Because her mother dropped her off at the playground while she went to work at McDonald’s. Ordinarily, Debra Harrell would have brought her daughter with her to work where she would sit quietly on the family laptop, surfing the internet while her mother served up Big Mac’s; but after their home was broken into and the laptop was stolen, her daughter asked if she could play at the local park instead. Two days in a row the young girl played alone at the park without incident. On the third day, a concerned parent asked where Little Harrell’s mother was. When she replied, “At work,” the concerned parent called police, who in turn arrested Harrell for negligence and placed Little Harrell in the care of social services.
Despite claims to the contrary, the statistical reality of being snatched by a stranger is lower than most realize, and one might easily argue a nine-year-old is safer at a local playground than being left to wait in a car or left at home alone. Here in Texas, if they are under 14-years-old, it’s illegal to leave your children alone in the car for any period of time. You can’t even leave them in the car with the windows rolled down while you run inside and pay for gas. But there is no law saying when your child is old enough to be left at home alone.
You read that right. Even though your children are at greatest risk in the home, as long as you’re not being “negligent,” it’s not necessarily illegal to leave them at home alone in the state of Texas. No matter how old they are. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) does say the adult is accountable for the child’s care, and “inadequate supervision can be a type of neglect,” but basically that means it’s up to the individual investigator to determine whether you screwed up when you left your kids at home alone.
Some factors the Texas DFPS suggests you take into consideration before leaving your child unsupervised at home are listed on their website:
- How old, emotional(ly) mature, and capable is your child?
- What is the layout and safety of the home, play area, or other setting?
- What are the hazards and risks in the neighborhood?
- What is your child’s ability to respond to illness, fire, weather, or other types of emergencies?
- Does your child have a mental, physical, or medical disability?
- How many children are being left unsupervised?
- Do they know where you are?
- Can they contact you or other responsible adults?
- How long and how often is the child (or children) left alone?
Let’s put Debra Harrell’s case to the test, shall we?
- Little Harrell is nine-years-old.
- The playground has some swings, a splash pad, and plenty of seating and shade. Grants and corporate sponsorships recently funded new ground cover and safer supports for the playground.
- One site’s statistics show that the chance of being the victim of a violent crime in North Augusta is only 1 in 527.
- I’m guessing at nine, she knows how to yell, “Fire!” and call 911 if she needs to.
- Let’s not speculate on this point.
- It’s a playground in 2014; they’re all unsupervised because their parents are busy fiddling on their iPhones.
- She knew her mother was at work.
- She had a cell phone and presumably knew how to ask a nearby adult for help if she needed it.
- Reports say she was left alone for several hours at a time, three days in a row.
- Noteworthy: She was able to walk the short distance (less than 5 minutes) to her mother’s job for lunch or to check in as appropriate.
It’s difficult to remember when I started playing outside unsupervised, but it was long before I turned nine, and I wasn’t sticking close to home either. Despite how parents may feel about that today, in her time, my mom was considered a “helicopter parent.” I wasn’t allowed to stay out past dark, I had to check in every hour or so, and if she yelled for me and I didn’t come running, I knew I was in trouble. As a mother myself, I’m much too anxious to let my kids run the neighborhood by themselves. Mine are pretty young though. Still, I wouldn’t even let my son ride the bus home from school until halfway through first grade. It’s only a three mile ride, but I was convinced something terrible was going to happen—like some punk would tell him there’s no Santa Claus. But agonizing over whether or not to let my seven-year-old ride the bus home is a luxury I can afford.
No matter how you define helicopter parenting, it’s easier to do when you have resources—you know, like two incomes, childcare, or sobriety. When reading this week about a mother who deliberately left her four-year-old in her locked car while she went into work, my first thought was, She obviously didn’t have any childcare. That’s desperation. It’s easier for me to sympathize with her than parents whose two- and three-year-olds are found wandering the neighborhood in diapers while mom is home passed out drunk.
When considering how many truly abused and neglected kids there are in this country, I’m confident that Debra Harrell’s daughter playing outside at a crowded park a mile down the road cannot have been any more dangerous than sitting on a stool inside McDonald’s staring at a computer screen all day—though I’m sure having her closer by would have given Harrell (and the mother who called the police) less anxiety.
Formula feed or breastfeed, circumcise or don’t circumcise, vaccinate or don’t vaccinate, rear-facing or forward-facing, flag football or tackle football. Make them wear a bike helmet? Let them have a cell phone? Send them on that unchaperoned Spring Break? As parents, we are constantly performing some kind of risk-benefit analysis, so if I’m Harrell, a single mother living on less than $8 an hour, and my nine-year-old doesn’t want to sit with me at work and watch people eat all day, I’m probably dropping her off at the playground down the road, too, regardless of how much anxiety it gives me. Frankly, I was more surprised to read that McDonald’s lets Harrell’s daughter just hang out in the restaurant and play on the Internet during her mother’s shift.
While many are shocked to read that any mother would leave her nine-year-old child at a city park unsupervised, the Internet has also been buzzing about the dangers of a growing trend often referred to as “risk-aversion parenting.” I’m guessing this is the scientific term for “helicopter parenting.” A recent article in the Guardian reported, “Roaming radiuses have shrunk by 90% … and as children’s contact with nature is slowly exterminated, they’re getting unhealthier, unhappier and less able to take risks.” The more parents worry about crime, bullying, harassment, kidnapping and germs, the tighter the reins they tend to keep on their children, and professionals argue this style of risk-aversion parenting has been shown to interrupt normal child development.
As a result of over-supervision culture, kids aren’t learning how to self-regulate, they’re feeling more insecure and developing more social and emotional problems, and perhaps the biggest danger for us all—they aren’t developing any independence. And it’s no wonder, because we can’t even let kids attend birthday parties unaccompanied anymore. I don’t know when that trend started, but remember when parents just dropped their kids off at a birthday party instead of hanging out the entire time? As they get older, kids need increasing exposure to unsupervised spaces—and dropping your kid off for a birthday party (or allowing a nine-year-old to hang out at the park down the road while you’re at work) is a good place to start. We can talk to our kids about how to handle stressful situations until we’re blue in the face, but can it ever be effective without experiential learning? By refusing to let them out of our sight, or ride the bus home from school if they want to, we’re preventing our kids from developing any “street smarts.” And that’s critical to their survival.
What can we do about it?
We can acknowledge that the culture of fear propagated by the media isn’t reflective of reality.
We can remember how much freedom we had as kids.
We can give our kids the room to be bold, take chances, make mistakes… and get hurt.
Debra Harrell wasn’t neglecting her daughter when she agreed to drop her off at that park while she went to work; she was encouraging her to be a little independent, and giving her a competitive edge in the game of life. While I expect many to disagree, you’re more likely to find me criticizing parents who allow their kids to sit through dinner while playing some handheld video game, or ignore their play-date while they sit on the Xbox. If a playground isn’t an appropriate babysitter, then neither is a smartphone.
Harrell is still incarcerated and her daughter is in the custody of the State of South Carolina. Yesterday, a supporter created a Change.org petition calling for the charges against her to be dropped, and another supporter created a YouCaring fundraiser to help cover her legal expenses. If Justin Ross Harris can bring in more than $20,000 after he “accidentally” left his son to die in his hot car, then come on, America … surely we can bring in twice that much to help a mother who, GASP, let her nine-year-old daughter play at the local park while she was at work. And then maybe we can let our kids ride their bikes around the block by themselves again. Or at least ride the bus home from school.
More from parenting