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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.