Tuesday, July 15, 2014


In Support of Debra Harrell, Jailed for Letting Her 9-Year-Old Play Unsupervised in the Park

harrellVia the Atlantic, details on a ridiculous case:

Here are the facts: Debra Harrell works at McDonald's in North Augusta, South Carolina. For most of the summer, her daughter had stayed there with her, playing on a laptop that Harrell had scrounged up the money to purchase. (McDonald's has free WiFi.) Sadly, the Harrell home was robbed and the laptop stolen, so the girl asked her mother if she could be dropped off at the park to play instead.

Harrell said yes. She gave her daughter a cell phone. The girl went to the park—a place so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking—two days in a row. There were swings, a "splash pad," and shade. On her third day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. At work, the daughter replied.

The shocked adult called the cops. Authorities declared the girl "abandoned" and proceeded to arrest the mother.

Watch the news: It sounds like Debra Harrell committed a serious, unconscionable crime.

Jonathan Chait, who readily admits he is not subject to any of the same circumstances or trade-offs as 46-year-old Harrell, states, "Obviously, leaving a child unattended in a park is not an ideal child-care arrangement. It is, however, a perfectly sensible balancing of risks." Jamelle Bouie points out that in the absence of subsidized daycare, perhaps Harrell could have taken full-time care of her child by going on TANF, and wouldn't we like that? I used to play outside unsupervised all day long starting at the age of seven and I can't imagine my mom taking any of the heat that Harrell is taking now. [Reason]

26 Comments / Post A Comment


More and more, I think it'd be refreshing to be explicitly told "Hey, minorities/women/low income people, this is designed specifically for you to fail. Carry on."


@pajamaralls This, times a thousand


Original style, brill@v


Yeah, I definitely played in the park and walked there on my own at the age of nine. And then walked to the pharmacy and bought myself treats. Also, I have a nine year old and he would be capable of doing these things, but life is slightly more dangerous in cities these days and what would we think or say if the child had gone missing?


@philomene Except crime rates are down across the board.

There's also the point that while playing alone in the park may not be an ideal childcare situation, there is nothing less ideal than arresting a parent and putting her child in state custody.


@philomene Life is much, much less dangerous in cities than it was even ten or fifteen years ago. We're just more paranoid.

Chuck Bass

Every city has different laws about leaving children unattended, and they exist for a reason. I work in a major urban area in a public library and the law is they must be 9. And people do use us as a child care option for those 9+, which is completely unsafe, but legal. Keep in mind there is a difference between a child "walking down the street to play by herself" and "being stuck in a park for 10 hours every day by herself ". I agree that the system is set up for this woman to fail, and she was only minimizing damage as she had to. This is a shame, and I don't know what the answer is, but I call the police every time an underage child is left unattended. I am surprised she was arrested, that's horrible police work...they should have been offering her social services (if they have any) instead.


@Chuck Bass I too work in a public library and our first course of action is to try and contact the parent. If the child is in the upper ages of the "alone in the library" age limit (ours is 10) it's usually not that big a deal since they can tell us their name and parent's number. But if we can't get a hold of their parents then yeah, we call the police and I guess I've never really thought what happens after that, I guess I just assumed a stern talking to! While the cutoff can seem arbitrary, and there are 8 an 9 year olds who can safely use the library alone but we just can't set the precedent that we will babysit your kids, especially after they've used up all their computer time and are bored and restless. But this story does really make me think! I'm sure there are kids being left here since it seems safe enough to their parents and generally it is but in the case of a kid getting majorly hurt (which is even more likely in a park versus a library but kids are always trying to climb and jump on things here!) does seem like risk. But of course, in the age before hypervigillance, kids played on their own all day and somehow survived. I don't love being a part of a way overprotective culture on one hand, but on the other hand we have to do what we can to keep the library from becoming a daycare and alienating the adult patrons!

Josh Michtom

@Chuck Bass You could always just ask the kids if they have a way to get home or contact their parents, and then kick them out of the library.


This is...really insane, and I've tried to think about it from all the angles and still get nowhere. I played outside, alone, for about eight hours a day year-round for three years (homeschooled!) and every summer after that, starting at about age 7. And this was in a country where I didn't really speak the language until I was older.
Did the adult do the right thing? I don't know - I keep trying to think about what I would have done. Walk the kid to her mother's workplace (and get accused of trying to kidnap them?)? Leave them alone (and get sued when they fall into a river - Google this, it's a thing that happened)?
I don't necessarily think the adult did the wrong thing in calling the police, but it would be great if their response was to give this woman access to some resources, instead of arresting her.
Lenore Skenazy, where are you.


@commanderbanana Seems like they could have called her mother, since the kid had a cell phone. I think going to the cops did way more damage in the long run.


@commanderbanana Oh, I completely agree. I don't think calling the police was necessarily the wrong thing to do, but the police's reaction - to arrest and charge this woman - was way over the top. I'm 99% sure they wouldn't have done that if the mother was, say, not a WOC and was at a Pilates class or something.


I looked into this a little bit, and I don't think this was a good balancing of risks. The park was 22-27 minutes away by foot -- NOT just down the block -- in a suburban, moderately wooded area. I'm all for kids playing outside, but the difference between this young lady and a free-range kid is that if a free-range kid breaks their arm, a parent working from home can usually take a few minutes away from their work day to look after them. I don't think this is as likely at McDonalds.

Betsy Murgatroyd

The park was not that far from the McDs. There is a path leading from the park to the McDonalds and it's only 3/10 of a mile. That is not that far. The long way is by the main roads and the news did not mention this. You can see this if you look at google maps.


@Erryoudite the difference between this young lady and a free range kid is that free range kids are white.

Josh Michtom

@Erryoudite Even if it was a 27-minute walk, so what? A nine-year-old can walk for 27 minutes. I took the subway in New York by myself when I was 10, in the barbaric 1980s, when crime was WAY higher and there were no cell phones. If this kid breaks her arm at the park, she's going to have to do exactly what an adult who breaks her arm at the park would: use the cell phone or depend on the (usually ample) kindness of strangers.

Betsy Murgatroyd

@largemarge Normally I'd agree with this, but this is happening all too often to a lot of parents of various races. One look at the Free Range Kids website will show you there's a huge culture of fear and helicoptering that we did not have at one time.


A friend of mine posted a link to the story w/o any picture and I suspected that the mom would turn out to be a WOC. I would just be interested to know how often white parents behaving in a similar fashion get in any real trouble for this sort of thing. It's not that I think racism is the only issue here, but ...

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

@needsmoresalt I actually read a piece (probably on some garbage like HuffPo) by a white woman who was charged with some kind of child negligence because she left her son unattended in a parked car while she went into a store. The conditions were entirely different and the situation could easily have been avoided, as it basically boiled down to her kid wanting to play on an iPad, and her not wanting to say no. She spent the entire piece acting as if she was the victim, and had been demonized by the legal system and tried to make the best of it. Literally all of the commenters on that piece agreed with her, and boiled down to "gee, the world is a crazy place if a child can't be left unattended on purpose in a city he's not familiar with!"
I can only hope that the Internet will be this kind to Debra Harrell. I'm not saying that leaving a 9-year-old alone in a park for hours is a great idea, but it's clear that some parents don't have all the resources necessary to make sure their children are constantly supervised.

Betsy Murgatroyd

@needsmoresalt Go check out the Free Range Kids website if you want proof that it's not just POC that are having this issue. Our culture surrounding children is changing and it's not necessarily for the better.


@Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that) This was on Salon: http://www.salon.com/2014/06/03/the_day_i_left_my_son_in_the_car/

I posted this link below before I saw your comment. The thing that creeped me out is that the person who called the police never spoke to her - they filmed her car while she was in the store, waited till she was gone, called the police, who traced the license plate to her mother's house, then they put out a warrant for this woman's arrest, all after the incident, without any harm or real danger to her child, was over. She was arrested and had to plead guilty to contributing to the negligence of a minor, or something.
(I will leave aside my thoughts that the entire incident happened because the author freely admits to being incapable of saying no to her four year old, which, great, I hope I never have to cross paths with your child in my lifetime.)


Because putting a single mother in jail is DEFINITELY going to improve the life of this 9 year old girl.


[meta] Hairpin commentariat, thank you for being y'all.

But also this makes my blood boil and I just feel like coming out swinging if one person I know starts to talk shit about this woman. And I do not for once think whomever called 911 was ACTUALLY thinking about that child's safety because jesus christ, maybe go talk to the working woman of color? No? GOD I HATE EVERYTHING.

Lindy's daughter

I am not saying what other people should do, BUT if I had been in the park I would have told the child that I had noticed her being on her own. I would have asked her if there was anything she needed, if she had a way to be in touch with her family.
As citizens we can help each other. It is not necessary to call cops into situations when calm, caring adults can make sure things are ok. It is called being a neighborhood.

Mary Roach@facebook

@Lindy's daughter Thank you so much for expressing the exact same sentiments I had in my mind. I believe the woman who reported the mom was a busybody who had nothing better to do than to try to stir up drama and cause chaos for a mother and her child. That is just horrifying that the mother was jailed and the child turned over to SS. It would have been a far better thing to do for any concerned adult to offer assistance to the child, and if she seemed well and good, to leave her be. And you are exactly right, it is called being a neighborhood, a community together. We all fight each other over the silliest issues.


This piece at Salon, about a woman who was arrested for leaving her 4 year old in a car outside a store for a few minutes while she bought him a pair of headphones, is definitely worth a read:

It is super creepy - the stranger who called the cops filmed the woman's car, but never said anything to her, waited until she was gone, then called the police, who went to her mother's home, then to HER home, then put out a warrant for her arrest. All of this after the event, in which her kid was never actually in danger, transpired.

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