South Carolina mom who left daughter at park sues TV station

Debra Harrell was arrested and charged with willful abandonment of a child after leaving her daughter at a park while she worked at a nearby McDonald's. (Photo courtesy of Clair Ryan)
Debra Harrell was arrested and charged with willful abandonment of a child after leaving her daughter at a park while she worked at a nearby McDonald’s. (Support Debra Harrell Facebook page)

The outrage continues.

WJBF-TV, the ABC affiliate in North Augusta, S.C., posted video Monday of the police interrogation of Debra Harrell, the mom charged with a felony for leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a busy park while she worked at a nearby McDonald’s.

But that video, obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request, included Harrell giving the spelling of her name, her address — and her Social Security number. There it was on the Internet for at least an hour, while people left comments wondering why her information was being made public, until that portion of the tape was edited.

Robert Phillips, Harrell’s attorney, confirmed Thursday that he is filing a lawsuit on behalf of Harrell against the reporter, Deon Guillory, and the station.

The station declined comment.

People were quick to comment on the station’s Facebook page, asking questions like, “Is it okay for u guys or anyone to make her ss# public?”

The now-edited tape, which is down to 10 minutes, 21 seconds from the “13 minutes” cited by the news anchor, resembles a lecture more than an interrogation. Granted, what I know about police procedure comes from hours of watching “Blue Bloods” and “Law & Order,” but it bothers me that the police officer interrupts her explanation that she didn’t think she had to watch her daughter every minute she’s at the park to ask,  “You’re her mother, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Harrell answers.

“You understand that you’re in charge of that child’s well-being?”

Again, Harrell replies, “Yes, sir.”

And he tells her, “That’s not other people’s job to do so.”

Harrell said, “Yes, sir.”

She’s warned not to lie as the officer says, “I’ve made phone calls … this isn’t the first time. … I know a lot more about this than you think I do.” He claims workers at the “feed-a-kid program” at the park have reported seeing Harrell’s daughter unattended several times.

Harrell explains she has not left her daughter “every day” as she doesn’t work every day, to which the officer responds, “Don’t give me that one-day-only crap.” She tells him it’s occurred “two or three times.”

Then the officer talks about the risk of sexual offenders. “You should have that concern,” he says. She explains that she leaves her cellphone with her daughter, but he counters with, “Cellphones don’t save people.”

That tone is in keeping with the television station that seems ready to convict Harrell without a trial. In its first coverage of her arrest, the anchor emphasized how Harrell had “confessed” to leaving her child in a busy park.

Screen shot of WJBF's Facebook page comments after posting Debra Harrell's police interrogation video Monday.
Screen shot of WJBF’s Facebook page comments after posting Debra Harrell’s police interrogation video Monday.

Harrell is not speaking to the media because of the ongoing case, but Clair Ryan, a thousand miles away in New Hampshire, has taken up her cause. Ryan, a 31-year-old program director for a nonprofit in the Boston area, started an online fundraiser for Harrell after reading the first report of what had happened. (The fundraiser closes Saturday.)

“Her story really touched me,” Ryan told me. “I tried to put myself in her shoes even though my shoes are very different.” Ryan, who is married, does not have children and admits she’s never had to struggle.

“I felt like I had to do something,” she said. And she has. More than 1,500 people have contributed around $45,000, which will help with Harrell’s living expenses and her daughter’s college fund.

Ryan explained the circumstances that led to Harrell’s arrest: Harrell had been working nights and was switched to days. Her home was broken into and electronic items, like the television and the laptop her daughter would take to McDonald’s for entertainment, were stolen.

Her daughter wanted to go to the park where she would meet friends. On June 30, someone reported to police that Harrell’s daughter was alone, leading to Harrell’s arrest and a felony charge of willful abandonment of a child, with a possible sentence of 10 years upon conviction.

She was released on a $5,000 bond, but her daughter remained in the foster care system until July 18. That’s almost three weeks the two of them were apart, although Harrell was allowed to visit.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s gave Harrell a promotion from shift manager to department manager, along with a raise. Since then, Harrell’s daughter has gone to either day care or to subsidized church camps while her mother works, Ryan told me.

Phillips, who took the case pro bono, said Harrell’s next court appearance is Sept. 5.

North Augusta seems to be full of the parenting police: A young mother was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct Sunday for using the f-word in front of her children at a Kroger’s grocery when she allegedly told them to “stop squishing the f-ing bread.”

Good thing orange is the new black. There could be a lot of us moms facing jail time.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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