When Children Are Caregivers for Children ; Welfare Reform and a Child-Care Shortage Force More Poor Families To

Article excerpt

For many poor families, including some now making the transition from welfare to work, the pressing need for child care is increasingly being met by an unlikely helpmate: children themselves.

Recent research points to a hidden - but probably growing - trend in which parents struggling to make ends meet leave young children in the care of their older children, especially girls. Most often, these regular child-care duties start around age 11 or 12, but some as young as eight are responsible for feeding toddlers and putting them to bed at night or getting them up in the morning while their parent is at work.

While such responsibilities can foster maturity and compassion, they can also overload kids of a tender age - emotionally and educationally. Researchers who study poverty's effect on families say, ultimately, the nation needs to address the shortage of affordable child care, but that in the meantime, kids who act as "second moms" can benefit from programs that take into account their significant family duties.

"If we think children in our society need ... to have the room to develop who they are and who they can be,... then we have to deal with the material circumstances of ... poor families who fundamentally rely on child labor to manage," says Lisa Dodson, a researcher at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, Mass., and author of a 1998 book about women and girls in poor America.

Vanessa's world

From Vanessa Santos's perspective, the responsibilities at home are more than a 15-year-old should have to bear. She and her 14- year-old sister live with their aunt and grandmother in Boston, and they regularly take up mop and sponge to keep the house clean. They also help their grandmother care for as many as five infants and toddlers at a time, mostly relatives whose families can afford to pay a small amount.

Vanessa does have a fun after-school outlet, working as a peer adviser at Teen Voices, a multicultural magazine by and for girls. But she wishes she had time for other things - including just hanging out with friends.

"It's kind of fun working with the little kids," Vanessa says during a break at the magazine office. "But after a while, when you do it, like, every single day, it gets tiring.... I hardly have time to do my homework."

Educational implications for both the older and younger siblings are worrisome.

"You can't separate what's happening on the child-care side ... and what's happening to them on the education side," says Joan Lombardi, a child- and family-policy specialist based in Alexandria, Va. Not only do teens or preteens caring for children have less time for homework, but some even miss school to fill in when other arrangements for their siblings fall through.

Even students as young as middle-schoolers are forgoing programs designed for after-school enrichment, says Beth Miller of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time. "I don't think it often occurs to the general public that many, many 12- to 14-year-olds are carrying that kind of responsibility. …

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