Home Alone: The New Latchkey Kids

One in four U.S. children are latchkey kids. Here’s what parents can do to minimize their risk.

By Sara Solovitch

e="font-size: x-small; font-family: Verdana;">Seven years ago, when Natasha Johnson went to work at a temporary employment agency, she came to grips with the idea of her 8-year-old daughter, LaShea, being home alone after school. She grilled LaShea on the rules: Come right home after school; never answer the door; don’t peek through the curtains; don’t even answer the phone until you hear the code – one ring, a lengthy pause, then another ring.

e="font-size: x-small; font-family: Verdana;">Johnson also went one step further. She had LaShea collect missing children cards – those mass-distributed postcards that arrive courtesy of the Postal Service – the way that other kids collect Pokeman cards.

e="font-size: x-small; font-family: Verdana;">“I wanted to make her see the face of a child that didn’t make it home one day,” Johnson says, “to show her that even people who have houses with fences around them can still have missing children.”

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"Home alone, most kids spend their time watching TV – up to 1,500 hours a year (compared to spending 900 hours per year in school). They also perform poorly in school, compared to their supervised peers."

– Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory report

A couple of years later, Johnson became a certified testing administrator for a computer company, and LaShea was put in charge of her 2-year-old sister – bathing, feeding and comforting her – in the hours between 3 and 6 p.m.

e="font-size: x-small; font-family: Verdana;">“I know that’s a big responsibility to put on a child, but I could trust her,” says Johnson, who now works at a childcare facility. “People would tell me they came to the door and nobody was home. And I knew for a fact that she was there.”

The existence of large numbers of latchkey children has been widely recognized since at least the 1980s; no one questions that the problem exists, though putting a number to it has long proved difficult. Last year, a survey titled “America After 3 P.M.” startled many experts with the finding that 14.3 million children, from kindergarten through 12th grade, are in “self care” – or home alone – after school, in particular:

• 43,000 kindergarteners,

• 1.3 million kids between grades one and five, and

• 3.9 million middle-schoolers (in grades six through eight).

“By self-care we truly mean self-care – they really are alone,” says Jen Rinehart, interim director of the After-School Alliance, the New York-based group, which advocates for high-quality, affordable after-school programs, that commissioned the survey. “The fact that we got even 1 percent of parents to say it means there are many more. Because parents are very, very reluctant to admit that their children are home alone.”

Laws and Limits

Most states – including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Washington – lack laws stipulating when a child is old enough to be left home alone, according to the National Child Care Information Center (NCCIC). Some states have guidelines or recommendations. In Colorado, for example, police and social workers typically use age 12 as a baseline, while also taking the child’s maturity level into consideration, according to the state’s Department of Human Services. Resources: