Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Millions of kids go unsupervised, U.S. report says

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        About 7 million grade-school children are regularly left home unsupervised while their parents work or are away, the U.S. Census Bureau says in a report out today.

        In a 1995 sampling of 30,000 households — not all of which had children — the Census Bureau found:

        • Self-care was more prevalent among middle-school children than elementary school children.

        • Nine percent of children (2.4 million) ages 5 to 11, and 41 percent of children (4.4 million) ages 12 to 14 regularly cared for themselves.

        • Overall, 18 percent of all 5- to 14-year-olds cared for themselves for extended periods.

        Fueling this report: the increasing number of single-parent households, rising numbers of families where

        two parents work, and the high cost of child care.

        Leaving children home alone — especially younger children — can be dangerous, says child psychologist Dr. James Brush, who has a private practice in Monfort Heights. It also can lead to criminal penalties such as child endangerment or abandonment, and the child could be removed from the home.

        After-school hours are peak times when the most serious juvenile crimes occur, according to federal statistics.

        Caren Young, a Price Hill parent of 5-year-old Joe, says she could not imagine leaving her son home alone.

        “There is no way I could do it,” she says. “My kid is as smart as a tack, but he couldn't be left alone. ... We don't even let him answer the door.”

        All sorts of dangerous situations could pop up, she says: “What if he decided to make soup? He's very unpredictable.”

        Leaving children home alone can be harmful physically and emotionally, Dr. Brush says. While some children are mature enough to be left alone, many are not.

        “Parents have to assess a child's maturity,” Dr. Brush says.

        “But even very mature children below the age of 10 should not be left home alone — even briefly.”

        Parents grapple with complex problems in trying to arrange child care.

        The proportion of children living in single-parent homes more than doubled between 1970 and 1997 — from 12 percent to 28 percent, according to federal statistics. Since 1994, the proportion of married-couple families with children under 18 in which both parents were employed also has grown dramatically.

        At the same time, the cost of child care is rising.

        In one unusual finding, the Cen sus Bureau reports that the chances of children caring for themselves increased in families with higher incomes — from 11 percent of children in poverty to 22 percent of children in families with incomes at least double the poverty line. As incomes rose higher, however, self-care decreased again.

        Dawn Grace of Mount Airy says she and her husband pay about 20 percent of their income for full-time care of their 9-year-old, 5-year-old and 14-month-old children.

        “We really can't afford it, but we cannot afford not to have it,” Mrs. Grace says.

        Still, she's facing the child care dilemma this week because her full-time babysitter broke her knee cap. Mrs. Grace took a day off Monday from her job as senior community development analyst for the city of Cincinnati. Her husband is a senior personnel analyst for the city.

        “I don't know what I'll do to morrow,” she says.

        Ms. Young says she's lucky that she and her husband own their own business, Cincinnati Costume Co., and can take their son to work on snow days or other days when there's no school.

        Some, but not all, schools offer child-care programs.

        Mason City Schools in Warren County, for example, started a child-care program in 1989 that now runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for kids in kindergarten through fourth grade. Parents pay an annual registration fee of $35 and an hourly rate for care of each child, starting at $3.10 per hour for the first child and lower rates for siblings.

        “A lot of Mason parents work, so it's a nice service,” says district spokeswoman Shelly Benesh.

        The YMCA of Greater Cincinnati offers 69 child-care before- and after-school programs throughout the area, ranging from $30 to $69 for one child.


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