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After-school care critical to heading off host of woes

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I hate to sound like a time-study woman. I don't usually track social problems by the hour and the minute.

But over the past few years, I have begun to notice research that literally clocks some of our biggest woes. And it's enough to set off alarm bells.The first one was a study that asked the simple question: What time of day - not of month, but of day - do teenage girls get pregnant? In short, when are they having sex? It turned out that it wasn't the weekend but the workday, it wasn't midnight but midafternoon.

Say what you will about biorhythms but the most fertile territory was an empty house.

Then came the study asking what time of day juvenile crimes were committed. Once again, the most popular hours were between 3 and 6 p.m.

It appeared that many who weren't creating babies were creating mayhem.

Now this time line isn't meant to raise parental blood pressure. It's quite high enough, thank you. In the average office, the moment that school lets out, anxiety goes up and productivity goes down. It's 3 p.m., do you know where your child is?

But any rational policymaker would figure out that the most effective way to reduce pregnancy and crime would be after-school programs. And yet in many towns, there is more interest in curfews to get the kids home at night than in programs to keep them busy after school. Instead of keeping them safe, we have gotten tough.

Now, gradually and tardily the pendulum is swinging. Not long ago, when the president came to Boston to promote a program combating youth crime, he included $60 million for . . . after-school programs. The drug czar followed him, talking about combating young drug use. Gen. McCaffrey too seemed most animated boosting . . . after-school programs.

Frankly, I don't like the idea that we need to prove some trouble in River City before we do right by kids. But like many parents, I often found myself sputtering an idle-hands-are-the-devil's-workshop theory of child-raising. By now I am willing to settle for any rationale that keeps school-age children supervised and constructively engaged with adults throughout the day.

It's been twentysomething years since after-school care was actively promoted as an essential solution to the work-family conflict. Since then, some 50,000 programs have sprung up across the country, mostly for young children, mostly in suburban pockets and overwhelmingly paid for by parents.

Still, when 75 percent of the mothers of school-age children are working, millions are left worrying about the hole in the day. There are at least 5 million children whose parents admit they are in that euphemism of euphemisms, self-care.

For the most part, it's children from the fifth grade up who are on their own because care is unavailable or unaffordable. But under welfare reform, the age will be going down. States don't have to provide any child care for kids who are over 6.

Any way you look at it, from teenagers in trouble to 7-year-olds alone or to kids spending their afternoons in front of TV, after-school care has become the kids issue.

Michelle Seligson, who has headed the School-Age Child Care Project at Wellesley College for nearly a generation, says that "there is enough knowledge about good after-school programs. There are enough people who realize their importance. This should be something we commit to as a country."

That long-delayed commitment would build on the variety of models already up and running and successful. Some are funded privately, some in concert with the business community, some publicly. It would mean that communities set this as a priority, that they work to keep school doors open, to find space and transportation.

At best, these programs are not an extension of school so much as an enrichment, a place for the arts, sports, hobbies, safe socializing. The research shows that they make a difference in the way kids feel and perform. They don't just supervise the young but engage them with what we know they lack and need most - caring adults.

Today we are quick, too quick, to turn a skeptical ear to the prospect of any new social program. But this is a moment when we are acknowledging how much kids need adult supervision and relationships.

This is what makes Seligson hopeful. "I have a vision of sitting down with the drug people, the education people, the law enforcement people and everybody and together getting this done."

This is an idea whose time - 3 to 6 p.m. - has finally come.