Another day, another mother arrested for trying to have it all. And by “have it all,” I mean struggling to figure out child care with little support while maintaining a minimum wage food-service industry job.
A 46-year-old Black mother from South Carolina was jailed for letting her nine-year old daughter play at the park unsupervised while she went to work. Let’s look at the facts, as detailed by Free Range Kids’ Lenore Skenazy:
- Debra Harrell works at a McDonald’s in North Augusta, South Carolina.
- Her nine-year-old daughter had been accompanying her to work for most of the summer, bringing along a laptop and using McD’s free wifi to keep her busy while Harrell worked her shift.
- Harrell’s home was recently robbed and the laptop was stolen, causing her daughter to request being dropped off at a local park.
- Harrell’s daughter was given a cell phone to call her in case she needed anything.
- On her third day at the park by herself, a stranger questioned Harrell’s daughter about her mother’s whereabouts, called the police, and subsequently, Harrell was arrested on abandonment charges.
I can’t imagine being in Harrell’s position where options are incredibly limited regarding child care and I have no idea what I would have done had I been in her shoes. I’m thankful that I have both a network of friends, babysitters, grandparents and camps that I can turn to and afford to take over once school is out. But for many working parents, summers can be incredibly difficult, especially when faced with rising child care costs. Harrell’s job at McDonald’s was most likely not enough to provide for full day camp or care, leaving her with little choice. Yet, the response — both from fellow parents at the park and from police, was to jail Harrell — which most likely will result in her losing her job.
Was Harrell’s daughter in real danger from being at a popular park by herself? Most likely not. Those who cry out about child abductions may not realize that children are more likely to be kidnapped by people they know than complete strangers. The nine-year-old had a phone to use in case she needed to reach her mother, and she had made it through two days of park play without any issue. This doesn’t really sounds like child endangerment. The real risk of child endangerment comes from Harrell being jailed and her daughter having to live through that trauma — especially if it ends with her being sent into an overburdened foster care system.
Here’s what I’m seeing: a mom trying to do the best that she can. She assessed the situation and made the best choice given her circumstances. Was it ideal? No. But what was she supposed to do? Not go to work? There’s no winning here. But, instead of coming up with ways we can prevent situations like these — raising the minimum wage, offering more affordable quality child care options — those who need the help get piled on and things are made worse. We’ve gotten to a point where we’re criminalizing parenting. Instead of providing tools for success, society has decided the best way to get involved is to make various acts of desperation criminal, because that’s more likely to help the situation. Spoiler alert: it doesn’). Just look back to the homeless mother who was arrested for leaving her kids in the car for a job interview.
There are actual real cases of child neglect and abuse out there. I would much rather see the strained resources available going to fight those cases and saving those children in true need. Harrell’s daughter was not one of them. She was just a child unsupervised time at a park — which, thinking back to my nine-year-old self — sounds kind of awesome. If anything, the real crime here was the fact that a mother of color was working the best job she could most likely find which did not provide enough to put her daughter in quality care while she worked.
Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter.
[Image of a girl playing hopscotch via Shutterstock]