A single mother of five faces criminal charges in Blairsville, Georgia, for letting her 14-year-old babysit daughter her younger siblings during the pandemic.
Melissa Henderson was arrested in May 2020 and is charged with reckless conduct after asking her daughter to watch her four siblings while Henderson went to work. Henderson and her attorney, David DeLugas, are trying to have the charges thrown out in a court case that has dragged on for almost two years now.
They argue that asking an older child to babysit younger siblings is a normal parenting decision and that law enforcement is overreaching with charges that carry a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine of $1,000.
Henderson told her story to Reason Magazine in an interview. After the pandemic began in early 2020, the daycare center where she placed her younger children had closed and local schools had switched to remote learning, but she still needed to work to support her family. Henderson asked her 14-year-old Linley to watch her younger siblings while Henderson went to work.
While Linley was participating in remote learning, her 4-year-old brother Thaddeus saw a friend outside and crossed the street to go play with him. About 10 to 15 minutes later, Linley noticed her brother was missing and found him at his friend's house next door.
But the mother of Thaddeus' friend had called the police.
Days later, five police cars came to Henderson's house and arrested her.
"I almost don't have words for how low it made me feel," she told Reason. "To truly feel in the bottom of my heart that, if I'm anything, it's a good mother and everything you do is for your kids. To be stripped of that to the point where you are handcuffed in front of them."
Police took Henderson to the county jail where she was booked and placed in a cell. "I remember curling up in a ball in the corner and just wanting to hide," she said. Her ex-husband paid bail for her release.
According to a police report, arresting officer Deputy Sheriff Marc Pilote wrote that Thaddeus was in danger because he could've been kidnapped, run over, or even "bitten by a venomous snake." He also noted that Henderson had previously been investigated by the Georgia Division of Family and Children's Services about a year earlier when Thaddeus, then age 3, had also wandered outside. Henderson was no longer under DFCS supervision when this second incident happened. The agency investigated Henderson's conduct and found the case unexceptional, Reason reported.
But Jeff Langley, the local district attorney, told Reason that the charges against Henderson are appropriate because the boy had been outside on his own once before. He added that a guilty verdict for Henderson likely won't result in jail time, but said the charges should deter her from letting her daughter babysit.
"We just want to make sure the children in our small community stay safe," he said.
Langley said that Thaddeus was "wandering naked in a thunderstorm," but according to Reason, his facts are wrong. While the boy was wearing only a shirt, there was no storm.
The district attorney added that older sister Linley has "some measure of learning disability" which makes her unreliable as a babysitter. Henderson told Reason that her daughter was previously diagnosed with ADHD. Linley has a 4.45 GPA, is vice president of the 4-H Club, broke school records in varsity track, completed the Red Cross Childcare program, and is certified in CPR.
DeLugas, Henderson's lawyer, filed a new motion to dismiss the case three weeks ago. He argues that charging a mom for a normal parenting decision is unconstitutional under Georgia Supreme Court precedent, and that the state's protective guidelines say kids can babysit at age 13.
He is the founder of Parents USA, a group that advocates for parental rights and takes on legal cases similar to Henderson's. He is representing her pro bono.
There is a GoFundMe set up for the Henderson family as the mom battles her charges in court.
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