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Two Series, One Idea: Kids Home Alone : These TV orphans might not have many real-life counterparts, but experts say the shows reflect trends occurring within families.


In the first episode of Fox's "Party of Five," an hourlong drama about five white middle-class siblings whose parents have died, 16-year-old Bailey Salinger tells his 15-year-old sister: "We gotta seem in charge, Julia! We gotta seem like we can handle everything ourselves--like a normal family. Or else they have an excuse to split us up."

In the first installment of ABC's "On Our Own," a half-hour sitcom about seven black middle-class children in the same situation, 14-year-old Jazz Jerrico is telling four of her brothers and a sister: "That lady in there is a social worker. She gonna split us up if we don't get a relative to take care of us, so our aunt moved here from Memphis."

Actually, the aunt, or the person posing that way for the benefit of the Department of Children and Family Services, is the oldest brother, 20-year-old Josh. The eldest Salinger is 24-year-old Charlie.

Two new series, two different approaches to a single theme: children taking care of themselves. In each case, the parents have been killed in an automobile crash.

Sid Johnson, executive director of the American Public Welfare Assn., said that the number of real-life counterparts of these two orphan families would "not be statistically significant." Nevertheless, he and other child and family experts see in the two new series a metaphor for the state of many American children today: "home alone," either physically or emotionally.

"There is a phenomenon in families in which older teen-agers are assuming more responsibility than maybe 10, 20, 30 years ago," Johnson said. "(The two series) may reflect some quieter trends within families.

"There are unquestionably fewer parents in neighborhoods and communities during the day than there were before two-earner families and single-parent families became as prevalent as they are today. Teen-agers are taking more and more of the parents' responsibilities."

Dr. Victor C. Strasberger, chairman of the communications committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said, "Kids are always dealing these days with the potential loss of their parents, and that's called divorce . So this (orphan concept) isn't that far a stretch for a lot of kids."

Whether it is divorce or parents too busy to tend to their kids, whether it is a couple in Chicago who leave their 9- and 4-year-old daughters home alone for nine days over Christmas while they go on vacation, or another in Pittsburgh who consign four children for 16 days to a 14-year-old baby-sitter, the premise of these series is striking a chord with the experts (although not with the general public; ratings for both have been low).

"It's like children thumbing their noses at the adults who have abandoned them," said Ellen McGrath, a Laguna Beach psychologist and president of the media division of the American Psychological Assn. "(They) say, 'Well, so what? We don't need you anyway.'

"Look at any criteria of support for children," she implored. "The way we treat education, how it's become such a low priority. The way we treat abused children, that we have no social system that can adequately respond to that. The way we abandon middle-class children, that parents either have to work and can't provide backup support--the latchkey generation--or the parents are self-absorbed in their own interests so they don't see the children as the No. 1 priority for their time."

These series, she added, "suggest an enormous amount of mistrust toward adults, the kind of thing the spokespeople for Generation X speak of. They're saying we have failed them terribly, we are stupid, we can't be trusted, and we're fools."

Several of those interviewed cited a 1990 study by the Child Welfare League of America, revealing that 42% of children ages 5-9 in rural, urban and suburban areas were left alone to care for themselves occasionally, if not regularly. Percentages ranged from 28% for kindergartners to 77% for third-graders.

Coincidentally, as these series debuted last month, the national media were reporting numbers showing that the old "Ozzie and Harriet" family ideal was vanishing. In post-World War II America, seven out of 10 children grew up in a family with both biological parents married to each other; by 1991, only half lived within that definition of family.

Executives with the two shows said they didn't necessarily have these figures in mind when they developed the projects.

When "On Our Own" executive producer Robert L. Boyett and his partners first pitched a "latchkey" concept for "On Our Own," the audience was to have seen "the bottom legs of two trousers and shoes and the bottom of a skirt and heels go out the front door in the morning," and the same trousers and heels "returning at night."

It was only when they hired an actual family of six siblings--the Smolletts, with comedian Ralph Louis Harris as the oldest child--that they dropped the parental presence. "We really didn't have room" for more characters at that point, Boyett said.

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