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April 14, 2000

Experts: More Latchkey Kids Means More Trouble

High-Risk Behavior Increases When Parents Are Gone

By Sherry Karasik, APB News

NEW YORK (APBnews.com) -- Law enforcement experts caution that some children are not mature enough to be at home without adult supervision in response to a report showing that the number of "latchkey kids" has nearly doubled since the 1970s.

The study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research sampled 1,500 children nationwide and found that about one in four are completely alone after school, including travel time from school to another location, and 2.5 percent are alone somewhere other than home. Almost one in five children are in supervised after-school care, the study revealed.

Parents have few guidelines to help them determine when and whether they can trust their children to take care of themselves and to handle emergencies, experts say. The average amount of time spent unsupervised by adults ranged from 47 minutes for children ages 5 to 7 to one hour and 15 minutes for children ages 11 and 12.

High-risk behavior is another concern, especially as children reach adolescence, experts say.

"Parents can reasonably worry about their child's ... experimenting with drugs, sex and shoplifting. ... These things happen to boys and girls throughout adolescence, and the incidents may increase when there's no supervision," said Deborah Belle, an associate professor of psychology at Boston University and author of The After School Lives of Children: Alone and With Others While Parents Work.

Laws ambiguous

Though parents are vulnerable to criminal prosecution should a young child left home alone become seriously injured, abandonment and neglect laws generally do not set a clear age threshold for leaving a child unsupervised at home.

"New Jersey has an open-ended approach to analyze abandonment or neglect claims. The state takes each case individually," said Andrew Fraser, a civil and criminal attorney and municipal prosecutor in Sparta, N.J. "For example, a 12-year-old left home alone may not be an issue unless there is a gun in the house."

The unofficial rule of thumb is that leaving a young child alone doesn't become an issue unless he or she is injured, killed or burns down the house, Fraser said.

Death, injury rates higher

Nearly 4.5 million children 14 and younger are injured in their homes every year. Most unintentional injury-related deaths occur when children are out of school and unsupervised, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign, an organization dedicated to the prevention of unintentional childhood injury, headquartered in Washington.

"Adolescents ordinarily change schools and peer groups at about this time; [they] encounter many pressures for change toward independence and adultlike behavior, but at the same time [they] have many questions about themselves -- who they are, how competent they are, where they fit," said child development expert Willard Hartup of the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development.

The University of Michigan study, which found that the number of unsupervised children ages 5 to 12 increased from 1.8 million to 3.4 million between 1984 and 1990, did not draw conclusions on the social impact of children home alone.

The study found that parents who lived in tightknit communities -- with neighbors who would step in if they saw a child getting into trouble -- were more likely to allow their children to take care of themselves after school. Parents also were more likely to let shy, withdrawn children remain unsupervised than those who were aggressive and needed supervision.

Author: Children need time alone

The news isn't all bad, said Sandra L. Hofferth, an author of the University of Michigan study. "A child [who] goes home alone and stays alone ... has time for reading for pleasure, studying or just doing nothing," she said.

Hofferth found that when they get home from school, children spend 100 minutes watching television, 74 minutes playing, 60 minutes studying, 60 minutes playing sports, 30 minutes doing housework, 30 minutes reading and 20 minutes talking.

Some children who care for themselves and their siblings after school rose to the challenge.

"[They] found a sense of meaning in what they were doing and felt empowered," said Belle, who studied 53 families which each included a child between 7 and 12 years old.

Struggle with self-discipline

But she also found that other children were frightened, couldn't structure their own time, didn't do their homework or appointed chores, or invited friends in against house rules.

"They struggled with issues of self-discipline despite their evident intelligence," Belle said.

To help ensure that a child will reward a parent's trust by behaving responsibly when home alone, he or she has to know a parent's expectations, advised Michele Goyette-Ewing, assistant clinical professor at Yale University's Child Study Center.

"There [have] to be rules, and if a child breaks the rules, make different care arrangements," he said.

Sherry Karasik is an APBnews.com correspondent in New Jersey.

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