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.