Letting Kids Play Outside Shouldn't Be Illegal

South Carolina mom jailed for sending 9-year-old to the park

By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff

Posted Jul 16, 2014 1:58 PM CDT

(Newser) – Should sending your kid to play alone at a local park land you in jail? Because that's what happened to Debra Harrell. The 46-year-old South Carolina mom repeatedly sent her 9-year-old daughter to a well-trafficked park while she went to work at McDonald's. When the parents of other children at the park found out, they called police, who arrested Harrell and charged her with unlawful conduct toward a child. The daughter has been placed in state custody.

Local news outlets first reported the story on July 1, but it's been getting wider attention lately thanks to an indignant post on Reason from "Free Range Kids" advocate Lenore Skenazy. And so far, pretty much everyone agrees that the arrest is senseless and wrong. Some reactions:

  • Skenazy notes that the original news reports make it sound like Harrell "committed a serious, unconscionable crime," as locals speculate that the girl could have been kidnapped. "To which I must ask: In broad daylight? In a crowded park? Just because something happened on Law & Order doesn't mean it's happening all the time in real life."
  • "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?" asks Jessica Grose at Slate.
  • One law professor tells Grose that the statutes for child welfare laws are often broadly written, giving police lots of latitude—and allowing "race, class, and gender biases to influence decisions." That could be the case here, because Harrell is black, and her poverty helped cause the situation.
  • "The story is a convergence of helicopter parenting with America’s primitive family policy," writes Jonathan Chait at New York. "Our welfare policy is designed to make everybody, even single mothers, work full-time jobs. The social safety net makes it difficult for low-wage single mothers to obtain adequate child care. And society is seized by bizarre fears that children are routinely snatched up by strangers in public places," which is actually an exceedingly rare phenomenon.
  • "The state has caused the child far more trauma than she was ever likely to suffer in the park," writes Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic, and they're taking the child at a time when the state has a shortage of foster families. And there's no empirical evidence saying the child would be safer, say, sitting at McDonald's. "The actual safety of a given kid is not being rigorously determined. State employees are drawing on their prejudices to make somewhat arbitrary judgment calls."

  (Shutterstock)
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