The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are we protecting kids or ruining families?

(EPA/Robert Ghement)

Update: It looks like Debra Harrell is out of jail and with her daughter again. But I’m sure her life won’t be the same. She’s gotten quite a bit of attention, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Slate asks: When were you first allowed to go to the park alone?


There have been times when I looked at a way another parent was handling a situation and wondered whether I should step in. Never to the point where I thought I should call the police. But that’s what one parent did recently when she saw a 9-year-old at a playground in South Carolina by herself. When she asked the girl where her parent was, the girl responded, “At work.”

Cue the story that it now feels like we hear every day. Mom, who works at McDonald’s is arrested. Daughter, who was playing alone at the playground, and had a cell phone in case of emergency, is now in foster care.

The mother, Debra Harrell, allowed her daughter to play at the park instead of her other option: sitting at McDonald’s staring at a computer screen until her mom’s shift was over.

Was the girl in danger? That’s the complicated issue at the heart of this debate. Either way, she now faces another danger: time in foster care, separated from her mother. And possibly economic devastation. Will Harrell lose her job? Or ever dig out of the financial hole she’s certainly falling further into while she’s prevented from working?

There are so many issues in this case and the many others like it. How is it that, in 2014, our society doesn’t have a better safety net for working mothers? What choice did this mother have? Earning minimum wage, doing shift work, during a time when school was not in session, her choices were likely few.

Recently, Jim Sollisch wrote a piece for On Parenting arguing that Baby Boomers ruined parenting for everyone. They were the ones who started the helicoptering, locking kids away instead of letting them wander, he wrote. Calling the cops instead of keeping an eye on a child who was fine, but by herself. There is a backlash against it, in the form of Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids. And yet, here we are.

Incidents like this happen not because we’re more involved, but because we’re no longer a village. Had this happened a generation ago, the other parents at the park would probably have known the child or the child’s parents and casually kept an eye on her or even taken her back to their house for cookies.

Kim Brooks, who wrote about leaving her son in the car and being haunted by it for years afterward, had advantages like lawyers, a supportive family and a financial situation that allowed her to do things like go away on vacation and run into a store to buy headphones to keep her child occupied on the plane. The woman who works — worked? — at McDonald’s now likely faces a public defender, lost wages and a foster care system.

We all need each other to step in when it’s necessary. But why did the mother who called the police not just keep an eye on the 9-year-old while she was at the park? And did the girl’s mother actually need to be arrested? (Some jurisdictions have laws regarding at what age and for how long a child can be left alone. Others have guidelines.)

Sure, a 9-year-old might be a bit young to be going it alone in a public place. But does the punishment fit the “crime” in this case? Are we simply doing more damage than good?

Where have our villages gone?

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