WHO CARES FOR THE CHILDREN?
For eight-year-old Angie, days are often long, lonely --and sometimes scary. Angie lives in an upper West Side apartment in New York with her mother, who is divorced and works full-time. Angie's mother worries about her young daughter coming home to an empty house after school. She leaves notes for Angie to do her homework and her chores and sometimes to start dinner. And then she makes phone calls to check up -- to find out how Angie is getting along and often just to say: "I love you."Skip to next paragraph
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Recently Angie thought she saw a man following her home after school. She panicked and started to run. Finally she reached the apartment, all out of breath, and managed to get her key in the door. She rushed into the apartment and called her mother.
Now Angie's mother is more worried than ever. She had a friend walk Angie home from school for a couple of days. The man didn't appear again. But there are so many reports of young children being followed and molested that Angie's mother is trying to tighten the reins. She has warned her daughter not to talk to strangers. Angie is instructed to go straight home from school and call promptly to report that she is safe.
Angie has also been guided on use of the stove and electric appliances. Many home fires are attributed to unattended young children, fire officials say.
Angie has a mother who cares -- one who would like to be home after school to greet her youngster, hear about her school day, her problems, her delights. But she can't. She needs to work.
Angie and her mother are products of a changing American society -- one which leaves 2 million school-age youngsters on their own after school and often during holidays and vacations. And one in which the number of working parents is fast exceeding those who stay home with their children.
Angie is a "latchkey" child -- a term defining a child who has a house key dangling from a chain around the neck and trudges home after school to an empty house. Sometimes a parent has set up an agenda for homework, house chores, and leisure-time activities. More often there is none. then television becomes the Not. 1 child-minder. The lure of the streets and delinquent or pre-delinquent activities too frequently fill the vacuum.
The problems of all the Angies are becoming a big challenge for American society. About one-third of the 44 million school-age children in the United States have mothers who work full-time. Some 13 million are cared for by relatives or neighbors in the setting of private homes --what is classified as family day care. About 1.7 million belong to some kind of before-school and after-school program.
But about two million children -- the true latchkey children -- are left to fend for themselves before and after school during the hours when no parent is at home.
About 7 percent of school-age children never answer the school bell at all.
These figures, compiled from Bureau of the Census and Congressional Budget Office statistics as well as studies of the Children's Defense Fund and other agencies, are admittedly inexact. Wendy Gray, an associate of the Wellesley College-based national School-Age Child Care Project, says that there are strong indications that many six-year-olds are in the "care" of seven- and eight-year-old brothers and sisters after school.
Evidence also exist that many parents are extremely reluctant to report to authorities (Census Bureau included) that they leave their young children unattended during the day.
At worst, the latchkey child is a heartrending case of abuse and abandonment -- a ticking time bomb for the future. Even at best, the latchkey child soberingly reminds an adult of all those marginal degrees of loneliness, idleness, and jeopardy that can afflict even the most affluent home when no parent is there.
The mere physical presence of a parent is, of course, no guarantee of love and nurturing attention. But until the dramatic figure of the latchkey child surfaced in the national consciousness. Americans have been slow to acknowledge the revolution in child care that is taking place, and the urgent need for institutional alternatives when the family is headed by a single parent or both parents are working.
Simply in quantitative terms the problem is going to get worse before it gets better, experts warn. Dana Friedman, women's advocate an specialist in the area of business involvement in day care, says: "Presently . . . the demand for child care far exceeds the supply. By 1990 this disparity will increase significantly unless there is considerable expansion of child-care facilities. Eleven million more women will enter the labor force during the next decade."