Officials from the Department of Social Services and state PTA want parents to explore their options before leaving children home to care for themselves or their younger siblings while school is out for the summer and parents are at work.
"We are really concerned about the impact on children who are left totally alone and responsible," said Norman G. Angus, department director.In addition to facing crises for which they might not be prepared, statistics indicate that children, frustrated and frightened by the responsibility of child care, often abuse their siblings.
"About 30 percent of children who are abused are abused by other children," said Terry Twitchell, public information officer for Social Services. "If you have children, you know they can be incredibly rotten to each other to begin with. Add in that pressure, and it's very difficult."
She cited a recent case, where an 11-year-old girl in another state killed one sibling and was in the process of killing another left in her care. "I just can't do it any more," she told officials.
"There are times when we as adults don't think we can take it any more," said Pat Kreher, director of licensing for the department. "Imagine how they feel. Parents need to look at all kinds of options."
Darlene Gubler, president of the state Parent Teacher Association, said parents need to be creative. "We need to encourage more local child care within school facilities and encourage extended families to become involved and concerned. If employers would consider giving women who asked for it a four-day 10-hour work week, perhaps they could take turns caring for a group of children. We just fear that children left alone become at-risk."
According to Angus, Utah spends more than $10 million on day care, "more than most of the states nearby. But it isn't enough and people need to contact their senators and representatives to express concern." Angus also encouraged employers to consider offering child care on a "buffet-style" benefit list, so parents could choose it in place of something else.
Kreher said that some parents cannot afford child care and have to work to keep food on the table. "We're aware many parents don't have another choice." Such parents should establish firm guidelines, make a list of phone numbers, give good instructions about any appliances the child is allowed to use, like a TV or microwave and set strict rules. "Let's at least give them all the tools we can."
Other options to help the children might be cooperative efforts between parents, like establishment of safe houses and a community hotline, she said. Older children might be able to participate in recreation programs, arts and crafts, and other activities that are "enrichment oriented" but not called day care, which carries a stigma to older children.
"At 12, most kids can spend a certain amount of time alone. But to put a 14-year-old in charge of younger kids five days a week is a setup for disaster, for failure, for total exasperation. There's no time to resolve inner conflicts; you're constantly dealing with crisis. The older child may become depressed and abusive, the younger one fearful."
The ramifications for both children, she said, are terrible.