News pundits and Twitter users are coming to the defence of a South Carolina mother who was arrested for allegedly letting her 9-year-old daughter play alone at a park.
Debra Harrell was jailed and lost custody of her daughter earlier this month for allegedly dropping the 9-year-old off at a park on multiple occasions to play there while she worked at a nearby McDonald’s, ABC WJBF-TV reported in early July. The child is said to be in the custody of the Department of Social Services.
Clearly it’s not a move many parents would choose — assuming they had a choice, that is. One mother who frequents the park in North Augusta, South Carolina, considers it a dangerous place for an unattended 9-year-old. “You cannot just leave your child alone at a public place, especially,” Lesa Lamback told WJBF. “This day and time, you never know who’s around. Good, bad, it’s just not safe.”
But since news of the arrest spread, many are questioning the severity of the response by authorities. Initially, Harrell’s daughter played with a laptop in the McDonald’s while her mother worked her shift there, according to a piece in Reason by Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids and an advocate of liberal parenting styles. But when someone stole the laptop, the mother granted her daughter’s request to be dropped off with a cell phone at a nearby park typically filled with kids her age.
On the third day of this arrangement, an adult asked the girl where her mother was, and the answer prompted her to call the police.
Skenazy offered this response to concerns that Harrell’s daughter could have been kidnapped:
In broad daylight? In a crowded park? Just because something happened on Law & Order doesn’t mean it’s happening all the time in real life. Make ‘what if?’ thinking the basis for an arrest and the cops can collar anyone. ‘You let your son play in the front yard? What if a man drove up and kidnapped him?’
The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf agreed.
By arresting this mum (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?
Jonathan Chait, writing for New York Magazine, chalked it up to the prevalence of “helicopter parenting” and an inadequate welfare policy that makes it difficult for single mothers working full-time to afford child care.
Harrell’s race and class may have influenced the criminal charge, according to Dorothy Roberts, University of Pennsylvania professor of law, sociology, and civil rights. Vague child maltreatment laws leave “a lot of room for discretion by social workers, police, judges, and prosecutors, to determine which/whose failures to supervise to pursue,” Roberts told Slate. “This allows race, class, and gender biases to influence decisions in both the child welfare and criminal justice systems.”
Supporters of Harrell also took to Twitter.
Of course Debra Harrell is Black. You think any law enforcement agent in SC is going to miss an opportunity to put us in jail? Hell no.
— r. (@PlayVicious) July 16, 2014
For lunch, the 9-year-old would walk to the McDonald’s where her mother worked, approximately a mile and a half from the park, WJBF reported, citing the police incident report.
Harrell, 46, was arrested July 1 and charged with unlawful neglect of a child, according to Aiken County public court records. Harrell posted a $US5,000 bond that day and is represented by attorney Robert Verner Phillips, of McGowan, Hood & Felder LLC, who has not responded to Business Insider’s requests for comment.
A man who picked up the phone at the McDonald’s declined to comment about the case and would not say whether Harrell is still employed there.
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