Korean Latchkey Kids Under Scrutiny in U.S.

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New America Media, News Feature, Aruna Lee, Mar 08, 2006

Editor’s Note: In South Korea, leaving a small child home alone is commonplace and culturally accepted. Many Korean parents, however, are facing greater scrutiny for this custom in the United States. Aruna Lee monitors the Korean media for New America Media.
Child and toy
SAN FRANCISCO–Korean-American parents are facing increasing scrutiny for leaving small children home alone, a widespread and culturally accepted practice in South Korea, reports the Korean-language Korea Daily.

In Korea, it is common for parents to leave their children under the age of 10 home and unattended when they go out or to work. In the United States, however, such an action can lead to the parents’ arrest and a child being taken from the home.

The Korea Daily in Los Angeles reported on a recent case in the city. Two Korean parents frequently left their first-grade child at home alone when they went to work, locking the door from the outside. The newspaper also reported on an incident that occurred several years ago in which a working mother hired a Korean cab driver to pick up her daughter from a Los Angeles preschool. The driver molested the child and later held her for ransom.

“It’s difficult to keep accurate statistics on the number Korean kids who are left home alone,” says Sam Yoon, a social worker with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). He says that every month his office receives several calls from neighbors to report Korean children seen alone in the home, or to report accidents that occur in these homes.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, most states do not have laws that stipulate when a child is considered old enough for care for himself or herself. In the United States, many social workers suggest that children under the age of 12 should not be left at home unaccompanied.

Often many immigrant families cannot afford daycare for their children. They are also especially prone to leaving their children to fend for themselves because they lack the support of grandparents or other relatives nearby who might otherwise help in the care of the children. Cultural attitudes also can influence parents’ decisions.

Kyung Suk Lee, from Millbrae, Calif., grew up in Korea. She remembers a case in which Korean American parents were arrested for leaving their small children in the car while they were grocery shopping. As a mother working full-time, Lee says, she enrolls her 6-year-old son at an after-school program, which adds an additional $700 to her monthly expenses.

Hae Sun Shin, a counselor with the Korean Youth Cultural Center, says there are many detrimental emotional side effects for small children left alone. “Latchkey kids often suffer from emotional distress and other negative side effects,” she says in the Korea Daily. Latchkey kids, she says, often suffer from high levels of separation anxiety.

Jin Lee from Oakland moved to Northern California when she was very young. She recalls that when she was 8 years old, her parents often left her on her own. “I usually hung around with other kids because my mom had to go to work. There wasn’t much to eat around the house except kimchi, so when I accidentally broke a jar of it I remember crying for hours.”

Shin says parents often add to the child’s fears with their repeated warnings of “don’t answer the phone and don’t open the door for anyone.” More terrifying still is when children are told their parents could be arrested if the police discover what they’ve done.

Arrest of the parents or a child being taken out of the home is not always the ultimate outcome when children are discovered to be left alone, says Lori Lee, a social worker with Child Protective Services in San Francisco. “We try to assess the situation and uncover if what is happening is out of severe abuse or neglect or are their other issues at play such as a cultural misunderstandings.”

Such cultural misunderstandings have cropped up frequently in the Asian immigrant community. Traditional medicinal practices in the Chinese and Hmong community, which leave marks on the skin, have caused great concern among teachers and social workers who do not understand the practice. Also, corporal punishment, common in Asia in many forms, has been a topic of frequent discussion and re-education between parents and child advocates.

Often when it comes to these types of cultural misunderstandings, parents simply need to be informed of their alternatives. For example, Korean churches often provide childcare. When child social workers suspect cultural misunderstandings at the root of a problem, says Lee, “we frequently send in someone who can speak the language of the parents and explain to them some of their options for childcare.”

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