The headline on Slate.com read: “Parents are now getting arrested for letting their kids go to the park alone.”
And it’s true. A mother was recently jailed for letting her daughter go to the park by herself.
Debra Harrell, 46, works at a McDonald’s in South Carolina. Her nine-year-old daughter used to join her and use the restaurant’s free WiFi at a table while her mother worked. Unfortunately, their laptop was stolen and her daughter asked to be dropped at the park instead of sitting at the restaurant for hours. Harrell agreed and dropped her daughter off at the busy playground with a cell phone. After the third consecutive day of being dropped off at the park, a witness noticed that the little girl was alone, and asked who was taking care of her. When the witness realized the girl was alone without adult supervision, they called the police.
Harrell was taken into custody and booked for unlawful conduct toward a child. Her daughter has been taken in by the Department of Social Services and Harnell will likely lose her low-paying job. It’s a sad, sad story on so many levels.
This case is not about allowing your child to go to the park for a few hours, unattended. The police are not patrolling playgrounds looking for absentee parents they can jail. It’s a much more complicated sitaution than that. It’s about low wages and the lack of affordable child care. It's about a parent with no resources and a police unit that leans toward more punitive action.
Read more: Why we need affordable child care—now>
Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Parenting thinks that we have allowed fear to win out over reason. She believes our immediate assumption that the worst possible outcome can happen to our children at any given moment colours the way we react to situations like the one Harrell found herself in. Skenazy writes:
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.
I read Free Range Kids. I know that the likelihood of children getting abducted in a playground in infinitesimally small. I’m not a helicopter parent—my kids roam the streets. But this isn’t about a jaunt to the park with friends. This is about the failure of an entire system that forces parents into making poor choices.
Read more: Confessions of a free-range parent>
Is the nine-year-old better off at a playground by herself than stuck in a McDonald’s eating fries and playing on her laptop? Maybe. But what parent wants to make that choice? I absolutely believe that the police went overboard and the general news story is overly judgmental.
Debra Harrell should be earning enough money right now to pay for a babysitter or a camping trip for her daughter—instead of sitting in a jail cell.