In the two years that Leila Moore and some 60 other volunteers have been talking with latchkey children on the phone, they have listened to a lot of fears and responded with a lot of reassurance.
''We guessed right about the kinds of problems children might telephone about , but what surprised us the most was the number of children who called just to talk, because they were lonely or bored,'' Professor Moore says.
Dr. Moore, an assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, says the idea for ''PhoneFriend'' grew out of a project her local chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) became involved with two years ago.
In an effort to come up with a program that would help latchkey children at no cost to their families, the AAUW committee decided on the PhoneFriend call-in service - but not before testing the community's response.
''We did a lot of advance publicity to show that the service was intended as a support for parents, not as a replacement for them,'' Dr. Moore says.
PhoneService is available on weekday afternoons from 2:30 to 6. The 60 volunteers who field about 30 calls each week receive formalized training that teaches them how to empathize with children's feelings and fears.
''Before we give any advice, we ask children what their parents have told them to do and try to get them to come up with solutions of their own,'' says Louise Guerney, a child psychologist and associate professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University, who heads the training team.
Volunteers may also walk a child through a step-by-step solution to a problem , depending on the age of the caller.
Although PhoneFriend maintains a direct line to local police and fire stations, volunteers have not yet had to deal with any overt emergencies. ''We've worked hard to counteract the image of a crisis line,'' Leila Moore says. ''Our primary response is to reflect kids' feelings, whether they're worried about having received a bad grade or having to deal with a younger brother or sister.''
Kathleen McNemar, who heads the ''Chatters'' latchkey phone service in Houston, echoes those sentiments. ''We have some children who call in every now and then, and others who phone us every day to read their homework or otherwise relieve their loneliness,'' she says. ''We're there to be a linkage to parents and kids.''
Unlike the voluntary and anonymous PhoneFriend, Chatters enrolls families for a nominal $30 a year. The phone-in service is staffed every weekday afternoon by a child care worker from Neighborhood Centers, a nonprofit community agency that receives some funding from the United Way.
When a family signs up for the service, parents and children receive training in setting up guidelines for responsibilities in 20 hypothetical situations. In the event of a burglary, for example, they're encouraged to decide what the child might do and how the parents might respond.
Although only 50 Houston-area families have enrolled in Chatters in the past two years, Miss McNemar says the service anticipates being able to care for between 300 and 400 children.