On Monday and Friday afternoons, 9-year-old Joey would sling a backpack across his shoulder and walk five blocks from his grade school to his home. The fourth-grader carefully opened the front door and locked it behind him. He made a snack, then switched on the TV as he waited the three hours for his mom to get off work. Sometimes he got scared being by himself.
"I felt so guilty," says his mother, Rachel Brandon, a single mom whose son's after-school program shuttered due to lack of funding two years ago (both her name and Joey's have been changed to protect their privacy). But with a sitter beyond her budget and no one else to watch him, she had no other options. "Never did I think I'd be leaving a 9-year-old home alone."
One consequence of the nation's economic struggle is the toll it's taken on kids during the critical hours after school. As parents scramble to find work -- often taking jobs that entail long hours and odd shifts -- their affordable child-care solutions are disappearing. Government cutbacks have slashed scores of after-school programs and reduced the financial assistance for others, leaving families unable to find or afford alternative arrangements.
Quietly, a new generation of latchkey kids has emerged. One in 25 kindergartners through fifth-graders care for themselves after school, according to America After 3PM, a survey released last year by the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization, and JC Penney Afterschool. Overall, the number of self-supervised children has jumped to 15.1 million nationwide, a 6 percent increase since 2004. And, amazingly, it affects all income levels. The Afterschool Alliance reports that more than half of these kids come from middle- or upper-class households.
"A few years ago many of these families wouldn't have dreamed of letting their kids wait in an empty house," says Jennifer Rinehart, vice president of policy and research for Afterschool Alliance. "But in today's economy they often have no choice."
Brandon remembers being horrified when she received the letter informing her that three of the six after-school programs in her small Iowa town of nearly 27,000 were shutting down -- including Joey's. She couldn't afford $10 per hour for a babysitter, and the remaining programs in town were already filled. So she cobbled together a complicated care schedule. On Tuesdays Joey stays at school for a free mentoring program. Thursdays he goes to a tutor. School dismisses at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and he rides the bus to a day-care center. But on Mondays and Fridays he's on his own.
"Every day I have to stop and think, 'Now where is he today?'" Brandon says. "It's exhausting. And not being 100 percent sure he is safe and okay..." Her words trail off as her voice breaks.
On the days Joey is unattended, Brandon has instructed him not to answer the door or leave the house. One afternoon she called to check on him and got no answer. She flew out of her office and drove around the neighborhood, weeping. "I thought, 'What kind of a mom am I?'" she recalls. When she finally found him at a friend's house, she didn't know whether to scold him or to hug him.
Growing Up Too Fast
The Afterschool Alliance numbers, while scary, don't include the numerous caregiving breakdowns that occur before school and during evenings, weekends, and the summer. "We have a number of kids who go home alone when we close at 5, including in the dark in the winter," says Martha Petty, executive director of Flowing Wells Extension Program, a nonprofit that provides before- and after-school care at five sites in Tucson.
Summer is an especially difficult time for working parents to coordinate care. A 2006 U.S. Census Bureau survey found that 3.5 million children ages 5 to 11 -- one in eight -- were left unattended during July and August while their parents worked.
Kristin Wilton, a single mom of four in Tucson and an executive assistant for a community health center, used to receive tuition assistance for her sons' after-school and summer care. But then she got a $40-per-week raise, which bumped her out of eligibility for the program. She couldn't afford regular care (which cost three times as much), so her 10-year-old was forced to become the caretaker of his twin 6-year-old brothers for three hours after school and all day during the summer. "I thought I was doing everything right," Wilton says. "I got a good job, worked hard to be a role model for my children. What was I supposed to do -- tell my boss, 'Thank you very much for giving me a raise, but no thank you?'"
How Old Is Old Enough?
There are few laws governing when a child is permitted to stay home alone. Only Maryland (which sets the minimum age at 8) and Illinois (which forbids leaving a child younger than 14 without supervision) have specific legislation on the books. Other states merely offer recommended guidelines, such as advising that children under 12 not be left on their own for an unreasonable period of time.
These standards are purposely kept vague because a lot depends on the personality and capability of your child. Does she know how to answer the phone without revealing personal information? Would she know whom to call in an emergency?
Some 8-year-olds might be fine on their own for a short time, says Kimberly Allen, an assistant professor and extension specialist for the Department of 4-H Youth Development at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. Generally, though, a child is not ready to be left alone at home until middle school (age 11 or 12), since until then his decision-making skills are suspect and he could easily panic when faced with a dangerous situation.
Coping on their own is especially hard on the growing number of tweens and early teens who are left in charge of younger siblings on a daily basis. "These children are forced to play a grown-up role before they're ready," says Angela Sasseville, a family counselor and author of Families Under Financial Stress.
Yet she cautions against reflexively pointing fingers at parents who place their kids in this position. "Nothing cuts a parent to the bone more than the allegation that she's being neglectful," Sasseville says.
Just ask Deanna Velasquez, a hair stylist in Denver, and her husband, Joe, a heating-and-air-conditioning repairman. When both their businesses suffered in the downturn, Joe no longer felt comfortable leaving his job early, and Velasquez had to work late to make ends meet. Ultimately, she enlisted her older son, Dakota, then 13, to pick up his then 11-year-old brother, Noah, at school, then walk a mile and a half to an empty house. "I felt sick to my stomach the first day," she says, "but we don't have any money for child care. What else are we going to do?"
Sharing the Care
Some parents with no caregiving options have found a refreshingly old-fashioned solution to the problem: They've reached out to friends, neighbors, and other parents for help -- an "It Takes a Village" model of collective child care.
That tactic worked well for Darlene Trujillo. When she and her husband were both laid off from their job within a few months of each other in 2009, the mother of three had already developed a network of moms in her suburban Denver neighborhood by getting involved in her kids' school. The couple landed new jobs, but the hours were longer and less flexible, so Trujillo relied on family and friends to avoid having her three children (ages 9, 11, and 13) come home to an empty house. But the situation is workable because Trujillo has support she can call on at a moment's notice in case one of her kids gets sent home sick from school or needs a ride.
Asking for favors can be a major challenge for independent-minded parents, of course, as can accepting them. But it's often better than the alternative. Allen, the North Carolina State assistant professor, had no immediate solution when a snowstorm canceled school last winter, leaving her without care for her daughters, ages 6 and 8. Luckily, a neighbor offered to watch the kids so she could work. Allen then offered to sit for the woman's kids the following weekend. "It wasn't anything official -- just two moms pitching in for each other," Allen says. "And you know what? It felt really good."
Home-Alone Safety Tips
- Check your state's restrictions. The age guidelines vary, though most experts say a child should be at least 12 to be left on his own.
- Safeguard your home. Lock up alcohol, poisons, and firearms.
- Review the rules. Talk about what you expect your child to do -- and not do -- and create a schedule for her to follow (such as homework, chores, and then TV). Check in regularly, and consider getting her a cell phone for the walk home.
- Practice together. Have him stay alone for 30 minutes, then build up to an afternoon. Don't ask if he knows how to lock the door behind him; have him show you. Also role-play different situations and how to handle them (such as if someone on the phone asks where Mommy is).
- Be prepared. Post important phone numbers on the fridge, quiz her on different scenarios (such as what to do in case of a fire), and ask an adult in the area to be on standby.
- Stay positive. If you display unease about leaving him alone, he's more likely to be nervous about it too.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Parents magazine.