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A latchkey kid or latchkey child is a child who returns from school to an empty home because his or her parent or parents are away at work, or a child who is often left at home with little or no parental supervision.
The term refers to the latchkey of a door to a house. The key is often strung around the child's neck or left hidden under a mat (or some other object) at the rear door to the property. The term is claimed to have originated from an NBC documentary in 1944, due to the phenomenon of children being left home alone becoming common during and after World War II, when one parent would be enlisted into the armed forces, so the other would have to get a job. In general, the term latchkey designates "those children between the ages of five and thirteen who care for themselves after the school day until their parents or guardians return home".
More specifically for their purposes, the San Marino (CA) Public Library has defined a Library Latchkey Child as "one who on a regular basis is required by his/her parents or guardian to remain at the public library for extended periods of time after school in lieu of day care. 'Regular basis' is defined as three or more days per week. 'Extended period' is defined as two or more hours per day" (American Library Association 12).
The effects of being a latchkey child differ with age. Loneliness, boredom and fear are most common for those younger than 10 years of age. In the early teens, there is a greater susceptibility to peer pressure, potentially resulting in such behaviors as alcohol abuse, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and smoking. The behaviors might stem from "unspent energy, peer pressure to misbehave, or hostility because of the lack of appropriate adult attention". However, some children can exude other positive effects. An early development of self reliance, adaptation to difficult situations, and a desire to contribute to a visible need in the household.
Socioeconomic status and length of time left alone can bring forth other negative effects. In one study, middle school students left home alone for more than three hours a day reported higher levels of behavioral problems, higher rates of depression and lower levels of self-esteem than other students.
Children from lower income families are associated with greater externalizing issues (such as conduct disorders and hyperactivity) and academic problems, while children from middle class and upper class income families are no different to their supervised peers. In 2000, a German PISA study found no significant differences in the scholastic performance between "latchkey kids" and kids in a "nuclear family".
Positive effects of being a latchkey child include independence and self-reliance at a young age. Deborah Belle, author of The After-School Lives of Children: Alone and With Others While Parents Work suggests that being left home alone may be a better alternative to staying with baby-sitters or older siblings.
The legality of the latchkey children's "alone time" varies with country, state and local area. In the most United States, state and local laws typically do not specify any particular age under 18 when a child can be legally left without supervision. However, some states do have specific age restrictions, for example: children under age of 8 yr/old cannot be left at home alone - in Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina; 9 yr/old - in North Dakota; 10 yr/old - in Oregon, Tennessee, Washington; 11 yr/old - in Michigan; 12 yr/old - in Colorado, Delaware, Kansas; 14 yr/old - in Illinois.
Parents can be held accountable by child welfare organizations or law enforcement if children come to harm while left without supervision if, in the opinion of the agency, the children's age or other considerations made such a choice inappropriate. Legal issues also continue to be important concerns for those who work in libraries. They worry about the potential liability should an unattended child be hurt, molested or abducted while at the facility. This issue becomes critical, particularly at closing time when "parents who are late picking up their children also create safety and possibly legal problems.
In 2003, this issue received attention in the United States when two children died in a New York apartment fire after being left home alone. Their mother, Kim Brathwaite, was a single mother who had left her children unsupervised when a babysitter failed to show up. Fearing the loss of her job, Brathwaite left the children, aged 9 and 1, alone while calling home regularly. The Brooklyn District Attorney's office brought charges of reckless endangerment against Ms. Brathwaite. The charges were later dropped.
Some communities offer services through the police departments and community organizations to check in on latchkey kids. Calls can be made by community organizations or by volunteers. Automatic calling programs such as Call Reassurance, call households during the week after children arrive home and require the child to answer the phone and positively acknowledge that he or she is OK. If the call is not answered, automatic calls can likewise be sent to the parents, police or other response centers.