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Millions of U.S. students home alone

October 31, 2000
Web posted at: 2:58 p.m. EST (1958 GMT)

WASHINGTON — Call it a scare that working parents could do without this
Halloween — 2.4 million children under the age of 12 are home alone before or
after school, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Census
bureau.

The report says 7 million 5-to-14-year-olds of working parents are
left to care for themselves an average of six hours a week. Thirteen percent of
them are home alone for 10 hours a week, according to the report. The
statistics, based on 1995 statistics, show the majority, 65 percent, are
middle-schoolers, ages 12-14; the rest are grade school-age.

Megan, age 9, and her sister, Sarah, age 11, are among them. After they come
home from school, they told CNN’s Holly Firfer, they grab a snack, do some
homework and watch TV. “Some things we can do and some things we can’t, ”
the girls said. “But usually, we can do anything we want.”

It’s not a situation they or their mom, who asked that their full names not be
used, prefer. “I wish I didn’t have to do it,” their mom says, “I wish I really had
a job that I was home by 3 o’clock. And I know they would like that, too, but
they understand it. It’s not in the cards right now.”

The amount of time children are left alone concerns not only parents, but child
advocates and researchers alike.

“It very well may be they are taking care of themselves during the after school
hours from 3 to 6,” Kristin Smith, Census Bureau analyst, told Firfer, “when
other research has shown that there is a spike in the crime rate against juveniles
and juvenile crime rate during that time.”

Researchers, policy-makers and child advocates say that unsupervised time
increases the risk of injury, crime, drug use or falling behind in studies.

Educators and others point to enrichment programs for children as a
way to address the problem. President Clinton is seeking $1 billion for
after-school programs for more than 2 million children. The census survey
found that four out of every 10 grade school-age children take part in before
or after school activities, including sports and clubs.

The report shows that children of single fathers are more likely than children of
single mothers to be home alone after school. The survey also found that 22 percent
of the children left home alone come from families with incomes twice the poverty
level, while 11 percent come from families at poverty-level income.

A survey released last month supports the census findings. In that survey, based
on 1997 research into 44,000 households, the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan
agency, found that poor workers were less likely than those in a higher income
level to leave children home alone.

That finding surprised some analysts and parents who believed the main barrier
to supervision was cost.

“Self-care among school-aged children is clearly a fact of life for millions of
working families,” said Gina Adams, a researcher for the Urban Institute.

Neither the census report nor the Urban Institute survey explains why parents of
school-aged children make the choices they do.

Working parents of preschool children are also making different choices,
according to the data. The survey showed 25 percent of preschoolers were in
professional day care in 1995, up slightly from 23 percent in 1985. The data also
showed that, even though care costs are rising, fewer working parents placed
pre-schoolers with relatives in 1995, compared with 1985.

In 1985, parents who paid cash for preschool child care shelled out $59 per
week; in 1995, that amount increased to $95 per week, according to the report.

Though the census information is five years old, industry watchers say it
represents one of the most detailed findings on the changing costs and dynamics
of child care.

CNN Correspondent Holly Firfer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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