In the case of a 46-year-old South Carolina working mother who was jailed on a felony — and now has to deal with social services taking custody of her 9-year-old daughter — some critics are furious over the actions authorities have taken.
Debra Lynn Harrell of North Augusta confessed to police that on several occasions she'd drop off her daughter at a local playground for hours at a time while she worked her shift at McDonald's — and because of that Harrell was jailed on charges of unlawful neglect of child or helpless person, according to Aiken County court records, a felony in South Carolina. South Carolina law reads that the maximum terms for unlawful neglect of child, a class "E" felony, are not more than 10 years.
On top of that, Harrell's daughter said she'd walk from Summerfield Park about 1.5 miles to the McDonald's inside a Walmart for lunch, reported WJBF-TV in Augusta, Georgia — just across the Savannah River state line from North Augusta — citing the incident report. The station words the charges against Harrell as "unlawful conduct towards a child."
"What if a man would have came and just snatched her?" Tonya Cullum, a childcare worker, asked the station in its July 1 story. "Because you have all kinds of trucks that come up in here, so you really don't know."
"You cannot just leave your child alone at a public place, especially," park-goer Lesa Lamback told WJBF. "This day and time, you never know who's around. Good, bad, it's just not safe."
But a number of critics are crying foul.
Reason added a few tidbits to the plot, noting that for most of the summer Harrell's daughter had stayed at the McDonald's with her, playing on a laptop that her mom had "scrounged up the money to purchase." But the laptop was gone after their home was robbed, so the 9-year-old asked her mom if she could be dropped off at the park to play instead. Harrell agreed and gave her daughter a cellphone.
The girl went to park two days in a row. On the third day an adult asked her where her mother was, and the girl said at work. The adult called the police, and…well, you know the rest.
The author of the Reason piece, Lenore Skenazy, runs the blog Free Range Kids and is known for causing an uproar several years ago after letting her 9-year-old son ride a New York subway by himself. Skenazy noted in her piece that fears about what young kids might face without parental protection aren't supported by crime stats:
These fears pop into our brains so easily, they seem almost real. But they're not. Our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon, according to The Christian Science Monitor. It may feel like kids are in constant danger, but they are as safe (if not safer) than we were when our parents let us enjoy the summer outside, on our own, without fear of being arrested.
Conor Friedersdorf, writing for The Atlantic, noted 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.
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.
Jezebel reported that one of its readers set up a YouCaring for Harrell, which has brought in just over $2,000. Clair Ryan also told the site that "while the park would be more than a mile from Debra's workplace by car, it is only a few thousand feet — maybe a 5 minute walk — by foot."
I'm a total stranger with little in common with Debra. I don't have any kids and I've never had to rely on a low wage job to make ends meet. I have a full-time job with benefits. I work hard, but I've never struggled, and I know how incredibly lucky and privileged I am for that. And I don't believe it makes me a better or more worthy person than anyone else, whether they're unemployed or working for minimum wage, trying to feed a family. I was moved by Debra's story and by the response from both very liberal and conservative people that arresting Debra and taking her daughter away was not the right solution.