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Jewish World Review May 17, 1999 /2 Sivan 5759

Bob Greene

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It's midnight -- do you know where your parents are?

(JWR) ---- (
DAYTON, OHIO -- The big questions about how America has failed its children are being asked because of terrible events in the Rocky Mountains -- the big questions, awash in pain, are being all but shouted.

Yet if we truly want to look at our failure -- if we want to think about just what has gone so wrong in the lives of the boys and girls who depend on us, if we want some answers to how we have let them down -- the questions we ask can be quiet ones, posed in places that seem to be the centers of no drama at all.

Places like a suburban roller rink not far from here.

The rink is called Skateworld, in the middle-class suburb of Kettering.

Friday nights, the rink is greatly popular with children and teenagers. For $5, the children can skate all evening. On some Fridays, Skateworld draws as many as 600 young people.

Parents drop the boys and girls off early in the evening. The rink closes at 11:30 p.m.

And just about every Friday night at closing time, there are children -- some as young as 8 -- who wait for their parents to pick them up. And wait. And wait.

"It's late," said Rick Corson, general manager of the rink. "Their parents have promised them they'll be there. And for whatever reasons, the parents don't show. The children call their parents to ask where they are -- and there's no answer."

Corson and his employees are shutting down the rink for the night. They're tired, too. The children are looking around the parking lot, down the nearby streets, for headlights that don't appear.

"There are some tears," Corson said. "They're thinking,'Where's Mom and Dad?'"

This presents a dilemma for Corson and his staff. "We stand there with them as they call," he said. "Legally, we could just leave -- it gets to be midnight, 12:30, sometimes as late as 1:30, and we're closed.

"But morally? Can we leave the children in the parking lot -- and go home and sleep, knowing they're there?"

On a recent Friday night -- with two young girls waiting at the rink for parents who didn't show up -- Corson had an employee take the girls to the Kettering police station to wait in safety.

"The girls had said they wanted to walk home," Corson told us. "But I didn't want to have that on my conscience, if something happened to them at that time of night."

His concern was well-founded -- and you would think that the concern would be shared by the children's parents. In February, a 9-year-old Kettering girl named Erica Baker disappeared while walking her dog a mile and a half from the roller rink. She still has not been found.

At the police station on the recent Friday, the two girls were unable to get an officer to come talk to them for an estimated 40 minutes. Corson told the Dayton Daily News about this, and about his fears for the children who are dropped at the rink and then left to fend for themselves when the night is over. A police spokesman told the paper, "We don't want to be used as a babysitting facilityÉ.If nothing of a criminal nature is going on (at the rink), there's no use in our going out there."

This created a reaction in the community; Kettering police chief Jim O'Dell told us the department's policy now is "to use common sense and judgment. We're never going to say that we can't help (a child)."

Yet whatever the police department's policy is, it doesn't answer the question of why some parents apparently have no problem leaving their children at a crowded public place at night -- and then neglecting to pick them up, and failing to be somewhere where they can be reached by their boys and girls.

"We don't charge a fee for parents to come in and watch their children skate," Corson said. "But very few parents do. They just leave them with us -- even the young children."

And then some parents don't return. "It's never the same ones who forget to come back," Corson said. "It's different parents every week. The kids look and look, and we lock up and turn the lights out, and it gets later and later."

"Your employer doesn't let you blow off work, not call to say where you are, not show up. Well, your children are supposed to be more important than your job. Aren't they?"

The big questions are being asked elsewhere. But the failure is everywhere -- and you can see it in the children's anxious eyes. problem."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


05/13/99: And now even saying "thank you" creates a problem
05/11/99: The answer was standing at the front door

©1999, Tribune Media Services