Mother Arrested For Leaving Nine-Year-Old In Park

Lenore Skenazy of “Free Range Kids” reports:

Debra Harrell works at McDonald’s in North Augusta, South Carolina. 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.

This story has gotten a lot of coverage in the blogosphere the last two days. Reading the blogosphere, it’s easy to get the impression that everyone agrees that arresting the mother was unreasonable, so as a corrective it’s worth watching the local news story, in which the anchor, the reporter, and the “citizen on the street” interviews are all clearly appalled at the mother’s behavior.

WJBF-TV ABC 6 Augusta-Aiken News, Weather, Sports

When I was a child in New York, during the summers my mom would release me and my sister into an enormous pack of children. We’d roam the back lots and the junkyard. In the afternoon, one by one, each child would hear the distant sound of their moms yelling their names out of windows, and return home for lunch, until only a few kids remained. After lunch the pack would reform. Some of us – me – habitually wandered away from the pack and explored trees or cliffs or junkpiles. Neighborhood dogs – some owned, some stray – would sometimes play with us.

Later on – when I was 9? 10? – my mom was working full-time, and my sister and I were expected to keep ourselves entertained and out of trouble until our parents got home. Honestly, although I loved my parents, I also found it a bit intrusive when they got home and I had to be correspondingly more self-conscious. :-p

I find myself thinking that if South Carolina’s standards had been applied to my childhood, my parents would both have been hardened jailbirds by my tenth birthday. (But see the quoted comment from Shakesville below).

Radley Balko points out a few more examples. So is this sort of story the inevitable result of occasional unrepresentative events in a huge country, or an example of “the criminalization of parenthood”?

And would the cop have been so quick to arrest Ms. Harrell if she weren’t Black? We can’t know, but I expect the odds of this happening go up if you’re not white.

Further reading:

A place to donate to support Ms. Harrell’s legal expenses. I’d feel better about this if the mechanism for getting the money to Ms. Harrell weren’t so up-in-the-air, but maybe it’ll get better.

Kristen Iverson:

The truth is that the driving force behind these arrests and others like them goes beyond a concern for the safety of children (because seriously, if a child’s welfare is the main concern, then maybe don’t arrest that child’s mother and force the child into foster care?) and actually has more to do with the contempt that our society shows its most struggling members, as well as exposing the lack of choices that poor mothers—usually single—face every day. These are women who have been told time and time again that their difficult situations are nobody’s fault but their own and that all they need to do to succeed is find work and be diligent—lean in—and they will be ok. But the truth is that it’s impossible to lean in if you don’t know that there isn’t some protection guaranteed lest you fall flat on your face. […]

The real question to ask here is who benefits from the criminalization of these women’s choices? […] The only beneficiary is a system which has long marginalized poor, usually minority women so that it can hold them up as an example of what happens when people don’t apply themselves with enough diligence, never mind the fact that these women are doing their best with little to no support.

Working Mom Arrested for Letting Her 9-Year-Old Play Alone at Park – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic

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.

Jonathan Chait:

America has decided to punish Harrell if she fails to acquire full-time employment; her employment does not provide her with adequate child care; and the community punishes her for failing to live up to unobtainable middle-class child-care standards. There are many perpetrators in this story. Debra Harrell was not one of them.

Jessica at the XX Factor:

It angers me, as a citizen, to see the police overreach this way. How is it benefiting this child to be put in the custody of social services? And since I’m a parent, Harrell’s arrest scares me: How can I appropriately parent my child when doing something that seems relatively safe, if out of fashion, can get you arrested?

I asked Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law, sociology, and civil rights at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, if state laws give any specifics about how parents should behave….


But it’s not much of an observation without including that I was a white kid with white parents in a mostly white and mostly working-middle class exurban town, and I’m not exactly sure, if I’d been a nine-year-old black girl instead of a nine-year-old white girl, that no one would have called the cops “for me” even back then.

Debra Harrell: Is the fundamental attribution error to blame for her arrest?

Child Neglect in a Helicopter World

This Widow’s 4 Kids Were Taken After She Left Them Home Alone – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic

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22 Responses to Mother Arrested For Leaving Nine-Year-Old In Park

  1. 1
    Grace Annam says:

    I’m pretty sure I was ten when I started commuting home from school by myself, which consisted of walking about fourteen blocks through the city to the bus stop, taking the bus across a large bridge, getting off at one of several stops, walking 1-2 miles home from the bus stop, climbing the tree outside of the bathroom window, and using the bathtub curtain rod to swing in through the window.

    The worst thing that ever happened was that I ran across four lanes of traffic to get away from two older kids who wanted to squeeze me for my bus fare.

    Kept fit, and got a lot of reading done on the bus.

    You can’t protect your kids from everything. If you did, you wouldn’t end up with an adult worth knowing.

    Tricky, though, figuring out how to raise capable kids without getting arrested if someone takes exception.


  2. 2
    Ben Lehman says:

    this is so depressing. I don’t even know what else to say.

  3. 3
    Harlequin says:

    There was an article in Salon about a month ago written by a woman who left her 6-year-old in the car long enough to run into a store and buy him a pair of headphones, and was arrested (and eventually sentenced to community service) after a passerby called the police. Hard to compare and contrast with this case, as many things are different, but on the general theme of “parents being punished for not keeping their kids in sight 100% of the time.”

    My immediate reaction to both of those was, “That’s harmless, what’s the fuss?” But I can also remember how frightened I was to be alone when I was, say, under 10. (I still remember when a friend’s parents left us–age 5–and her 2-year-old younger brother in the house alone while they ran to the store.) I would walk between locations–that was fine–but there was always an adult at either end of the walk.

  4. 4
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    This is sort of the parenting equivalent of airline security theater. The fear of a bad incident (dead/hurt kid) is weighted so incredibly high that almost any efforts are considered OK when it comes to stopping it.

    And (as with airlines) this can lead to very perverse incentives. Parents can’t earn money and leave their kids alone, even if (a) there is minimal risk and (b) that minimal risk is outbalanced by the benefits to the kid like “having a parent who earns money” and “having an enjoyable childhood.” That’s the risk equivalent of driving to California because you’re “scared of airline crashes,” even though driving is riskier.

    The problem is that talking about reality is almost universally considered to be heartless. If you want to have playground slides, you have to be willing to answer the “but what if someone falls off?” question with “that would be very sad. But overall it’s an appropriate risk.”

    Or (much harder) “but someone fell off and died; shouldn’t we prevent that from ever happening again?” with “no, it’s still an appropriate risk.”

    Or, to use the security theater example, you have to be willing to answer the “would you still want to have better civil rights if it meant that someone would blow up a plane every few years?” with “Yes. ” To put it mildly, that is not a popular position.

    As someone who takes those positions, it is a very hard thing to do. Most people don’t. And the

  5. 5
    Brian says:

    The other news theme that’s big this summer is cops shooting pet dogs for no good reason. Here in Baltimore a shar pai dog that was described as the sweetest dog ever by those that knew her had her throat slashed by a BCPD officer when she was already caught after jumping the fence.!bhBGcG

    “Witnesses say Bolger was already talking about killing the dog as he got out of his vehicle. According to documents obtained by the Baltimore Sun, he was overheard stating, “I’m going to f–king gut this thing.””

    So I’m dreading when these two repeating storied collide and we see the headline

    STRAY CHILD SHOT BY COP. “It was coming right for me” officer explains.

  6. 6
    JutGory says:


    This is sort of the parenting equivalent of airline security theater.

    I see it as a little more insidious than that. Airline security is needed. The “theater” aspect just means they are pretending to make us safer.

    With this example, we can see how we have gone from criminalizing “harm” to criminalizing “risk.” Like many of the commenters here, I was a “free-range” child. My mom would pack my several siblings and I in a car; no seat belts, no child safety harnesses. We all survived, despite what would now be considered flagrant criminality on her part.

    And, why is it criminal? Because a “few” kids actually got “harmed.” So, it was deemed a good idea to avoid the “risk.” But, criminalizing the “harm” is always backward looking. You have to have a dead kid before you can prosecute. But, if you criminalize the risk, you might avoid the dead kid, AND you have lots, and lots, and LOTS of potential criminals out there that the state can prosecute and throw in jail. And, you have children that can be fed into foster care, creating more jobs for the bureaucrats.

    One idiot leaves his child in a car in 100-degree heat and the kid dies, so now it is crime for me to leave baby-Gory in her car safety-bubble for 2 minutes in 50-degree weather while I run back into my house to get my cell phone that I left on the kitchen counter.

    So, we have come to the point of criminalizing all kinds of risks, even when no one is actually harmed.

    [And, if I were going to put a class/race twist on this, I would observe that poorer communities and minority communities probably average higher birth rates than the upper class or the white community. And, those are the people who are less able to afford expensive car seats, not to mention cars that can hold, say, 3 or 4, or even 5 child safety seats. So, the laws designed to protect the kids serve to immobilize, and even criminalize the parents.]

    And that is EXACTLY what we see in this story. Yes, the child could have come to some harm. And, that WOULD HAVE been unfortunate. But she DID NOT come to harm, and I have a problem with this prosecution.


  7. 7
    Susan says:

    It is probably useless to comment, but this incident takes me back (that is, WAY back) to my childhood in the 1950’s. I rode my bicycle all over the LA suburb where I was raised, alone. A mile to school and back, to the park and back, to the library and back, just riding around. At 8, at 9. I was instructed to be home by dark. And my mother was in other ways on the over-protective side!

    Cell phones of course were only a gleam in the eye of Dick Tracy with his wrist watch radio. Science fiction. There would have been no way for me to reach anyone except knocking on some stranger’s door and asking to use the phone. We did have real playground equipment with asphalt playground paving and other deadly hazards. (I once got hit on the head – accidentally – with a baseball bat and look! we didn’t even abolish softball!)

    I realize that I sound unbelievably elderly. Yikes! A child that age should always be safe at home playing a computer game, becoming obese and running the risk of Type II Diabetes!

    I’m not the kind of person who sees racism under every bush, but I’m sorry, I can’t get rid of the lingering idea that the fact that we were white (and to make it worse, middle class) made and makes a difference.

  8. 8
    mythago says:

    So is this sort of story the inevitable result of occasional unrepresentative events in a huge country, or an example of “the criminalization of parenthood”?

    Uh, neither?

    @Amp, I find it weird that you highlighted Skenazy’s piece, which – as Shakesville points out – completely ignores any issues of race and class, and relegated the more interesting and thoughtful pieces that go beyond Skenazy’s shtick.

    This wasn’t a case of a mother sending her little one off to the park to play all day because that’s what we did when we were ten, or a privileged mother having to negotiate dependency charges through her private lawyer because she left her son in a car with his iPad while she was shopping nearby.* This is a woman who sent her kid to the park because her other options were ‘bring the child to work all day’ or ‘leave her home alone’, and she was jailed and her child taken into custody, oh and it just so happens that Mom is black.

    So old-fogey grumphing about When We Were Kids seems rather beside the point. This mother was arrested and her child taken away, when the problem (to the extent there is one) is that she seems to have no affordable alternatives for childcare. The system isn’t trying to steer mom to assistance; it’s wasting time and resources on punishing her, instead of focusing on children with genuinely neglectful or abusive parents.

    That to me, seems the real issue, and it’s tedious and frankly offensive to see it hijacked by the latest Mommier Than Thou craze, where privileged women vie to show how responsible their children are and how chill they are about letting their children ‘free range’, because it just so happens that reflects on your awesome parenting.

    Yes, the child could have come to some harm. And, that WOULD HAVE been unfortunate. But she DID NOT come to harm

    JutGory, I had to smile because you sound like my teenage son when he does something boneheaded and dangerous.

    “Don’t balance on a stack of teetering boxes to get something off a high shelf, you could fall and hurt yourself!”

    “Yeah, but I didn’t fall.”

    Oh, okay, son. Since you took a significant and stupid risk and beat the odds, retroactively that made it a good decision. My bad. :P

    More seriously, the issue isn’t “yeah, bad things could have happened, but they didn’t, so whatever.” It’s that the mother here was leaving her child in a reasonably safe situation, unsupervised, because she had to fucking earn a living for their family.

    *In the comments to that piece, btw, the author noted in passing that in her same area, a black mother had been socked with felony charges for doing much the same thing. Funny, but I don’t remember anyone suddenly shifting focus to that mother’s situation; she didn’t have a well-written piece in a chattering-class online news site, after all.

  9. 9
    mythago says:

    I’m not the kind of person who sees racism under every bush, but I’m sorry, I can’t get rid of the lingering idea that the fact that we were white (and to make it worse, middle class) made and makes a difference.

    No shit.

  10. 10
    JutGory says:


    It’s that the mother here was leaving her child in a reasonably safe situation, unsupervised, because she had to fucking earn a living for their family.

    Whether she had to earn a living for her family is beside the point. She could have been home gardening for all I care (and no, not to grow food for her family; useless farming, like dandelions, or crabgrass). It is basically, as g&w also suggested, is that the risk is remote or worth ignoring. But, we immediately jump to the worst-case scenario, where she could be walking home from the park and gets kidnapped, raped and murdered. Then, everyone is going to go on about “where was the mother?!” So, we criminalize EVERYONE to avoid an extremely horrendous result that has a small likelihood of happening.

    [By the way, your son sounds pretty awesome. Hopefully, he lives long enough to look back with wonder about how lucky he was.]


  11. 11
    Susan says:

    To ask a larger question, why are we so fearful? In general? People crashed cars in the 1950’s, kids fell of bicycles, there were a very few kidnappings (just as now there are very few), kids fell off playground equipment and very occasionally were seriously injured, lots of bad stuff happened. Just as now.

    But it seems that no one, or very few people, took these rare events as license to wrap all children (or all adults) in bubblewrap. It was tragic, it was very sad, everyone felt bad, but every disaster was not taken as a call to remove all asphalt and all play equipment from parks and cover the ground with rubber!

  12. 12
    Ruchama says:

    I was mentioning to some friends that, in the small town in NJ where I grew up, elementary school kids still commonly walk or ride their bikes to school, and the elementary schools still let kids out for lunch, and a lot of them will walk home for lunch, or (for the older kids — fourth and fifth graders, mostly) they’ll walk downtown and get pizza for lunch. The friends I was talking to were pretty surprised — in the towns they live in, seeing a kid on the street without an adult is extremely rare. I’m not sure what the difference is, since most of the towns we were talking about are at least middle-class and mostly white.

  13. 13
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Another example of going from preventing harm to preventing risk: there’s a lot of evidence that smoking is bad for people, and smoking is discouraged by a number of means.

    There is no strong evidence that I know of that e-cigarettes are bad for people, but there’s pressure to ban them just in case.

  14. 14
    mythago says:

    @JutGory: he walked in front of a bus and got away with nothing more than a scalp cut, so yes, we hope so too.

    The mom’s work is beside the point if we are trying to decide whether she had a ‘good excuse’. It’s not beside the point to observe that this isn’t a mom deciding her kid needed “free range” time, but having to make difficult decisions because in the US, we treat motherhood as both an obligation and as a trifling hobby that falls 100% on the parents (mostly the mother) to balance.

    @Susan: What is this issue people have with rubber playground surfaces? Are they made of ground-up baby seals or something?

    Do you think seat belts and airbags and roll cages are “bubble wrap”?

  15. 15
    Susan says:

    @mytago Now you have me laughing!

    Basically I just think rubber playground surfaces are silly. Notice that all the slides and swings have typically been removed from these “play”grounds too. Lest some child fall off! These children who need that degree of protection, will anyone ever let them climb an actual tree in the country? Or in their own yards even? Swing on a rope? Watch out, the ground is … Dirt! Hard even! There might even be a rock or two!! Yikes, get indoors before something terrible happens to you!!

    When I was 10 years old I went to a summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains. Southern California. The big event was the hike to the top of San Gorgonio, a local mountain of some size. We’re not talking climbing here, there is a path to the top, but it’s pretty steep in places, and it’s about 16 miles round trip. This is a day hike taken by a few teenagers (“counselors”) and a gaggle of 9 and 10 year olds, maybe 30 of them, in triple digit heat through rattlesnake country, gaining several thousand feet in altitude. (At least it was hot until you got up higher.) Cell phones had not been invented yet. Are you kidding? This is 1955.

    No one thought a thing of it. Not all the kids made it – there were several stopping points along the way where you could drop out – but so far as I know it didn’t occur to anyone that we were taking our lives in our hands, particularly. No one ever got hurt that I ever heard of.

    I cannot imagine anyone duplicating this jaunt under modern conditions. Even WITH cell phones. Partly we kids were in better shape physically than kids tend to be now – being fat was very unusual. But part of it is a different attitude.

    It’s not the rubber playground surface. Put anything down on the ground you like and can afford. It’s the idea that children should be protected at all times from even ordinary risks.

  16. 16
    Ruchama says:

    When I was a kid, my mom was on the elementary school committee to pick out new playground equipment, which meant that I got to go with her to look at (and play on) playgrounds from all different companies all over our area, to help decide which to get. I think I remember that, back then, the consensus was that wood chips were safer than rubber, but more expensive to maintain, because you had to replace them every so often. (A lot of the playgrounds we looked at had these tic-tac-toe boards with spinning beads to mark X or O. I never once saw a kid actually playing with those things.)

  17. 17
    Ruchama says:

    I remember reading something once (I think it was in Last Child in the Woods) about how some of the new rules that are meant to protect the plants are distancing kids from them — that things like picking flowers and digging and building treehouses and stuff like that aren’t allowed on a lot of public land, because it will damage the trees and plants, but that it ends with kids not really being allowed to interact with nature in any way. (The book suggested setting aside a few kid-friendly areas, where kids would be allowed to do all that stuff, and relatively hardy plants would be planted, while keeping the conservation rules for the rest of the area.)

  18. 18
    mythago says:

    Notice that all the slides and swings have typically been removed from these “play”grounds too. Lest some child fall off!

    [citation majorly needed there]

    I’ve been to a number of these rubber-floored, child-development-specialist-approved, newfangled playgrounds with my kids. Every single one of them had slides. And swings. And rope ladder nets, and climbing poles, and play platforms taller than my head. That’s probably because when the surface underneath is soft rather than hard, you don’t have to worry so much about whether child falls off.

    Of course, I’ve been to the kind of playground you fetishize here, too, when we lived in much poorer neighborhoods. Cracked asphalt, peeling paint over metal, crawling tubes with sharp edges that collected standing water after rain (which was often). The kids never seemed to like those better than the rubber-floored kind.

    I cannot imagine anyone duplicating this jaunt under modern conditions.

    Don’t tell the Boy Scouts.

    Of course, being ten years old at the time, you were probably a little out of the loop on what the adults were doing as far as making sure you didn’t get hurt. Knowing the map and the country, making sure you had water, keeping an eye on the kids for heatstroke and exhaustion, expecting that some kids would drop out and having provisions for dealing with that beyond “oh, they can find their way back alone, w-evs.”

    If there’s any panic and overconcern going on here, I see it as coming from people who fetishize ‘ordinary’ (read: pointless) danger because they’re terrified of children turning out soft, and who overreact to any departure from Back When I Was A Kid with rants about ‘bubblewrap’ and ‘helicopter parenting’ and ‘coddling’.

  19. 19
    Mandolin says:

    I realize that I sound unbelievably elderly. Yikes! A child that age should always be safe at home playing a computer game, becoming obese and running the risk of Type II Diabetes!

    Yay, that was helpful.

  20. 20
    Ampersand says:

    Yay, that was helpful.

    I’m not sure which was more annoying to me, the cliched anti-fat bigotry or the new-technology-is-evil-and-will-hurt-the-children bit.

    Wait, wait. The cliched anti-fat bigotry was more annoying. But the other was annoying, too.

  21. 21
    mythago says:

    It’s also pretty hilarious given that the most newfangled technology is mobile phones, which mean that kids don’t have to sit in their living rooms to play their whatchamacallit entertainment, and also allow them access to many tools that mean they can go out and play for a change, like GPS, transit maps, guides to state parks…..

  22. 22
    Erin S. says:

    Just for educations sake, and I realize this is a complete tangent, but there is an ever increasing body of research that seems to be indicating that the relationship between fat and type 2 diabetes might be the other way around entirely. You don’t get diabetes because you’re fat, you get fat because you’re diabetic — basically, that one of the first symptoms which some people who will eventually be formally diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is a propensity towards having a higher than average body size.

    I don’t want to leave a huge comment, but it should be said that this idea that fat causes diabetes and the associated assumption made by most everyone is that only fat people have diabetes is dangerous to thin people. As a fat woman, every time I interact in any way with the medical profession, even so much as a simple eye exam, I’m asked if I’m diabetic. Usually multiple times. And even if I say no, as often as not, they proceed as if I had said yes. As a thin man, my husband is never asked, and they never perform tests or operate under the assumption that he said yes. If he was diabetic, and thin people can have type 2 diabetes also, his condition would go undiagnosed for far longer and far more damage would be done.