A South Carolina woman, who failed to use the income she makes working at McDonald's to hire a nanny, let her 9-year-old daughter go to the park by herself while she was at work...in the middle of the day! To face, all alone, such dangers as the other children playing in the park and their parents.
Some of those parents reported her and now our criminal justice system is on it, making everything better by jailing the mother and putting her daughter in the custody of the Department of Social Services. According to Reason, Debra Harrell's daughter spent part of the summer playing on a laptop at McDonald's, but asked to go to the park when the laptop was stolen. Her mom apparently gave her a cell phone and sent her to a well-attended park and playground. A few days later, an adult noticed that she was there alone and called the police. Harrell was arrested and charged with unlawful conduct towards a child, a felony in South Carolina.
As Lenore Skenazy notes, local news reports of the incident are not friendly to Harrell, flashing her mugshot on the screen while the reporter intones, "It's an afternoon of fun in the water at Summerfield Park in North Augusta... but investigators say it wasn't enjoyable for one little girl." (There doesn't appear to be follow up coverage of how enjoyable it was for the girl to have her mom publicly shamed on TV for abandoning her). The news segment goes on to interview parents around the park who speculate about the horrors that could have befallen the girl. "what if a man would have came and just snatched her because you have all kinds of trucks that come up in here so you really don't know."
Skenazy, who runs the blog Free Range Kids and stirred up controversy a few years back for letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway alone, points out that anxieties about the dangers faced by children are not supported by actual crime rates.
These fears pop into our brains so easily, they seem almost real. But they're not. 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."
Parental philosophy aside, getting the criminal justice system involved is hardly the most productive solution. If Harrell had to send her daughter to the park because she couldn't afford child care (not clear from the news reports but not particularly unlikely), a criminal record, which disqualifies people from lots of government assistance and is a barrier to employment, is not going to improve her or her daughter's situation.
As Radley Balko points out in the Washington Post, "It doesn’t benefit these kids in the least to give their parents a criminal record, smear their parents’ names in their neighborhoods and communities and make it more difficult for their parents to find a job." Source