When I was growing up in Washington, DC in the 1970s, I spent most of the hot, humid summers exploring my neighborhood, kicking around my elementary school playground, and walking neighbors’ dogs at the local park across the street from my house. Except for quick meals, I was rarely home between 9am and full dark.
Wherever I happened to spend my days, my mom was not there with me. She had four kids and a house to run. Plus she was busy converting a local “home for unwed mothers” into a daycare center that still thrives today.
In other words, Mom had better things to do than iron my underwear or drill me with flash cards in Chinese.
Or worry about what the police would think. Because today, my mom would be arrested for letting me be alone for so long. Especially if she were a black single mother working at McDonald’s.
This past July 1st, a 46-year-old black single mother in South Carolina was arrested on the felony charge of unlawful neglect of a child.
Debra Harrell let her 9-year-old daughter spend several daylit hours playing in a park six minutes from their home.
The park was filled with other children. Plus adults who had organized a free breakfast and lunch program for local kids. Harrell’s daughter could use the free park Wi-Fi and a splash pool. She also had a cell phone to call her mother or other adults at any time.
The alternative was sitting at their home, which had recently been burglarized, or at her mother’s workplace all day, which violates McDonald’s 30-minute anti-loitering policy and would not have boded well for Debra Harrell’s job security, since we all know how much employers appreciate kids at work. In response to the neglect charge, he state took custody of the young girl [http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/07/arrested-for-letting-a-9-year-old-play-at-the-park-alone/374436/].
As a kid, how many times did you play in park without a parent? How often do your kids do so today? What would you do if you saw a nine-year-old by him or herself at your neighborhood park? Call the police? Let it go? Try to watch as best as you can? Under what circumstances would you leave your child alone in the car for a few minutes? Or at home? Or roaming your neighborhood?
The fact that I am asking these questions at all shows how dramatically parenthood has changed in the course of one generation.
Now here are the facts: Debra Harrell broke no law. Some states have very clear statutes about how old a child can be left alone – at home – and how old a child must be to care for younger children [http://www.legalsource360.com/index.php/child-home-alone-laws-by-state-311/]. South Carolina’s law states that children eight and under may not be left alone. Harrell’s daughter was nine.
What does her arrest tell us about the state of modern American parenting today?
My view is that, as a parent, you have to take something like this case by case. Some nine-year-olds are too young to do ANYTHING alone. Some are very mature, independent and responsible and can be left alone.
Also the context matters. To leave a kid “alone in a park” sounds awful. But in this case, there were tons of kids and other parents around. It was daylight. And the child had an easy way to reach her mom via cell phone.
A friend of mine wonders: was this a case of a black mom being arrested for something a white mom would be praised for – letting her child experience the great outdoors while developing her independence?
She also wonders whether a white person called the cops.
Another friend tells this story.
“I remember when my husband and I separated. My son was 9 and my daughter 5. They had one month of school left and I was working a temp assignment an hour away with no one to pick them up and I couldn’t afford aftercare. I taught them how to catch two buses and the Metro to get to my brother’s house where we were staying temporarily. I bought them a cell phone and they had a key to the house. I designed their route so they wouldn’t have to cross any streets – every bus and train they took gave them front door service. They had to call me after they got off at each stop.
One day, the school secretary saw them outside the school, hiding behind the tree waiting for the bus. She asked what they were doing. My son was honest and told her. She could have called the police on me. Instead she called me. She said, ‘I am taking them home after school from now on. You keep getting back on your feet.’
People judge when they have no clue what a single mother with limited resources goes through.”
I would add that although people judge single mothers the most harshly, and dads occasionally, our society judges all mothers, all the time, period.
Hundreds of people have joined the outcry supporting Debra Harrell, providing free legal counsel and donating funds to her case. I too side with Mom here. She did what my mother did. What I myself have done many times. When they were under ten years old, I often left one or all of my kids “alone” at a basketball gym, at the neighborhood fair, at a school play, at my house.
In fact, one of my most cherished memories of this summer is of the walks to the park my youngest daughter took, alone with our dog, in the weeks before we had to put him to sleep.
Debra Harrell is a fine mom in my book. She did so much right in a country where we offer so very little support to mothers. She took care of her child economically by going to work; unlike fathers, moms seldom get credit for providing financially stability for their families.
Debra Harrell trusted her child. She trusted her community too. We betrayed her — not vice versa.