For many kids, summer vacation is a time for sleeping in, camping out, visiting the library and eating Popsicles on the porch. Kids get to spend all day with their friends playing in yards or at each others houses, or in local neighborhood parks. That is, unless the police intercede and declare them abandoned. Then the question becomes how old is old enough to be alone, and who gets to make that decision: a parent, or a stranger?
It was a stranger who tipped off police to mother Debra Harrell’s habit of letting her 9 year-old daughter spend hours at the park, unsupervised, which Harrell was at work. As a result, Harrell has been booked for unlawful conduct towards a child, and the young girl is now in the custody of Department of Social Services.
“I understand the mom may have been in a difficult situation, not having someone to watch the child, but at the same time, you’ve got to find somebody,” one parent at the park told a local news station, adding, “You cannot just leave your child alone at a public place, especially. This day and time, you never know who’s around. Good, bad, it’s just not safe.”
The 9 year-old usually spent the time her mother was at work playing on a laptop at the McDonald’s where her mother was employed, according to Reason, but asked to be left at the park instead because the laptop had recently been stolen. She was provided with a cell phone, and returned to the McDonald’s, which was about a mile and a half away, at lunch. But was she old enough to be unsupervised for that long? And, was it the responsibility of strangers to decide that on their own? That question has turned into a major debate on the internet.
“We just thank our lord and savior Jesus Christ that other parents were there to call the police on the ‘mom,’ who was ‘working’ at McDonald’s at the time, for abandoning and endangering her nine-year-old, by letting her go to the park,” quips Wonkette.
“Perhaps the busybodies would prefer it if the mother unnecessarily lodged her 9-year-old into a daycare center that would absorb most or all of the wages she would earn during the course of a day at work. Or, better yet, quit working and just collect welfare checks,” agreed a writer at PoliceStateUSA.
Of course, there is always danger in park, danger that may not be avoidable even with a parent or adult around. Still, at what age does it become allowable for a child to be alone, especially with many other children? Gathering in a park is a time-honored tradition for children, where they learn to play together, negotiate and interact, as well as develop their sense of independence. Is 9 too young for that to happen, especially if the alternative is being left home alone?
There are two major societal issues at play in Harrell’s arrest. The first is the fact that affordable options for someone like her daughter — a school age child on summer break but apparently not deemed old enough to care for herself — are completely lacking, which forces a parent to potentially spend more money than he or she actually earns in order to pay for care, or find alternative sources like leaving the child unattended or unsupervised at home, or spending hours on a computer in the building where her parent works.
The second is that we are currently in a society where if a stranger feels he or she is witnessing a “dangerous” situation, the first instinct is to call in police to arrest the parent rather than contact the parent in question, and that police no longer evaluate what constitutes true endangerment. If the girl did indeed have a cell phone on her, or was caught walking to and from her mother’s workplace, as witnesses allegedly learned by interviewing her, why wasn’t contacting the mother ever considered as a preliminary step?
With police becoming the newest arbiters for deciding what is legal or illegal parenting behavior, more bias is likely clouding arrests as well. As sociology professor and author Dorothy Roberts told Slate, “it is ‘recent and rare’ for the parent to be charged with a crime” and adds that the vagueness of the statutes leave “a lot of room for discretion by social workers, police, judges, and prosecutors, to determine which/whose failures to supervise to pursue. This allows race, class, and gender biases to influence decisions in both the child welfare and criminal justice systems.”
Should a 9 year-old be dropped off at a park to play alone for hours? I’m not sure if I would allow my child to do it at that age, but I certainly wouldn’t call the police on another parent who did. Whether it is out of necessity or simply a different parenting style, it is not my place to bring the authorities into a situation unless there is real, life threatening, life altering danger in that parent’s actions, and letting a child play alone in a play area with others certainly doesn’t qualify.
She may have been unsupervised for a few hours, but as a result she has indefinitely lost her parent. How could such a tradeoff ever be justified?
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