Home Alone in North Carolina


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Jeana Lamb* would love to know exactly what both her sons are doing after school while she's at work — but she has to settle for a little less.

Two years ago, the single mother enrolled her younger son, now 8 years old, in a YMCA after-school program at a 40 percent discount. Even with financial assistance, she can only afford to send one of her boys. Her oldest, now 12, has been staying by himself at home since he was 10.

"He calls me when he arrives home every day, and we talk during his time home alone constantly," the Huntersville mom says. "I would love to be able to afford both kids in after-school just so they could both benefit from the social interaction."

Working mom Lisa Foster knows that her two daughters enjoy the social aspects of Charlotte-Mecklenburg School's (CMS) Afterschool Enrichment Program (ASEP). But Foster's primary goal isn't socialization, it's supervision.

"One of the biggest advantages is that I know where my children are each and every day after school," she says. She also likes that her daughters, both in elementary school, get their homework done daily and have time for study or review before she picks them up at 6 p.m. And she's vocal about the curriculum: musicals, programs and special projects and field trips on teacher workday.

"For the peace of mind I receive, it is well worth every penny we spend," she says.

Lamb and Foster are working moms. Their situations are very different, but they both want the best for their children.

Benefits of after-school programs

According to POST statistics, children spend 50 percent more time out of school than in school. This includes the hours before and after school, school holidays and summer vacation. Large chunks of time like these are important when it comes to child development. And parents count on after-school and holiday programming to help their children grow and mature.

Advocates for after-school programs point to the many benefits of private, nonprofit and public programs throughout the state. Students enrolled in these programs typically get help with homework, participate in sports and other physical activities, prepare for tests, work on school projects and make new friends. In the Young Scholars survey, 69 percent of parents indicated that they believe such programs improve school attendance and reduce dropout rates.

"My daughter has been able to participate in Chess Club, Children's Theatre and other after-school activities on-site," says Greg Vacek, a Charlotte father of a Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy student. "She has been able to exercise and play with friends outside where she probably would watch TV at home."

Program options are limited

The problem is, according to 2005 survey information, North Carolina is "flunking" when it comes to afterschool programming. Results released in the summer of 2005 from the Young Scholars Afterschool Survey of North Carolina's Working Parents indicate that 91 percent of the state's working parents believe after-school programs are "absolute necessities." Yet more than one-third gave the state a failing grade when it comes to expanding after-school care.

That means parents like Lamb and Foster — and many of Carolina Parent's readers — don't have nearly as many options as they should. Only 14 percent of all children in North Carolina are in after-school programs. And almost a third of children from working families are completely unsupervised in the afternoons. Of those, it's estimated that 30 percent are "latchkey kids," children who have keys to their homes and are often alone at home after school because their parents are at work.

"There are just so many latchkey children out there," worries Claire Tate, director of Partners in Out-of-School Time (POST). "Parents are doing the very best they can. We have 5,000 on waiting lists for child-care subsidies in Mecklenburg County alone."

Many programs are expensive

A number of program directors say that expense, transportation difficulties and restricted hours of operation keep many parents from enrolling their children in after-school programs. Middle- and low-income parents and those in rural communities experience the greatest difficulty

"It's expensive! That's where the problem lies," says Tate, who estimates the average cost for a school-age child for after-school care to be $4,000 annually. She says the answer is to invest more public dollars into after-school and school programs.

Monnie Griggs, the extended learning coordinator of Durham Public Schools agrees. "The reason more families do not take advantage of afterschool programs is due to financial restraints," she says. "Most organizations that operate after-school programs are either nonprofit or self-supporting departments. Our department operates solely on parent fees and grants. There are limited resources that would allow these agencies to operate non-fee programs for families."

Affordable solutions

The YMCA is the largest provider of after-school care in the country. In Charlotte, it ranks as the second largest provider of after-school care during the year. (CMS's program is the largest).

"The Y provides financial assistance and is able to serve middle-income families who don't qualify for public assistance," says Jennifer Durkin of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, who noted that after-school teen programs are also offered and transportation is available from most schools.

A number of parents across the state rely on a variety of after-school programs within public and private school systems. CMS's ASEP program currently serves 6,000 students at 87 elementary schools, four pre-K centers and 17 middle schools. The cost is $51 a week (or $204 per month) for the first child; $49 additional per week for a second child.

According to Leigh Bishop, assistant director for the program, parents can receive subsidy assistance through Child Care Resources or through the city. She thinks the real stumbling block for participation is often transportation, which is not provided at CMS.

"Families with younger siblings choose to have school-age students attend the day care so that their children are picked up at one location. Also, families that have older siblings probably allow children to ride the bus home and are cared for by an older sibling," Bishop says.

In Durham Public Schools, before- and/or after-school programs operate in all 28 elementary schools, all nine middle schools and one high school. Fourteen percent of elementary school students participate in afterschool programming. The cost per month for non-grant funded elementary programs is $135 for after school and $45 before school.

In Orange County, the cost is $35 per week (or $140 per month) for one student in its after-school program. Seventeen percent of elementary school students participate, and 35 percent of middle school students attend in a unique program for ages 11 to 14.

All elementary schools and some middle schools in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools offer before-school care, after-school care or both. Fees are charged, but scholarships are available for students who demonstrate financial need.

Guilford County Public School's after-school program for grades K-5 costs $35 per week and features a regular study hall. Other parents of school children often turn to private child-care options such as day-care centers or after-school baby sitters, which range in cost from $5 to $10 an hour, often pricier than nonprofit programs, church day cares or care provided by extended family members.

Perhaps the least expensive alternative is allowing children to stay home alone with no supervision. The cost: as little as it costs to make a duplicate house key. Or is the cost really much greater?

Legions of latchkey kids

Lamb defends her decision to allow her oldest stay home alone: "The age of a child plays a factor in determining when they are ready to be alone, but I think their maturity level and their own confidence and security with being home alone is also important. I know that he's fine."

Gail Angle of Durham Social Services says her office has minimum standards that child protective service social workers use as a guide to determine if a child can safely be left alone.

"Children 5 and under are not to be left anywhere alone. They must be supervised by an adult by visual and auditory contact, especially when they are left outside," she explains. "Children from 6 to 8 years of age are not to be left alone for more than a few minutes. Children 9 to 10 are not to be left alone for more than two hours, and children ages 11 to 12 are not left alone for more than four hours."

Parents aren't always aware of these guidelines, and even those who are can't always adhere to them. "We do run into this problem quite often and, for the most part, people just can't afford after-school programs and summer camp programs," Angle says.

Home alone too much, too soon

Rosa Andrews, who works with NC State 4-H, a program that provides support for 4-H after-school care providers, worries that financial constraints are leading parents to make decisions that aren't in their children's best interests

"I would suspect that children are being left alone that are too young to be alone. We hear sad stories all the time of latchkey children harmed when alone," she says.

According to recent statistics, juvenile violence and crime rates are four times greater during after-school hours, and youth are 37 percent more likely to become teen parents if they are not involved in after-school activities. Furthermore, young people home alone for long stretches of time are at great risk of multiple social problems.

"Latchkey does have a negative connotation. Kids are exposed to garbage TV, household accidents, violent video games, as well as early experimentation in sex and drugs," says Tate, who also worries about what kids are missing out on. "Arts, sports, literacy, social and emotional skills. You don't get that sitting at home alone.

Kids aren't the only ones who suffer

North Carolina's lack of affordable and accessible after-school programs may be affecting the economy, as well. According to the Young Scholars Survey of North Carolina's Working Parents, absenteeism and decreased productivity stemming directly from parents' needs to provide after-school child care cost businesses between $500 and $2,000 per employee annually. More than half of the working parents surveyed have taken time off from work to care for their kids or transport them after school.

"When working parents worry about their children, business dollars walk out the door," says Gail Daughtry, executive director of the program.

Although state officials and child development experts set forth guidelines about when children can be left alone safely, most agree that there is, in fact, no magic number or age. Instead, parents must weigh their options carefully, often making hard choices based on maturity levels, safety concerns, financial obligations and transportation issues.

According to the Afterschool Alliance, a national public awareness and advocacy group, these choices would be far easier if parents had more numerous and more affordable options from which to choose — public, private, low-cost and free. The organization's goal is to secure accessible afterschool programming for all children by the year 2010. And that's a goal every parent can support.

* Name changed to protect privacy.

Note: This article was written in 2005.

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