Kids are back at school now and for many that means they will be going home to an empty house. These “latchkey kids,” as they are called, must take care of themselves for a few hours each day while parents are away. For many kids, the same is true during the summer months and school holidays. It is estimated that 40% of kids are left at home alone at some time, whether it’s while parents are at work, running errands or other commitments that require them to be away.
To help protect children at home alone, AMR urges parents to provide clear guidelines for them to follow, actively teach their children how to respond in challenging situations and eliminate household hazards to help their kids stay safe.
Stan Alford, operations manager with AMR in central Mississippi, said, “Latchkey children are at greater risk than those supervised by adults to suffer a serious injury, become victimized or engage in delinquent behavior. A solid plan emphasizing safety will help protect boys and girls on their own at home.”
In some communities, half of all children age five to 13 take care of themselves part of their day at home alone. Yes, some are as young as five, although that is certainly not the ideal situation, and we would hope any child as young as that would have an older sibling at home with them. A few states have laws against leaving children under a certain age at home alone. While Mississippi has no such law, authorities in the state recommend the child be at least 12 years old.
“Ask yourself if your child has the judgment to stay at home alone safely,” Alford said. “Some younger kids are more mature and responsible than many older children. Parents must assess each child individually and see how well he or she retains the their safety instructions. It’s wise to build up gradually the time the child is at home alone.”
Parents and kids who rely on the latchkey solution should address these important safety issues and potential situations:
Check your home thoroughly for hazards. Eliminate the risks or teach the child to avoid them. For example, you might teach the child never to use the stove, but, instead, to use the microwave. If there is a gun in the house, be sure it is in a locked cabinet and make certain only grown-ups can open it. Lock up alcohol, medications, and poisonous or flammable materials.
Teach the child when and how to call 911. Enter “videos of practice 911 calls for kids” into a search engine to find lots of teaching tools to choose from. Also enter a list of your emergency numbers in each cell telephone. If you have a “landline,” post the list near each handset.
Be sure each child knows his or her full name, complete home address and home phone number, your full name, the exact name of the place where you work and your work phone number. Write that information and, with your child, decide how you will keep it handy in items the child takes to and from school each day. With your child, post a copy of the information in at least two easy-to-see places in your home.
Develop and practice fire escape plans. Involve the whole family in designing AND practicing your escape plan. Child-friendly how-to advice is free at www.sparky.org., a website designed for kids by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Require your children to take the same route to and from school or their bus stop each day. Walk that route with the children more than once, to be sure they know the way. Counsel them to come directly home. If possible, have them walk with friends.
To know your child’s whereabouts at all times, use a cell phone app such as GPS Phone Tracker. Developed by Family Safety Productions, it’s free at Google Play.
Discuss with your children how to respond to strangers. Practice with your child to shout “No!” if approached by a stranger, then to get away from him or her and immediately tell a trusted adult.
Don’t let children carry bags or other items with their names on them. Don’t let them wear keys in a visible place. Be sure keys don’t have a name and address on them.
Establish a check-in routine so a responsible adult knows when the child arrives home. If your child checks in with you at work, develop a back-up system in case you are unavailable. Some parents can’t take calls at work and might not have a relative or friend who can reliably answer the child’s check-in calls. Those parents have another option: contracting with a call center specifically set up to receive check-in calls from latchkey children. Database Systems Corporation runs a call center of that nature (visit www.latchkey-kids.com).
Assemble an age-appropriate first-aid kit for the home with your child’s help. Teach your child how to use its contents, such as band-aids.
Practice with the children how to handle different situations, such as: • Losing their key. • If they think they are being followed. • If the door is open when they first get home or a window is broken. • If someone they don’t know or expect knocks at the door or calls by phone. • How to answer the telephone without letting callers know they are alone. • If they receive a prank telephone call. • A sibling gets injured or feels sick.
Link your smart phone to other technology to enhance safety for latchkey youngsters. AMR’s Alford said, “Parents should consider installing door locks operated from cell phones, which ends the worry of lost keys. Those kinds of locks will alert the parent the moment the child gets home. Camera systems connected to cell phones enable the parent to keep close tabs on their offspring. Video doorbells are another smart investment. Parents should also set controls on all the smart phones and home computers the children use to protect them from inappropriate or dangerous online content.”
American Medical Response is America’s leading provider of medical transportation with sites in 36 states. Operating in 17 Mississippi counties, AMR companies are the state’s busiest ambulance services. For more information about AMR, visit www.amr.net.