Survey: Many Youngsters Home Alone After School

Despite attempts to lower child-care costs and expand choices, many children are left alone after school ends and before their parents come home from work.

One in five children ages 6 to 12 are regularly left without adult supervision after school, according to a survey of working parents.

Older children are more likely to spend their after-school hours home alone rather than in day care, activities at school or under the supervision of a relative or baby sitter, researchers at the nonpartisan Urban Institute reported today.

Main Barrier Not Necessarily Cost

They also found that more affluent, nonminority workers reported leaving children home alone even if they worked 9-to-5 jobs. That surprised some analysts and parents who believed the main barrier to supervision was cost.

“Self-care among school-age children is clearly a fact of life for millions of working families,” said report co-author Gina Adams, an Urban Institute researcher.

The report, based on a telephone survey of more than 44,000 households in 1997, does not explain why parents make the choices they do.

“I’m sure they are anguishing and struggling and talking to their kids on the phone as frequently as they can, cobbling things together from one day to the next,” said Lois Salisbury, director of Children Now, an Oakland, Calif.-based group that deals with the affect on families of health care, media and tax policies.

Lack of Supervision Called Risky

Researchers, policy-makers and child advocates say the time any child spends unsupervised is filled with risks such as injury, drug use, falling behind in studies.

“Millions of children without care in the hours after school are in harm’s way,” President Clinton said in a statement. He is seeking $1 billion for after-school programs for more than 2 million children.

Salisbury said parents face new challenges in caring for their youngsters.

“Working parents could once count on a neighborhood of caring, watchful adults to fill in the gap,” she said. “Neighborhoods are ghost towns during the day, and that is regardless of economic background.”

Parents surveyed tended to find care for the youngest of children, regardless of income level or work hours; 10 percent of 6- to 9-year-olds were in “self-care,” compared with 35 percent of 10- to 12-year-olds who cared for themselves until their working parents get home.

By contrast, 55 percent of children 9 and younger were sent regularly to supervised care or activities while parents worked; 35 percent of the older children in the study were usually supervised after school.

The survey was conducted by Westat Inc. of Rockville, Md.