This isn’t the only case recently of a mom being locked up for letting her kid play alone in the park. I don’t think we blogged it at the time but the story of Debra Harrell is pure Kafka. Her daughter had a cell phone, the park she played in was crowded with other kids and parents, and Harrell herself was stuck at work trying to earn a living for the two of them, but no matter. She was arrested for neglect, had her daughter temporarily taken from her, and was reportedly fired from her job at McDonald’s before quietly being reinstated after outrage over her case exploded online. (An Internet fundraising effort for her began with a goal of $10,000. It stands at $41,166 as I write this.) Conor Friedersdorf asked a good question after the Harrell uproar: Does averting the tiny risk of child abduction in a situation like this justify the near-certainty that a child will be traumatized when the state arrests his mother and removes him from her care?
Statistically speaking, the South Carolina mother would almost certainly be putting her daughter in more danger if she strapped her into the car beside her for a hypothetical one-hour daily commute. No one would arrest her for that. It wouldn’t surprise me if the child would more likely suffer harm sitting in a McDonald’s in front of a laptop, presumably eating fast food at least reasonably often, rather than spending summer days playing outdoors in a park with lots of parents. I can’t say with certainty that she’d be statistically safer. But neither have the South Carolina officials who arrested this woman.
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. They wouldn’t think of preventing many statistically riskier parenting decisions so long as those decisions jive comfortably with social norms. They’re sometimes taking away children based on what amounts to their gut feeling–even though kids are far more likely to be abused in state-administered foster care. Again, I haven’t run the numbers, but my hunch is that a single parent with a new boyfriend or girlfriend hanging around the house puts a kid at greater statistical risk of being molested than letting them play alone in a typical park.
Enforcement seems completely arbitrary too. Harrell was busted after a parent asked her daughter where her mother was and then freaked out and called the cops after being told she was at work. Nicole Gainey, the Florida mom, was arrested after someone asked her son while en route to the park where his mother was; the boy reacted by running away to the park — clearly and wisely, he had been taught to be leery of strangers — and then the police were called. If not for the calls, though, the cops never would have known; apparently, the risk to unattended children isn’t so great that they’re stationing officers at parks or cruising around schoolyards to make sure everyone has a chaperone at all times. The strategy in arresting Harrell and Gainey seems to be to make an example of them, pour encourager les autres, which means, freakishly, that the well deserved media coverage of these outrages is actually serving the state’s purpose. You too might be cuffed and hauled to the station if you let your nine-year-old ride the swings alone for an hour. Lesson learned.