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Schools Urged To Seek Solutions to Troubles of Latchkey Children

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Boston--Although the effects on "latchkey" children of being left alone at home are not yet clearly documented, educators and others should not wait for research findings but should move quickly to develop after-school alternatives for such children.

That was the view of some speakers here this month during a meeting billed by its sponsors as the first national gathering to be held on the subject of the so-called latchkey children.

The 150 participants and 65 speakers--including owners and operators of child-care centers, state child-licensing specialists, state and federal policymakers, and corporate child-care advocates--were brought together by the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, the School-Age Child Care Project of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, and Wheelock College.

"This was a first," said Michelle Seligson, director of the School-Age Child Care Project at Wellesley. "We got a lot of direction from this conference for the future."

An estimated 7 million children 13 years old and under are without adult care or supervision before and after school while their parents work, according to the Children's Defense Fund. And given the expected increase in the number of families in which a single parent or two parents will work, the need for child care for preschool as well as school-age children will also rise in the coming decade, speakers at the conference said.

Need for School-Age Care

Child-care programs have historically been set up to meet the needs of working parents of preschool children, speakers pointed out, and only in recent years has the need for care of school-age children been recognized.

"The very fabric of our culture is being changed," said Patricia Divine-Hawkins, project director of the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "And the child-care market is not responding to the needs for school-age care."

"The most crying need we have in this country today is for adults to be adults to children," said David Elkind, professor of child study and visiting university professor and scholar at the Lincoln Filene Center at Tufts University and the author of The Hurried Child and the forthcoming All Grown Up and No Place to Go.

High Levels of Fear

Speaking at an introductory session, Mr. Elkind stressed the need for educators, researchers, parents, and government officials to recognize the symptoms of stress exhibited by latchkey children, to "stop ra-tionalizing" that latchkey experiences build independence in children, and to work to find solutions to the problem of unsupervised, undernurtured children.

"Let's not kid ourselves that this is a beneficial experience," Mr. Elkind said. "We don't make children more independent by taking them out of a [secure] situation."

Lynette Long, assistant professor of education at Loyola University in Washington, D.C., and Thomas Long, associate professor in counseling and guidance at Catholic University, agreed. The results of their research on children in several Maryland communities showed, they said, that 25 percent of latchkey children have high levels of fear. Such children fear sexual abuse by siblings, unexplained sounds, isolation, and boredom, Ms. Long said, adding that some go so far as to lock themselves in closets until their parents come home.

Further, she said, there is the added stress of parental guilt and children's resentment at having to assume parental responsibilities, such as doing chores and caring for younger siblings. Children who are with parents or other supervisory adults during the after-school hours, the Longs concluded, are better off than children who are at home alone.

Children "should be allowed to have a childhood," said Edward F. Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, commenting on the negative consequences for children who are forced to assume too much responsibility for their own welfare and, in some cases, for that of younger siblings.

Opposing Views

But another speaker offered countering views. He suggested that it is not at all clear that latchkey children are harmed by the experience and that policymakers should not rush in to solve what may not, in fact, be a social problem.

Hyman Rodman, Excellence Fund Professor and director of the Family Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said that in a study he conducted on the effects on children of time spent alone, he found "no significant differences" in self-esteem, personality, self-control, and judgment between latchkey children and children who had after-school adult supervision.

In a comment that others repeated, Mr. Rodman also cautioned against formulating policy before more research is done on the possible ill effects of the latchkey situation.

Society's view of latchkey children could change, he said, as was true of day care and working moth-ers; in time, the problem may not seem as pressing.

"We are watching a rapid expansion of services in this area," commented Fern Marx, a researcher at Brandeis University. "But we have relatively little knowledge of the short- or long-term outcomes."

"But research takes a long time and my kids can't wait," said one participant.

"Do we want to wait until we have accurate data or do we want to deal with what we think is the [reality]?" asked a Springfield, Va., day-care worker.

"To some extent, there was a bit of a gap between the research community and the practitioner community," noted Ms. Seligson after the conference. "The people in the field are interested in the research, but they're more interested in the solution side."

Massachusetts Senator Chester Atkins was among those asking for solutions. Calling the gathering "an important milestone" in the development of programs and policies for latchkey children, he warned participants to work quickly to formulate day-care policy.

"We are about to be hit with a tidal wave of demand in the child-care area," Senator Atkins said. "The input [for program development] has to come now and the input can't be over scholars debating things."

"Unless we establish a consensus as to general direction, ... the political policy will be formed without you," he said.

State-Based Policy

That policy may be more effective as a state-based rather than a federally based initiative, according to David Rust, director of policy and legislation in the office of human-development services in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Maintaining that "we've had a revolution in our labor force in the last 10 years," and that in 1990 there will be an estimated 18 million working mothers with 6- to 13-year-olds and 1.6 million working mothers with 5-year-olds, Mr. Rust told participants that "there is a great individual responsibility" in finding solutions to the problem of latchkey children.

"Is the care of children with working parents the responsibility of the federal government?" Mr. Rust asked. "No. ... I think the assertion that the federal government should provide day care for you is ridiculous."

Federal Government's Role

Representative John McKernan Jr., Republican of Maine and a member of the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, disagreed with Mr. Rust. He noted, "We have a hole in our child care in this country," and "we can't spend everything that's necessary." The Congressman announced his support for HR 4193, a bill that would provide seed money to communities to set up and operate child-care centers for school-age children. The bill has passed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

"I think it's important that the federal government, which has deeper pockets than state and local governments, demonstrate ... how these programs can be worked out efficiently," said Representative McKernan. "These types of programs will benefit children--the people who will be making the decisions of tomorrow."

President Reagan will probably sign the latchkey-children bill, if it is approved by the Senate, according to Ted Rozeboom, a staff assistant to Senator Donald Riegle, Democrat of Michigan.

"The indication is that, while they don't like it, they won't veto it ... four months before the election when [they] already have problems with gender gap and equity."

Representative McKernan also announced the introduction of a bill4in the Congress that would make the week of Sept. 2 "National School-Age Child Care Awareness Week."

Additional Seminars

The two-day conference also included seminars on such topics as the psychological and physical risks faced by latchkey children; the establishment of telephone hotlines and neighborhood check-in programs for latchkey children; and the involvement of corporations in care programs.

In addition, several seminars focused on research and policy development, formal child-care programs for school-age children, legal issues, and the role of the public schools. (See related report on page 10.)

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