The best thing about "Latch Key Kids," a half-hour documentary on Channel 5 at 8:30 tonight, is that it's hosted by Christopher Reeve. But even Superman can't save this show from being a poorly written, awkwardly photographed, one-way guilt trip for parents.
The problem it addresses is serious: the plight of an estimated 7 million children, ages 6 to 13, who spend hours each day -- before and after school -- without adult supervision. The rapidly growing number of such youngsters, who are given the "latch key" to their home by working parents, is causing increased concern for their safety and mental attitude.
But "Latch Key Kids" -- produced by KTTV in California -- spends little time on what parents and communities are doing to deal with the problem. Instead, it concentrates on the gory details of the trouble "these neglected kids" can get into, including murder, arson and sexual abuse.
We're treated to a shot of the bodies of pets who've been killed by juvenile delinquents -- with the assumption that the culprits are latch key kids. Then there's an interminable interview with a convicted child molester (presented in silhouette), who offers such gems as: "When parents neglect their children, they make them very vulnerable to people like me."
Parents are portrayed largely as irresponsible villains. A reporter tells of parents who gave their 12-year-old $200 to buy food while they went off and left him alone for a week. A fire chief tells of a mother getting drunk in a bar late at night while her children set fire to their home. Isn't this stretching the term "latch key kids"?
Host Reeve chides parents: "Have you ever really investigated the alternatives to leaving your child alone?" Yet, in another segment, he concedes that most of the parents "have few alternatives but to give kids keys."
Nearly all the "latch key alternative" programs presented are inadequate to meet the need. The two YMCA after-school programs mentioned have 50-child waiting lists and have stopped taking names. One school system's program has a waiting list of 14,000.
One bright spot is the on-site day care at Arcadia Methodist Hospital, where parents can place their children before and after work and visit with them at lunch.
For parents who don't have access to such programs, the simplistic answer is: "Get involved. Write your congressman." Reeve also offers a pamphlet with "additional information" to parents who write in.
The real message of "Latch Key Kids" is buried near the end, in an interview with an artist who raised money to set up an after-school facility for kids of low-income families.
"The fact is," she notes, "that these parents must work in order to survive, and they have absolutely no place to leave their children." To which Reeve notes: "It would seem that, as a nation, children are low on our priority list."