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Case Highlights Problem of Children Left Home Alone

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Called unexpectedly to work late one evening, Michiko Kamiyama searched in vain for a baby-sitter for her 8-year-old daughter before grappling with a decision that bedevils countless working parents. In the end, she left the girl alone in the home.

It turned out to be the wrong choice.

Huntington Beach police took her daughter away that night, and Kamiyama, a widow who works as a singer and a waitress, was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse. She spent more than three months in jail.

Her case raises a host of issues concerning the lack of child-care options and the often-fuzzy question about the age at which children can safely and legally be left unattended. In this case, a situation that is usually handled through social service agencies was treated as a criminal case.

No California law or court case specifies the age when a child can be left alone at home, or for how long. The lack of precedent left state Court of Appeal justices, who reviewed Kamiyama’s conviction, accusing each other of failing to base their opinions on state law.

The three-judge panel in Santa Ana threw out Kamiyama’s conviction late last month in a decision split along gender lines and reverberating with the emotion of anguished parents.

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Kamiyama may have made a bad choice, but she wasn’t a criminal, Justice Thomas F. Crosby Jr. wrote in an opinion joined by Justice David G. Sills. “To so hold would be to brand thousands of employed couples and single parents as common criminals,” he wrote.

Such reasoning is “appalling and arrogant,” shot back Justice Sheila Sonenshine in dissent. “Sadly, the majority takes us back 150 years to a time when children were considered mere chattel of their parents,” she wrote.

Kamiyama had left her daughter home alone previously, and this time, “the child was so distraught her screaming protests could be heard throughout the neighborhood,” Sonenshine wrote.

‘A Catch-22 for the Single Parent’

The decision, which doesn’t set precedent statewide, was largely ignored when it was issued. But the problem is all too familiar to social workers, parents and workplace supervisors. And it won’t get easier with the advent of welfare reform rules that require parents to work for their benefits.

“This is a Catch-22 for the single parent who has to work,” said Michael Riley, Orange County’s director of child and family services. “Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of options.”

County officials are trying to help by beefing up parental support programs and hoping to create a 24-hour child-care operation for low-income parents.

Questions of how and where to leave children would be easier if more child-care options were available, particularly after normal business hours, said Joyce Johnson, spokeswoman for the Child Welfare League of America.

“There are millions of parents faced every day with these decisions,” she said. “We’re a much more mobile society now and you have situations where there aren’t family members nearby, and many people don’t even know their neighbors to ask for help.”

For Patty Encino, leaving her four children, aged 2 to 12, alone at their Pomona mobile home for several hours is a necessity. Encino, 31, works varying hours for a discount store. When she must be at work at 3 p.m., she usually can find a neighbor to look in on the children until her husband comes home at 5:30 p.m., she said.

But sometimes she can’t.

“When I leave them alone, I’m always wondering, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ” she said. “There are so many things that could happen. I feel guilty for what I have to do, but I have to work.”

She said the kids know the rules when she’s gone: Don’t go near the stove. No outside calls. If someone calls, let the answering machine get it or tell the caller their mother is in the shower. If there’s a problem, run and get a neighbor.

The only time the children have had a problem, she said, was during a vicious El Nino thunderstorm. The girls, age 12 and 7, and the boys, 6 and 2, huddled together in their parents’ bedroom and called her in tears. She phoned a neighbor from work, who went over and comforted the children.

“My neighbors help, and I try to help my neighbors when I can,” said Encino, who volunteers with a parent support group called Parents Anonymous. “I think it’s up to the parents to know when their children are responsible enough. My daughter is very responsible, but I try not to put the burden on her too often.”

Even those whose work hours are so flexible that they often can work at home sometimes find themselves in similar binds.

Jane, an accountant, left her daughter, 8, alone in their Bel-Air home for 30 minutes to take a younger daughter to day care. She previously had left her 10-year-old daughter alone for an hour.

“You know your kids well enough to know at what point you can take the chance,” she said. “I wouldn’t leave them ordinarily, but sometimes you have to make that call. I trust my kids and I trust that they’re safe inside my locked home. It’s the outside world that scares me.”

But Jane didn’t want her last name disclosed for fear that officials at her children’s schools would perceive her as not being a good parent.

Most parents either are ashamed to say that they can’t find or afford baby-sitters or fear, as Jane does, that they may be branded as bad parents, said Sheryl Hawkinson, owner of Southcoast Child Care Centers in Costa Mesa.

Indeed, many parents at Southcoast wouldn’t say whether they leave their children at home unattended in emergency situations. But Hawkinson is startled at what the parents have confided to her.

One mother, for instance, said she routinely leaves her 9-year-old daughter at home when the girl is sick, Hawkinson said.

“It was a situation where she had to be at work and she didn’t know what else to do. She called her daughter every hour and hoped for the best,” she said. “I’m amazed the woman admitted it.”

More shocking to Hawkinson is that any school-age child--from 6 on up--can walk home alone from school or day-care centers with written permission from a parent or guardian.

“There are people who put keys around their children’s necks and they go home alone every day,” she said. “It’s the way our society has gone.”

Other parents wouldn’t think of leaving even older children alone.

“There’s no way I’d leave an 8-year-old at home, even if it meant losing my job,” said Martha Hernandez of Costa Mesa. “It’s a tough call, I understand, and some people need the money. But that’s not worth the risk that something could happen to your child. For me, my children’s safety is the most important.”

Criminal Prosecutions of Parents Are Rare

Protecting the welfare of children is the responsibility of most counties’ juvenile dependency systems, which intercede when there is abuse, neglect or abandonment. But it is rare, child experts said, for a parent to face criminal prosecution merely for leaving a school-aged child at home alone.

More glaring cases than Kamiyama’s are routinely handled in civil dependency court without parents being prosecuted, said Harold LaFlamme, a Santa Ana lawyer who specializes in representing children.

One woman consistently left her child alone while she went gambling at a card club in Gardena, he said, and another mother deposited her 8-year-old at a motel while she left town for a week.

“Most times, these cases aren’t prosecuted because they’re fixable by things like parenting classes and counseling,” LaFlamme said. In extreme cases, counties take children away from their parents and place them in foster care.

Justices Crosby and Sills appeared perplexed about why Kamiyama wound up in criminal court, except for the fact that police, responding to a neighbor’s call, broke into the home.

“One might speculate that where police force their way into a private residence and break down a bedroom door that a certain amount of systemic self-justification might be involved,” Crosby wrote.

But Huntington Beach Police Capt. Bill Mamelli disagrees. “When officers come to a house and they’re concerned for the safety of someone inside, they’re going to err on the side of caution.”

Some states dictate the age at which a child can be left home unattended, but most don’t, said Johnson, of the Child Welfare League.

“We get calls all the time about what is an appropriate age for children to be left alone,” she said. “We tell them there is no magic age.”

Jane Shade, a deputy in the Orange County district attorney’s family violence unit, said her office tries to determine whether the child knows to call 911 or to contact a neighbor in an emergency.

“These are the kinds of things parents can use to gauge whether a child is old enough to be left alone,” she said.

Kamiyama’s problems began in 1987, shortly after she and her husband moved here from Japan with hopes of prospering in their music careers, said her trial lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Vu Trinh. But her husband was killed in a car accident shortly before their daughter was born.

Kamiyama, who declined to be interviewed, worked at two jobs--as a waitress during the day and a singer in Japanese clubs at night--to support her daughter and provide her with a private school education and music, dance and math lessons.

At her Municipal Court trial, she testified that she did the only thing she felt she could. She couldn’t find a baby-sitter and she couldn’t take the child to work, where she was auditioning for a job at a new club.

She told her daughter not to answer the door or the telephone that night in January 1996. She left at 9 p.m., believing the girl was safe in their locked townhome in a gated Huntington Beach community. Just before she left, the daughter threw a tantrum. A neighbor called police, who arrived after the mother had left.

When Kamiyama returned at 2 a.m., she found a note from Huntington Beach police stating that they had taken her daughter to Orangewood Children’s Home. A jury later found that Kamiyama, 43, inflicted “unjustified mental suffering” on her daughter.

Kamiyama’s daughter testified that she heard pounding on the door about 30 minutes after her mother left. She refused to answer the door and locked herself in her bedroom. Police entered through an unlocked rear window and broke down the bedroom door.

Neighbor Judy Mendenhall said the girl, who has since been returned to her mother, still talks of being terrified by officers kicking in the door. Mendenhall wasn’t home that night to help her friend by baby-sitting.

“She couldn’t reach me and she panicked,” said Mendenhall, an emergency room nurse. “This wasn’t a usual occurrence. It was a point of survival for her.”

During the trial, Kamiyama, a classically trained musician from Japan, was painted as a “bar singer” who didn’t care enough about her daughter, the neighbor said.

“She wasn’t a slipshod mother,” Mendenhall said. “Taking the child away was much more traumatic for the mother and for the little girl.”

The police report faulted Kamiyama for speaking little English and being unable to communicate with officers, defense attorney Trinh said. Later, Municipal Court Judge Sarah Jones ordered her to complete English classes as a condition of probation.

“I think there was some cultural bias,” Trinh said. “They thought she didn’t know how to raise her child.”

Karen Cianfrani, a juvenile law attorney, said it was “extremely unusual” for a court to order a defendant to take English classes. “I would find that offensive,” she said. Kamiyama, though, completed the classes.

Judges Acknowledge Parents’ Problems

In throwing out the conviction, the appellate majority pointed out that sparking a child’s anguish is a normal occurrence in parenting. Learning to deal with that anguish is part of the child’s job of growing up.

“Parents must inflict mental suffering on their children at times,” Crosby wrote. He cited a litany of commonly heard parental pronouncements such as, “You may not go out this weekend because you lied to me.”

He said parents of latchkey children often are forced to leave them home unattended under similar circumstances.

“As far as we have come in the past 150 years, most of us still do not enjoy the assistance of a Mary Poppins,” he wrote. “Single parents have to work. Welfare will not even be an option much longer.

“It is not for the criminal justice system to [prosecute] one single mother trying to raise a child and make an honest living simply because her child threw a tantrum.”


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