Eight-year-old Shakisha didn't hesitate to invent a story when the caller asked to speak to her mother.
"She's sick," Shakisha said. "She can't hardly walk she's so sick . . . . She broke her leg, and they're going to bring her crutches over tomorrow."
Shakisha, who was not actually on the telephone, was practicing "survival skills" for children to use when they are home by themselves. The lessons were being conducted at Riverdale Elementary School, one of three Prince George's County schools with special programs that teach children how to look out for themselves.
One of Shakisha's schoolmates was equally inventive during the role-playing session:
"My mother's in the shower," she said.
"How about your dad?" asked a program trainer, pretending to be a caller.
"He's in the shower too," came the quick answer.
Both girls had obeyed the cardinal rule: Never tell anyone that you are home alone.
They also had been given a chance to tell a white lie without remorse.
"It's okay to tell a little story to make sure you stay safe," said Betsy Rath, a volunteer trainer in the program.
The program, called "You're in Charge," is one of many springing up across the country to help latchkey children, whose numbers are increasing as more parents work outside the home. The Prince George's program, now in its second year, is one of the most extensive, according to its sponsors at the county Mental Health Association.
Like those in several other Washington area communities, including the District and Montgomery County, the Prince George's program has set up a hot line for children to call in the afternoons if they need help or simply want to talk to an adult.
Unlike many other programs, however, "You're in Charge" allows parents to register their children with the hot line volunteers, who will call each day to check on youngsters who are home by themselves.
There are classroom sessions for pupils -- not just for latchkey children -- in three elementary schools: Riverdale, Templeton and Beacon Heights. In each school, volunteers spend five weeks teaching skills from "key safety" and first aid to "kitchen know-how."
This year, several other county schools have established informal versions of the program, using the Mental Health Association format as a model.
There are no recent statistics on the number of latchkey children nationally. But 10 years ago, there were believed to be nearly 2 million.
Riverdale Principal Alton Enderson estimates that 40 percent of his 640 pupils are on their own after school. And Ronnie O'Branovich, who directs the program for the Mental Health Association, estimates that half of the 40,000 elementary school pupils in the county are left alone regularly.
Older children may learn independence by being home on their own, said Enderson, but "it's a lot to ask of a 5- , 6- , 7-year-old . . . . They can't handle it."
"This is the dilemma with latchkey children," said O'Branovich. "The parents who leave their kids at home are not the parents who choose to." Most often, she said, the parents cannot afford baby sitters.
"We understand that sometimes it's unavoidable," she said. But the skills that children learn in the latchkey program "certainly don't take the place of supervised child care," she said.
In an effort to bridge the gap between regular supervision and no supervision, volunteers at the hot line, known as Care Line, check in with dozens of children each afternoon and evening.
"Hi, this is Sharon," said a once-a-week volunteer, calling on a recent afternoon as the sky turned dark outside. "Is your cousin there? . . . How were things at school today? . . . Well, I'm glad to hear that . . . . I'll talk to you next week."
When the volunteer was unable to reach two children on her list after several tries, she tracked down their relatives to let them know.
"You start thinking of them as 'my kids,' " she said. "I can't get hold of one of 'my kids.' "
While Care Line is only for latchkey children, the in-school sessions are open to all pupils. Organizers say they decided not to pull latchkey children out of the classroom for the lessons because all children should know how to take care of themselves, even if only for short periods.
Also, because parents hesitate to admit that they leave their children alone, it is difficult to determine who in a class may need the training, officials said.
The sessions allow children to ask questions and express their fears.
Rath and her partner, Beth Fisher, were surprised recently when an 8-year-old girl, cautioned about opening the door to strangers, asked: "But what if they bust the window or break down the door and rape you?"
Fisher said she told the girl: "This is real life, not the movies, and that doesn't happen very often in real life."
"Children have fears about being left alone," said Fisher, who praised the program for dealing with those fears at the same time it teaches children practical skills for handling themselves. "Societally, we've been glossing over this problem of latchkey children for a long time."
At a recent session, children filled in workbook questions: "What would you do if . . . you're walking home from school and a stranger in a car is following you?"
"I would throw a rock at them," answered a third grade boy. Rath and Fisher suggested that, instead, he run to a neighbor's house.
Another answered, "I would run as fast as I can."
Such exchanges are common when children are asked to think through a variety of hypothetical situations.
"What would you do if your key doesn't work?"
"What would you do if you open the door and hear someone in the house?"
Rath and Fisher say they are careful to make children aware of the dangers without frightening them. They point out, for example, that a man who knocks on the door and says he is selling magazines is probably telling the truth, but children nevertheless should not open the door.
"I think most people are kind, nice people," Rath said to the children. "But it is better to be safe than sorry, and that's why we teach you these things."