Working Mom Arrested for Letting Her 9-Year-Old Play Alone at Park

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In South Carolina, a 46-year-old black woman has been arrested for letting her daughter play in a nearby park while trying to earn a living. "The mother, Debra Harrell, has been booked for unlawful conduct towards a child," a local TV station reports. "The incident report goes into great detail, even saying the mother confessed to leaving her nine-year-old daughter at a park while she went to work."

Lenore Skenazy offers details at Reason:

Debra Harrell works at McDonald's...

For most of the summer, her daughter had stayed there with her, playing on a laptop that Harrell had scrounged up the money to purchase. (McDonald's has free WiFi.) Sadly, the Harrell home was robbed and the laptop stolen, so the girl asked her mother if she could be dropped off at the park to play instead.

Harrell said yes. She gave her daughter a cell phone. The girl went to the park—a place so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking—two days in a row. There were swings, a "splash pad," and shade. On her third day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. At work, the daughter replied. The shocked adult called the cops. Authorities declared the girl "abandoned" and proceeded to arrest the mother.

The case is disturbing on several levels.

1) Parents ought to enjoy broad latitude in bringing up their children. There are obviously limits. The state ought to intervene if a child is being abused. But letting a 9-year-old go to the park alone doesn't come close to meeting that threshold. Honestly, it seems a bit young to me, but I don't know the kid or the neighborhood, it doesn't sound as though the mother had any great option, and as I didn't give birth to the kid, support her, and raise her for 9 years, it isn't my call.

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2) By arresting this mom (presumably causing her to lose her job) and putting the child in foster care, the state has caused the child far more trauma than she was ever likely to suffer in the park, whatever one thinks of the decision to leave her there. Even if the state felt it had the right to declare this parenting decision impermissible, couldn't they have given this woman a simple warning before taking custody?

3) The state's decision is coming at a time when it is suffering from a shortage of foster families, as well as a child protective services workforce so overwhelmed that serious child abuse inquiries are regularly closed in violation of policy. 

Perhaps most concerning of all are the surfeit of cases where child protective services censures parents for ostensibly jeopardizing a kid's safety in a manner that is totally disconnected from any statistical realities about the actual dangers faced. This point was made superbly in a Salon article written by a mother who was cited by police for leaving her kid in a car while briefly running into a store–even though it wasn't a hot day, she was gone for mere minutes, and the kid was in no danger. She relayed a conversation she later had with a Free Range Kids founder.

“Listen,” she said at one point. “Let’s put aside for the moment that by far, the most dangerous thing you did to your child that day was put him in a car and drive someplace with him. About 300 children are injured in traffic accidents every day—and about two die. That’s a real risk. So if you truly wanted to protect your kid, you’d never drive anywhere with him. But let’s put that aside. So you take him, and you get to the store where you need to run in for a minute and you’re faced with a decision. Now, people will say you committed a crime because you put your kid ‘at risk.’ But the truth is, there’s some risk to either decision you make.” She stopped at this point to emphasize, as she does in much of her analysis, how shockingly rare the abduction or injury of children in non-moving, non-overheated vehicles really is. For example, she insists that statistically speaking, it would likely take 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be snatched by a stranger.

“So there is some risk to leaving your kid in a car,” she argues. It might not be statistically meaningful but it’s not nonexistent. The problem is,” she goes on, “there’s some risk to every choice you make. So, say you take the kid inside with you. There’s some risk you’ll both be hit by a crazy driver in the parking lot. There’s some risk someone in the store will go on a shooting spree and shoot your kid. There’s some risk he’ll slip on the ice on the sidewalk outside the store and fracture his skull. There’s some risk no matter what you do. So why is one choice illegal and one is OK? Could it be because the one choice inconveniences you, makes your life a little harder, makes parenting a little harder, gives you a little less time or energy than you would have otherwise had?”

Later on in the conversation, Skenazy boils it down to this. “There’s been this huge cultural shift. We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”

The cultural shift certainly doesn't seem to be rooted in empiricism.

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Statistically speaking, the South Carolina mother would almost certainly be putting her daughter in more danger if she strapped her into the car beside her for a hypothetical one-hour daily commute. No one would arrest her for that. It wouldn't surprise me if the child would more likely suffer harm sitting in a McDonald's in front of a laptop, presumably eating fast food at least reasonably often, rather than spending summer days playing outdoors in a park with lots of parents. I can't say with certainty that she'd be statistically safer. But neither have the South Carolina officials who arrested this woman.

The actual safety of a given kid is not being rigorously determined. State employees are drawing on their prejudices to make somewhat arbitrary judgment calls. They wouldn't think of preventing many statistically riskier parenting decisions so long as those decisions jive comfortably with social norms. They're sometimes taking away children based on what amounts to their gut feeling–even though kids are far more likely to be abused in state-administered foster care. Again, I haven't run the numbers, but my hunch is that a single parent with a new boyfriend or girlfriend hanging around the house puts a kid at greater statistical risk of being molested than letting them play alone in a typical park. 

Unfortunately, Deon Guillory and the crack news team at WJBF raised none of these counterarguments in their one-sided television story on the incarcerated mother, who ought to be getting assistance with an attorney. She needs to get out of jail, get her daughter back, and possibly sue the state. South Carolina needs to focus its meager resources on actual child abusers. Agree or disagree, I invite parents who've grappled with this issue to share their stories by email. If warranted, I'll share the best responses in a future article. 

UPDATE: A widow and mother of four shares her story of having her kids taken away.

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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