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For Latchkey Kids, a Friend Is Just a Phone Call Away

December 15, 1996|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alexander is 7 years old and there is a strange scratching noise at the door. What should he do?

Katie is 8 and can't finish her homework. Does anyone understand word problems?

Daniel is 6 and he was just wondering . . . could someone please read him a story?

They are all home alone.

Every day after school, they step gingerly into empty apartments and lifeless houses. The lucky ones might be greeted by a pet. Even luckier are those who can pick up the phone to check in with parents at work.

But for many, there is no call, no one to tell about the A on a spelling test, the winning soccer kick at recess or the bully on the long walk home.

As the winter days grow darker and colder, more and more children are reaching out to PhoneFriend--Southern California's only confidential "warmline" for latchkey kids.

Housed in the tiny space between the chaplains' offices at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, PhoneFriend is a free call-in service for any child in any of 90 participating elementary schools in Glendale, La Can~ada Flintridge, Burbank, Pasadena, Eagle Rock, Highland Park and Hollywood. Originally covering only areas in the 818 area code, the service added a new line this fall in the 213 area code, and the phones have not stopped ringing.

The callers may be frightened--"I think somebody followed me home!"--or anxious--"My best friend says she'll never speak to me again"--or just curious--"How would a person get gum out of his hair?"

Before this school year is out, the volunteer-run service expects to answer more than 15,000 calls--the highest volume since its founding in 1989. That volume may require a substantial increase in PhoneFriend's modest $20,000 budget, which to date has been funded solely by the medical center and a handful of corporate and individual donors.

"There is no way of knowing if there are more kids home alone here than before," says PhoneFriend supervisor Bruce Nelson, "but we do know there are an awful lot of kids out there who desperately need someone to talk to."

Although there are no reliable statistics on the exact number of latchkey children in California and the United States, children's rights experts estimate that at least 4.5 million of the nation's 30 million schoolchildren are left home alone to care for themselves occasionally, if not regularly.

A landmark survey by the Child Welfare League of America reported that in 1990, as many as 28% of the nation's kindergartners were being left alone and as many as 77% of third-graders were spending time home alone. The league is a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy federation that for 76 years has been an outspoken voice for children's rights.

While those figures have not been officially updated, researchers say there is good reason to believe the number of kids in so-called self care has not diminished. "This is still a serious problem, and it is likely to get worse soon," predicts Wellesley College research scientist Beth M. Miller. "With welfare reform, we're going to see more and more low-income single mothers going to work. All of them will have a very, very difficult time providing care for their children when they do."

And the children left home alone can expect to face a very difficult time on their own. In the 1990 study of latchkey children, the authors found that elementary-school-age children were unable to safely handle even the most ordinary situations in their homes.

The researchers looked at how children reacted to such commonplace occurrences as answering the telephone and handling the delivery of a package and found that few children answered the phone properly. Many freely told the caller their names and that they were home alone. All the children failed the package delivery test with most of them opening the door to the stranger with the package.

"This inability to deal with potentially harmful situations placed the children at great risk," the researchers concluded.

Those who operate PhoneFriend call their service a "warmline," not a hotline for kids in crisis. But on any weekday afternoon, there can be crises on the line.

There was the little girl left home alone all day because she was too sick to go to school. "She was very young, maybe 7 or 8," Nelson recalls. "And she told us she had been vomiting all day. Her mother wouldn't be home till 5:30, and she was clearly so distressed and so very sick, we offered to call her mother for her but she refused. She pleaded with us not to call for fear she would get in trouble. We offered to call medical help for her, but she resisted that as well."

Finally, after more than an hour on the phone, the sick and weepy girl announced with relief that "Mommy's here now." The absent mother--a nurse in a Los Angeles-area hospital--took the receiver, thanked the PhoneFriend volunteer for keeping her child busy and hung up.

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