The plight of 'latchkey' children': opening up to answers

FOR more than a decade, the United States has been lamenting the plight of its ''latchkey'' children. Now it's time to stop lamenting - and do something about them.

These are youngsters, ages 6 to 13, who come home to empty houses after school. There are approximately 6 million of them in the US, and the number is growing. Many live with only one parent. In almost all cases, the adult is at work.

Recent studies by the Census Bureau, Children'scq Defense Fund, and educational research groups indicate that by 1990 well over half of America's mothers will hold jobs outside the home. That means more young children will be left to shift for themselves in after-school and often before-school hours. Experts warn of dangers of delinquency and raise questions of safety.

Of late, reports of attacks on children have heightened concern about lack of supervision as well as the quality of available care.

What should be done?

First, basic attitudes about providing funds and fa-cilities for school-age child care need to change. We've come a long way in recent years toward seeing this as a societal issue rather than solely as a women's issue - and, at that, one faced mainly by minority and poor women. Although these groups are hit the hardest, child-care needs cut across the entire socioeconomic spectrum. One hopes the old argument that day-care centers are socialistic and smack of a Sovietizing American society has also faded away.

It would be ideal for youngsters to return from the classroom every day to find a caring, nurturing parent at home. Unfortunately, this is now the exception rather than the rule. Economic pressures have forced married women as well as single mothers into the workplace. And breadwinning tends to compete with parenting.

Since nonparental care for children clearly is needed and proper, the question is this: Who should do the job - government, industry, the neighborhood and community, or the extended family (including grandparents, aunts, and uncles)? The answer: all of the above.

Government needs to do more - a lot more - to provide seed money for after-school child-care projects. Businesses must begin referral systems to help parents find adequate and safe after-school programs or other supervision for their youngsters. Communities need to come up with innovative ideas - including family day-care exchanges, licensed private ''home'' facilities, and neighborhood ''watches'' - to guarantee a responsible adult will be available to aid a child in an emergency. Older teen-agers who want to earn pocket money and senior citizens desirous of meaningful activity should be used to watch over youngsters who are alone.

Right now, the focus is on government. Federal legislation in both the House and Senate is moving along to provide funds to help community groups set up before- and after-school child-care centers. The House version would allocate $ 30 million annually over a three-year period to launch various projects along these lines. A built-in sliding scale of fees keyed to income would subsidize those most in need. The Senate version authorizes only $15 million and has no low-income subsidy provision.

So far, the Reagan administration opposes both bills. David Rust, director of policy and legislation in the Office of Human Development Services, insists that there is not enough money in either proposal to provide adequate help. And he says he's concerned about ''raising false expectations'' among many of those who will never see benefits.

Child-care advocates say the obvious answer is to increase federal funds so that their impact will be broader. They point out that federal grants to states for social services have been cut by 25 percent in recent years and that allowable state and federal child-care expenditures for families on welfare have been reduced.

A feasible compromise must be worked out in Congress - guaranteeing appropriate funding even at a time of fiscal belt-tightening. Government officials need to become more sensitive to the needs of families and children, and lobbyists for public funds must also become more realistic in their appraisal of what is doable.

The private sector must also take more initiative. Though on-site child-care centers have been tried, they are not really practical. A good many have failed. However, the expertise of the business community can be put to good use, as it has in a few cases. Several large Connecticut-based insurance companies have banded together, for example, to address the child-care needs of their workers. Another corporate consortium, based along the Route 128 ''technology highway'' in Massachusetts, is gearing up for family-assistance programs to start on July 1. The group plans a computerized day-care listing service, a library of child-development resources, and seminars for working parents.

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