police. But offering such a safety net, say critics of such latchkey programs, may give parents an unrealistic sense of their child's security.
"Our message at the Child Welfare League," says information coordinator Joyce Johnson, "is that kids shouldn't be left alone under any circumstances. We think that families need other options. Hotlines and other programs designed to help kids who are left alone don't address the central problem--and that is, there are far too many kids alone at home who are in real danger."
But at PhoneFriend, the typical call is usually less urgent, though still heartbreaking.
"My father, he died in June and now, I really, really miss him. I'm so sad but I think I'm real mad at him too. That's not right, is it?"
The caller is 11 and she lives in Highland Park. She should be doing homework, but instead she's calling PhoneFriend because whenever she's home alone, she thinks about her dad. The woman who answers her call knows exactly what to say.
"I've been through this myself, honey, when my husband died," soothes Bertha Bortz, a gentle grandmother who works the phones every Thursday afternoon. "It's OK to be sad, but you know what? It's OK to be angry too. That's all a part of grieving, sweetheart."
The specially trained volunteers, mostly retired teachers and a few high school students getting class credit for their efforts, are careful not to intervene or solve their young callers' problems.
"Our job," says hospital chaplain Janet Richardson, "is to help the children be more self-sufficient and self-confident, to find the best ways to solve their own problems because they, after all, are the ones out there all alone."