Home alone

May 22, 1991

Child Protective Service authorities in Prince William County, Va., recently performed one of the most ludicrous acts of blind bureaucracy in recent memory. Without warning, a social worker took 10-year-old Christopher Jordan from his home one Friday afternoon and put him in foster care for the weekend -- because the child was alone after school.

The incident is disturbing for two reasons. First, it clearly does a child no good to be wrenched from his home without warning and subjected to official pronouncements of his parents' inability to care for him. Second, the growing number of working women and the dearth of child care puts countless parents in an implacable bind. In Maryland, for example, there are 588,157 children under 12 with working mothers. But regulated child-care programs can accommodate only 112,386 -- a mere 19 percent of them. As such, 475,771 kids are cared for either in non-regulated settings or, more likely, they take care of themselves. Moreover, Maryland guidelines specify that children under 12 should not be left unsupervised -- which means almost half a million children could, theoretically, be carted off to foster care some afternoon.

That, of course, will not happen. But the fact is, there are now so many latchkey children that Baltimore city has set up a hot line, called Kidsline, for those who are lonely or scared. The effort is commendable, but it falls short of what these kids really need -- companionship, activities, protection, nurturing. It wouldn't be too difficult to provide these things if every elementary school either had before- and after-school programs, or offered transportation to nearby day-care centers, or at the very least functioned as a liaison with area providers to invigorate the supply. Simple commitment on the part of the General Assembly could make it happen. But child care has, regrettably, slipped to the bottom of the list of political priorities -- and with it, our children.

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