- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

Anna, 13, is a seventh-grader at a Reston middle school. Every day after the last bell rings, she boards the school bus for home.

The bus drops her off in her neighborhood, where she walks several hundred feet from the bus stop, up the stairs and unlocks the door to the apartment where she lives with her father, Luiz, an Air Force officer.

There she spends the next two hours alone doing her homework, listening to her favorite bands, the Backstreet Boys or Destiny's Child, hanging out in her pretty bedroom filled with such girl stuff as dolls and bears and tiny figurines, and maybe chatting on the phone a little bit, while her father finishes his day at the office.

Anna is a latchkey child: a school-age youth who cares for herself without direct adult supervision while her parent is working.

"Most of my friends go home and stay by themselves," Anna says.

Nearly 7.5 million children ages 5 to 14 spend time home alone after school, according to the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at Wellesley College's Centers for Women.

No evidence exists that self-care is harmful, says Sandra Hofferth, senior research scientist at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Social researchers and child advocates, however, insist that physical safety, maturity, trustworthiness and motivation play dominant roles in ensuring that self-care is a reasonable option.

Good or bad behavior

No national guidelines mandate the age at which parents legally can leave children home alone rather, it is a state-by-state determination and some don't address the issue at all.

In Illinois, for example, a person commits the offense of child abandonment when he leaves a child under 13 without supervision by a responsible person older than 14 for 24 hours or more. In Massachusetts, the age is 10. Maryland, Virginia and D.C. law do not address specific ages at which parents legally may leave children alone.

In 1997, Ms. Hofferth and her colleagues at the Institute for Social Research collected data for their soon-to-be-released report, "Self-Care Among School-Age Children." Using 24-hour time diaries kept by their 1,425 subjects children ages 5 to 12 the researchers got more than clues into the after-school lives of children.

Seventy-three percent of the children in the study headed for home and stayed home, reports Ms. Hofferth, and on average they were alone for about an hour. Once they crossed the threshold, they headed for the kitchen to have a snack. Three-quarters of them watched television; the rest of the time was spent on activities in which most parents would expect preteens to engage, including playing, doing homework, reading, completing household chores, listening to music or just sitting around.

The first move Anna makes when she gets home from school is toward the telephone: She must call her father at work to tell him that she has arrived safely.

"If she is more than two or three minutes late [calling me], she has some explaining to do," her father says.

Anna is allowed to fix herself a snack but it must be something that does not require cooking or heating. She then starts on her homework, which can take about 1 1/2 hours. Unlike many of her peers, Anna is not permitted to watch television when she is home alone, nor does the family own a home computer. She is, however, allowed to listen to music.

Anna says she likes the self-care arrangement, which her father instituted this year.

"Last year, I went to the after-school program. I didn't really enjoy it because the kids are really loud and stuff. … Here it's nice and quiet, and I can concentrate and do my homework."

Although Anna says most of her friends are allowed to leave their homes after school, Ms. Hofferth says only a small proportion of the children in her study were permitted to leave their homes to go elsewhere "to the shopping mall," she says, "or the outdoor playground, or hanging out on the streets." And it is these children, researchers agree, who are at risk of getting into trouble.

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the Justice Department, 57 percent of all violent crimes committed by juveniles occur on school days, even though only half the days in the year are school days.

Serious violent crimes by juveniles, the office reports, occur most frequently in the hours immediately after school.

But it is not all about violent crime.

"After-school hours are the prime time for kids to be victims of crimes; 16- or 17-year-olds to be in or cause a car crash (the leading cause of death among teens); and for youngsters to experiment with smoking, illegal drugs, or sex," reads a report called "America's After-School Choice: The Prime Time for Juvenile Crime, or Youth Enrichment and Achievement," released by Fight Crime: Invest in America's Kids. Fight Crime is a national nonpartisan anti-crime organization with a membership of police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and victims of violence.

Research by the National Institute on Out-of-School Time supports this data.

"We have millions of kids who are home alone," says Beth Miller, former research director for the Wellesley College organization. "For many kids, research shows [self-care] is a risk factor. The earlier they are left alone, the worse they are more likely to get involved in the usual list of bad things drinking, drugging and anger."

She emphasizes another element of the equation: "Even kids who are in a relatively safe situation are missing out on [after-school] opportunities, from sports to art to music to a lot of middle-school programs that really build leadership in kids; such programs are a place for kids to grow up in a way that school doesn't really support. They can feel important, take a leadership role, have a relationship with an adult who's not your parent and not as intense as your teacher."

What other children are doing

Alternatives to self-care exist, and county and federal lawmakers including those in the new administration are giving the issue of after-school care more than lip service.

"As we debate education this year, after-school programs will be addressed within the context of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes 21st Century Community Learning Centers," says Mike Reynard, deputy press secretary for the House Committee for Education and the Workforce. "President Bush has education proposals that address it as well."

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program was established by Congress in 1994 to award grants to rural and inner-city public schools to enable them to operate supervised and cost-effective after-school centers.

Arlington County, like nearly every school district in the metro area, offers extended day care for elementary-age students on campus before and after regular school hours.

Middle-school students can participate in "Check-In," a supervised on-site after-school program offering semistructured activities and help with homework. Participants literally check in with a supervisor after school and then are free to attend a club or sports activity, go to the library, or do homework before checking out before leaving. Fees range from $10 per month to a maximum of $141, based on parents' income.

Of 3,900 students attending five middle schools in Arlington, 250 students are registered in Check-In, says Linda Erdos, director of school and community relations for the school district.

Prince George's County children ages 6 to 12 can participate in Kid's Care, which is run by the parks and recreation department at various centers throughout the county. There's a cost involved, says Bob Voegtlin, acting deputy director of the Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation a fee of $120 a month. Some families may qualify for a fee-reduction program.

"Basically, you're paying a dollar an hour if you're on reduction, $2 an hour if not," Mr. Voegtlin says.

In addition, he says, the school district offers its own extended-day program for children ages 5 to 12. The county also is home to 37 community centers at which children can drop in and play sports or games after school and on weekends.

"We don't have a dedicated program to the middle-school-age group," Mr. Voegtlin says. "The reason is they are children but they think they are adults. I know parents want accountability for their children, but the kids don't want to feel like they're being watched."

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America is another alternative to being home alone. The organization offers facility-based daily programs promoting health, social, educational, vocational and character development of children ages 6 to 18. The organization serves more than 3.3 million youths in more than 2,800 clubs around the country.

Senior Vice President Robbie Callaway says that with their open-door policy, the clubs can fill the void between school and direct supervision.

"Kids are not always getting what they need at school," he says, "and they often are returning to an empty home. Also, their parents might be worried at work. We try to relieve some of that. If kids have a positive place to go to, they'll react positively. You can open up a club in any area and watch the crime rate go down."

Still a parenting priority

Clearly, there are many options and no easy answers for working parents especially those of middle-school-age children.

"In some ways, kids' needs become more complicated when they get older," says Nancy Rankin, director of research and programs at the National Parenting Association (NPA), based in New York City.

"You can't just make adolescents go to a program you have to entice them and make it appealing to them. The things that appeal to kids are somewhat at odds with what appeal to parents. Parents want to have homework supervision; they don't want to get home at the end of the day all stressed out and do the homework battle. But from the adolescent perspective, that's not real appealing."

Within the context of NPA information-gathering, she says, researchers have asked mothers and fathers to name their biggest daily challenge. "Mothers say balancing work and family. Fathers say that too, with the same high frequency," Ms. Rankin says.

"Latchkey kids are cause for concern because I think the stakes for society are just enormous," she says. "There's a very high cost to everyone if adolescents get off track and if kids aren't safe and engaged in worthwhile activities so they can grow up to reach their potential. There's a cost to society if parents feel stressed and guilty when they get home and stressed and guilty at work."

Ms. Rankin advocates creating and funding more and better after-school programs, she says.

"But at the same time, we need to be looking at how we organize our work lives and schedules so we make time for parenting and make time for our kids to be kids."

Like Ms. Rankin, Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit center for research on family, workplace and community, spends her professional life thinking about children, home, work and society. Her opinion about children engaging in self-care, she says, is that "if the child is old enough to be able to care for him- or herself, and if the community is safe, then it is not a bad thing."

When parents closely monitor their children "they're almost there, even though they're not there" it's better for their children.

"But I don't think most parents prefer [the self-care option]," Ms. Galinsky says. "I feel most are ambivalent. You just have to make the best judgment you can for your children.

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