The criminalization of parenthood (continued)

A couple of weeks ago, the Debra Harrell story made national headlines. Harrell was arrested and charged with a felony for letting her 9-year-old daughter play at a park while Harrell worked a shift at a local McDonald’s. Now, it has happened again, this time with a 7-year old.

A mom faces a charge of child neglect after she allowed her son to go to a park alone. She says he’s old enough but Port St. Lucie Police disagree. Now she’s fighting back.

“I’m totally dumbfounded by this whole situation,” says Nicole Gainey.

It began last Saturday afternoon when Gainey gave her son Dominic permission to walk from their house to Sportsman’s Park .

“Honestly didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” says Gainey, “I was letting him go play.

It’s a half mile from their Port St. Lucie home. Dominic says it only takes him about 10 to 15 minutes to get there . . .

Dominic was playing at the park when an officer pulled up.

“They said ‘where does your mom live,’ ” says Dominic.

Police took him home. That’s when his mom was arrested and charged with child neglect. Gainey says she was shocked.

“My own bondsman said my parents would have been in jail every day,” says Gainey who paid nearly $4,000 to bond out.

The officer wrote in the report that Dominic was unsupervised at the park and that “numerous sex offenders reside in the vicinity.”

“He just basically kept going over that there’s pedophiles and this and that and basically the park wasn’t safe and he shouldn’t be there alone,” says Gainey.

That’s just absurd, but the paranoia on display was also a factor in the Harrell case. The original report from local TV station WJBF quoted and left unchallenged an assertion from a local woman (her credentials were apparently that she happened to be at the park while the news crew was recording) that kids left by themselves at public parks are at risk of being snatched by strangers.

There just isn’t much evidence to support those fears. The most recent study on abducted kids was a 2002 study on children abducted in 1999. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the study found about 200,000 abductions that year. Of those, 58,200 were “non-family abductions.” But the vast, vast majority of those kids were abducted by friends, acquaintances or boyfriends. Just 115 fit the “stranger swipes kid from public space” scenario that Harrell’s critics fear. Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids points to another study that found that just 3 percent of homicides of children under age 5 committed between 1976 and 2005 were committed by strangers.

Even odder, we’re become increasingly paranoid just as violent crime, sex crimes and crimes against children are all in rapid decline and are now at historic lows. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I ventured out by myself on my bike as a kid. It was pretty close to every day. At times, I’d end up several miles from home. If my parents had been arrested and charged every time, they’d have been serving life sentences for repeat offenses by the time I turned 10.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · July 30, 2014

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