LATCHKEY KIDS

Every day after school thousands of children come home to boredom, loneliness, even fear. Other cities are reaching out to help them. Why aren’t we?

SCHOOL IS OUT for the day and Ricky Maxwell, age 10, has been home alone for 30 minutes. He will remain alone, as he does every day, until his parents come home from work. The phone rings. Ricky hesitates, but answers. The caller’s voice is unfamiliar-some stranger wanting to speak to one of his parents. Ricky tenses as he prepares to deliver his programmed response-his father is at work and his mother is in the shower. Can he take a message? There is no message. Quick goodbyes are exchanged. Ricky pauses. He scares himself into believing the unknown caller is a burglar or murderer, someone who wants to take him hostage. He makes a mad dash for his bedroom, locking the door behind him and seeking refuge within the narrow confines of his bedroom closet. The closet is a safe harbor-but not so safe that Ricky doesn’t feel the need to wrap a large towel around his portable TV so that its sound and light won’t attract the attention of some imaginary intruder.



RICKY IS NOT unusual. Seven million of our nation’s youth between the ages of 6 and 13 have been identified as so-called “latchkey kids”-children who regularly come home from school to empty houses and self-care.

Although the problem of the latchkey child has been the cause of much national concern since the late Seventies, Dallas has yet to fashion an effective response to the issue. In fact, the city has no demographic data reflecting the number and nature of latchkey children in the Dallas area. Although the Mayor’s Child Care Task Force in its 1984 report on the state of Dallas child care recognized that “there are critical issues related to school-age child care that must be addressed by the community,” the task force chose not to address the issue of the latchkey child.

By contrast, both Houston and San Antonio know the extent of their latchkey problems, and both cities have answered with fresh and effective solutions (page 173). A third of the school-age children in Houston are believed to be latchkey children. A study in the San Antonio schools revealed that some 40,000 children either come home to unsupervised dwellings or are left to the care of another underage child, generally a sibling. Dallas-with its lure of economic promise, its staggering divorce rate, its high cost and standard of living, its competitive edge-is anything but immune from the problem.

Dallas has historically responded to cases of unsupervised children by treating them as cases of child neglect. “Ten years ago, if a 7-year-old were left alone. Child Welfare would get involved,” says Diane Keller, neglect supervisor with Dallas County Child Welfare. “But today, it’s a different story. Economic need, the working mother, a shortage of child-care alternatives, all have forced us to change our community standards regarding neglect.” If a child has a phone number where his parents can be reached, Keller says, this will satisfy a “minimal standard” of supervision. There will be no intervention from Child Welfare.

Some see latchkey children as one of life’s harsh realities, an economic consequence of the disintegrating family unit, the single-parent family and the working mother. Others see them as a new breed of youngster, independent and self-assured. Some see them as abnormally fearful and insecure, lonely in their aloneness, bored to tears and television. Some say we are hurrying children, overloading them with responsibility, denying their natural birthright to be children. Others say we are raising children with no structure to their lives and draw a line linking latchkey kids to drugs, sex and violence.



LATCHKEY KIDS were a rare phenomenon until the outbreak of World War II, when millions of mothers came to the aid of their country by joining the labor force. A loosely strung key draped around a child’s neck became the national symbol for children forced by war to fend for themselves. But when the war was over, most mothers went home to rejoin their children.

Latchkey children weren’t born again until the cultural revolution of the Seventies. Several competing forces made them again a cultural commonplace:

? The feminist movement encouraged women to explore their options. For many women, this means juggling a family and a full-time job. By 1980, 59 percent of all mothers with children under the age of 6 were in the labor force.

● The high inflation rate of the Seventiesand a high divorce rate drove women into theworkplace in search of economic survival.The Mayor’s Child Care Task Force reportedthat 30 percent of all Dallas children are being raised in single-parent homes.

● A vicious recession depressed someareas economically and forced some peopleto migrate to the South, leaving behind closerelatives who traditionally shared in child-raising functions.

● Post-war “baby-boomers” were comingof child-bearing age. In 1977, the birthratebegan to rise after 19 years of steady decline.This “baby-boom echo” has left an enormous wave of latchkey children in its wake. ? Child care was actively being bought and sold on the open market with demand vastly exceeding supply. Dallas alone has 80,000 children under the age of 6 and 105,000 children between the ages of 6 and 13. Yet the entire county has only 35,000 available child care spaces.



ARE CHILDREN AT psychological risk when placed in self-care? The answer seems to be yes, for some of them. Although research in the area is somewhat scant, Drs. Thomas and Lynette Long, authors of The Handbook For Latchkey Children and Their Parents, have spent the better part of five years conducting interviews with more than 1,500 latchkey children in the Washington D.C., area. Their research indicates that “a slight majority of these children have negative latchkey experiences.” Some grow up much too fast, hurried by responsibility into adulthood. Some thrive on the responsibility, developing a keen sense of independence and accountability. Some grow up responsible to themselves, but their absent parents have placed no limits on their behavior. They have no structure to manage that responsibility, no adults after whom they might model their actions.

“When mother goes back to work, children often have to deal with intense feelings of abandonment and rejection,” says Dr. Thomas Long. “Trust destroyed between parent and child is trust destroyed between the child and the world.” A latchkey child can vent his pain in anger or withdrawal, depression or aggression, according to Dr. Long, who claims that “90 percent of all adjudicated juvenile delinquents in Montgomery County, Maryland were latchkey children.”

All too often, self-care is forced upon children in response to the trauma of divorce or the death of a spouse. The custodial or surviving parent, now the sole breadwinner, must work to survive. The child, already grappling with feelings of abandonment and rejection from the absent parent, must now cope with the absence of the working parent.

“These kids are crying out for their parents’ attention,” says section chief Doug Preston of the Dallas Fire Department, who has served as the manager of the fire department’s Juvenile Firesetters Counseling program. “When they can’t get that attention in some positive way, they go about it in some negative way… Juveniles are responsible for 50 percent of all intentional fires started in this city.”

Not knowing any limits, some latchkey kids find their way into drugs and sex, arson and vandalism; some sexually and physically abuse their siblings, some contemplate and carry out suicide; others are just plain scared.

Dr. David Elkind, a child psychologist and author of The Hurried Child, argues that latchkey children are expected to assume too much responsibility too early in life. “They are stressed by the fear of failure-of not achieving fast enough or high enough… they are stressed by taking on the psychological and social trappings of adulthood before they are prepared to deal with them,” Elkind writes.

But authorities say that it’s hard to predict how a particular child will react to stress. The same stress that causes one child to fall apart will strengthen the resolve of another.



BRAD NEWMAN, at 12, has seen more of life than most of his contemporaries. He spent the better part of his childhood in Spain, frequented the Ivory Coast of Africa and plans to visit his father in Paris this summer.

Brad is proud to be what he terms “a junior adult.” It’s Brad’s job to take care of his brother and sister on certain days after school. His mother also calls upon him to shoulder this responsibility when she is out of town on business-but never for more than two days at a time. Brad thinks the hours are long, but he enjoys the salary his mother pays him.

Brad is in the DISD’s Talented and Gifted Program at school. He is also reputed to be quite a quarterback. Brad once confronted Dallas Cowboys’ General Manager Tex Schramm at a party and urged him to negotiate his football contract immediately. Once he started playing at Stanford, he told Schramm, his asking price would double.

Brad has it all planned out. After college, medical school and a brief stint in the Armed Forces flying Harrier jets, he will be ready to settle down into his dual career life: quar-terbacking an NFL football team and bio-medical engineering.

Brad came upon self-care voluntarily. His mother was stranded in Houston on a business trip the same night the babysitter took mid-term exams. They could have gotten another babysitter, but Brad volunteered for the job. With the assistance of Morgan, the family’s 90-pound Labrador, Brad rose to the occasion. He cooked dinner, did the dishes, helped his brother and sister with their homework, watched TV, talked on the phone and went to bed somewhat later than usual. Brad saw it as a lesson in living. He could do what he wanted, as long as it was sensible. He claims he felt too tired to be afraid.

Although Brad doesn’t get lonely, bored or afraid during his latchkey experiences, he is concerned with the quality of care he is giving his brother and sister. Lectures on health, fire and safety hold his special attention at school. He is very concerned about doing the wrong thing. Brad could forgive himself anything-anything but a mistake where his brother and sister are concerned.

ALTHOUGH SOME experts and many parents believe that self-care toughens children to the task of coping with the outside world, the available research is replete with casualties of the latchkey experience. Few experts advocate self-care, and most caution its use only as a last resort. If the latchkey situation is the only available option, Dr. Long feels that “there are ways to ensure that the experience isn’t a negative one.”

Above all, parents must know their children. They must know their strengths and weaknesses and whether they are emotionally equipped for self-care. Certainly the younger the child, the greater the likelihood of emotional damage. Dr. Long is convinced that no child under 10 should be left in self-care.

In the best of all possible child care worlds, adult supervision provides the healthiest and safest environment for children. No one doubts that there are substantial risks for latchkey children-particularly young children left to care for themselves in urban areas. Still, despite a growing national awareness of the problem, the number of latchkey children continues to swell.

Rather than exploit the guilt and worry of the working parent, communities across the nation are choosing instead to respond to the needs of the latchkey child. These communities are coming to recognize a new partnership with parents-formed to promote the best possible place for children to live.

Dallas has been slow in coming to terms with its latchkey problem. Much of the city’s energy has been consumed by the more life-threatening child-care issues of sexual and physical abuse, so the cause of the latchkey child has few champions.

What can concerned parents and civic leaders do to help latchkey children? To appreciate the range of possible responses to the latchkey issue, we must look beyond Dallas and explore the best of what is being done in other communities.



AFTER-SCHOOL DAY CARE:

Despite the problems and prejudices surrounding day care, an insatiable demand for its service has created a $15 billion child-care industry. That same industry is now being asked to respond to the predicament of the latchkey child.

Currently, some 127 day care centers in Dallas County attempt to serve the after-school needs of school-age children. Some are models of excellence in child care-others border on criminal neglect. But none, as of yet, operates on the “partnership model” advocated by the School-Age Child Care Project at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

“The partnership is a collaboration between the public schools and other community organizations,” explains project director Michelle Seligson. “The programs are housed in the schools, but they are administered and spearheaded by a variety of local parents’ groups, civic organizations and non-profit agencies.” The El Paso YMCA, the San Antonio Urban Council and the Houston Committee on Private Sector Initiatives each administer and support the partnership model in their respective communities. “It’s a trend that’s increasing fester than any other,” Seligson says.

“The Dallas School Board has been somewhat reluctant to implement the model,” explains one DISD official. “They see their business as education-so they’re leery about spending taxpayer dollars only to find themselves in the day care business.” Seligson sees this very reluctance as a strong inducement to form the partnership. “The schools have the facilities, the empty classrooms, the play space-so why not join forces with someone already in the day care business, some community organization like the YMCA or the Boys Club?”

When the Dallas School Board finally chose to consider the “partnership” approach, they turned to the local YMCA and YWCA. Both organizations have been operating successful after-school day care programs in Dallas County since 1977, and now 12 of the 20 YMCA branches provide after-school care to over 650 Dallas children at an average cost of $25 per week. All seven local YWCAs offer care to some 575 children at a similar cost.

The proposed partnership between the DISD and the “Y” failed to win school board approval until September 1984, long after most parents had made their child-care decisions for the school year. The pilot program instituted at three elementary schools got no response. At one school, only one child showed up. Assuming adequate notice and preparation, “Y” officials are optimistic about the success of the partnership in the upcoming school year.

Although the Dallas school district does maintain an after-school program for intramural sports, Seligson sees this as a necessary but limited response to the problem. “One or two coaches supervising 50 to 60 kids results in either chaos or containment. Besides, many children aren’t oriented to sports. Day care should also have an enrichment aspect, a social interaction aspect, a creative, nurturing aspect.”

The benefits of the partnership arrangement are substantial. “Not only does it make the most effective use of the taxpayer’s dollar,” explains Seligson. “But it provides children with a safe environment, suitable to their needs, at low cost and with no transportation problems for parents.” Congress has recognized these benefits and recently enacted legislation authorizing block grants to subsidize the development and maintenance of after-school day care programs.



PHONELINES:

Vera is one of life’s great listeners. It’s her job. Her eyes widen as she turns to answer the phone. It’s Paul, age 9, just checking in. He wants to let Vera know he has made it home from school all right. In a voice that rivals TV’s Mister Rogers in its capacity for calm, Vera expresses her genuine appreciation to Paul for calling so promptly. She encourages him to start his homework and to eat the snack his mother prepared for him. She tells Paul to call back if he needs her. She’s there for him.

Vera is a telephone counselor for “Chatters,” a Houston-based phoneline connecting latchkey children to the outside world. For $5 a year, “Chatters” offers children a warm, nurturing friend who can ease their fears, comfort their loneliness, help them with homework and sibling problems.

“Chatters” is the oldest phoneline for kids in the country. The newest is being installed in Dallas this September. To make “Kid-Talk” a reality, a broadly based coalition of concerned Dallasites has formed the Latchkey Phoneline Task Force Committee. According to Task Force Director Janet Butler, “Over one-third of the children home alone cannot reach their parents by phone. Kid-Talk will connect these children to an adult voice.”

Volunteers will be trained in the art of active listening. They will learn how to calm fears and comfort loneliness. In addition to emotional support, they provide homework assistance, problem-solving strategies and home management and safety skills. Although conversations will remain confidential, “Kid-Talk” is more a “warmline” for caring than a hotline for crisis intervention. The phoneline will be limited to after-school hours: 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

The Task Force is sensitive to the message it is sending to Dallas parents. “We’re not condoning or condemning self-care,” says Task Force member Jeana Shultz. “We’re simply responding to a reality that we know exists.”

Phonelines are not without their critics. The School-Age Child-Care Project warns that “telephone relationships should not be seen as a replacement for caring environments. They are only a first step to fill an existing void.”

The Task Force sees “Kid-Talk” as one of many necessary responses for Dallas children. “We do dream of sponsoring other solutions,” says Janet Butler, “such as after-school day care programs, adventure parks, survival skills training and even conferences to educate the public.”



INFORMATION AND REFERRAL:

The Mayor’s Task Force indirectly responded to the needs of latchkey children by recommending the implementation of a community-wide information and referral service. This service will provide access to a computerized information bank stored with detailed data on child-care providers across the Dallas area. A hotline, staffed by volunteers, will provide parents with information on the kind, cost and location of available care. Volunteers will help parents make informed choices.

The Task Force also recommended the creation of the Child Care Partnership of Dallas, an on-going advocacy organization charged in part with assisting the community in developing an information and referral service. The newly formed Child Care Partnership, under Director Susan Lund, is involved in a full range of child care issues. As of this writing, some money for the referral service has been raised, but no date has been set for its debut.



BLOCK PARENT PROGRAMS:

Eight-year-old Judy is completely lost. She knows she shouldn’t be frightened; Richardson is a safe place. But these big kids keep chasing her every day after school. Today she got away, but she ran so fast she forgot where she was going. She can’t find her street. Judy wants her mother, but she knows her mother is downtown at work. She stares at a big two-story house, noticing a familiar poster in the front window. It is a picture of an open hand, palm up, reaching out as if to help. It’s a good sign, a safe place for Judy to turn. She knocks on the door. A lady answers. She is a stranger to Judy-she still seems real nice. They go into the kitchen and call Judy’s mother, then they call her teen-age cousin, Bill. Bill just got his driver’s license. He’ll be there in five minutes.

There are more than 3,500 Helping Hand posters scattered throughout Richardson, where a Block Parent Program has been operating for 13 years. The PTA solicits prospective Block Parents from its ranks, only requiring that parents remain home both before and after school. The Richardson Police Department oversees the program’s operation.

“Roughly 60 percent to 80 percent of school-age kids in Richardson are latchkey children,” says Harold Hodges, safety education officer for the Richardson Police Department. “Block Parents are like a failsafe mechanism for these kids-they are always there if all else fails.”

A creative offshoot of the Block Parent Program is the Satellite Home/Check-In-Care Project in Fairfax County, Virginia. Older childen, ages 9 to 13, check in with a child-care provider, generally a neighbor who receives $1 an hour for each child supervised. Parents, providers and children enter into a contract mutually agreeing upon the child’s after-school activities. The Check-In Project gives these children more independence than after-school day care and more supervision than a phoneline.



ADVENTURE PLAYGROUNDS:

The Freed Park Adventure Playground in Houston, Texas looks more like a construction site than a city park. It has been described as “a well-equipped vacant lot, a do-it-yourself playground for kids wanting a minimum of supervision and a maximum of sand, water, scrap and lumber.” Based on a European concept, the Adventure Playground has been enticing children from an adjoining elementary school into its constructive playspace since September 1984. Although its regular hours are 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., the park remains open during vacations and holidays.

Eighty children have been using the playground to construct everything from sand-castles to a three-story, 11-room plywood condominium. Troubled children are thriving in this environment. Much of the playground’s financial support is now coming from neighboring businessmen who have noticed that vandalism has dropped significantly since the park’s opening. The Houston Independent School District is currently considering more Adventure Playgrounds for its latchkey children.



SURVIVAL SKILLS TRAINING:

Numerous community organizations are teaching children to cope safely in the latchkey life. Children are taught self-reliance, independence and what to do in emergency situations.

Critics say that survival training only hurries children, teaching them to be too adult too soon. They say many children are emotionally unequipped both to digest the information taught and put it to use in the heat of the moment. Proponents of the training cite the alarming number of fire- and accident-related injuries and deaths involving unattended children, the greater likelihood of their victimization and the reality that latchkey children are here to stay. Camp Fire Inc. operates the most extensive survival skills course in Dallas, offering six separate sessions of instruction for a minimal fee.



THE CORPORATE RESPONSE:

In 1960, it was often said that the easiest way to clear a boardroom of corporate executives was to mention child care. But today, the corporate consciousness appears to be changing. Since business has helped bring mothers into the workplace and away from the home, many corporations feel obliged to share in the responsibilities of child care. Dallas corporations such as IBM, Frito-Lay, First City Bank of Dallas and U.S. Telecom are providing information and referral services for use by their employees. Lomas & Nettleton, the Zale Corp., Forney Engineering Co. and the Trammell Crow Co. are operating on-site child-care facilities, in a corporate merger of the family and the workplace. Sanger Harris, in conjunction with Camp Fire Inc., is sponsoring a series of survival skills training courses at local shopping malls. Other corporations are responding with fringe benefits in the form of child care subsidies, vouchers, educational programs, job sharing, flextime, and offers of permanent part-time employment.



ALTHOUGH THE RANGE of foreseeable options is wide, the Dallas response is still in the incubation stage. Dallas remains without a uniform child-care policy to guide its decision-makers regarding latchkey children. Some suggest the Mayor’s Child Care Task Force might be reconvened to define the extent of the problem. Some say the Phoneline Task Force should expand its mission, while others look to the newly formed Child Care Partnership of Dallas.

These isolated and diverse solutions, though well-intentioned, need to be orchestrated into a repertoire of responses-one entity harmonizing the needs of the community with available resources. We have been granted the rare opportunity to attack a problem instead of having to live with and beat back its more socially undesirable consequences. How we respond to that challenge will determine the quality of life we bequeath to our children.

Comments